Taking a page from Chile, Colombian students take to the streets over education costs

Students in Bogota say they are worried about privatization of education in Colombia and promise more unrest if the government pushes such legislation through.

Fernando Vergara/AP
A student paints the shield of a riot police officer during a march called by the national teacher's union to protest against an alleged government plan to change teacher's health attention in Bogota, Colombia, Wednesday, Sep. 7, 2011. Students also fear that privatization is on the horizon.

Thousands of students and teachers congregated downtown in protest of proposed education reforms Wednesday – dancing and chanting and demanding “free government-sponsored education.”

But this was not Santiago, Chile – the heart of student protests in Latin America these days. It was downtown Bogota, Colombia.

Sparked by fears about potential education changes which could see the privatization of Colombia's public education, students say that protests that have depleted support for Chilean President Sebastian Piñera could spread to their nation with a similar political impact.

“We are not just rebel students trying to make protests,” says Natalia Amando, a student leader who for two years has worked on a campaign to stop the privatization of public education in Colombia. “Like we have seen in Chile, we are students trying to tell the world that we need free public education, it is a necessity for a healthy society.”

In Chile, mass protests over the last three months have called for an end to support for private universities and demanded free and better public universities.

In Colombia, discontent spread in March, after Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos proposed a bill that could see private resources being pumped into public education.

President Santos has since said that the reform will not be put before lawmakers. "The government accepts that maybe it is not the time to introduce the profit component, which maybe the environment isn't quite ready for," he said in a press release last month.

Despite his words, however, few students are convinced that the government will stop public education from being privatized and argue that such a move would increase fees, making education unaffordable for much of Colombia's poor. Another concern is that certain subjects, particularly in the humanities, will not be seen as 'profitable' and will be simply dropped.

According to one protester, Colombia could see similar unrest as has occurred on the streets of Chile. “If the president does not stick by his word and stop this bill going through then we are going to see a situation much worse than Chile,” says Juan Avila, before spray-painting “free education” on a bank's wall. “The students will not sit back and watch as our education is destroyed.”

The day was largely peaceful, despite a few scuffles with police. Drums were beat and performers entertained onlookers. The students were also supporting teachers protesting against reforms that would reduce their health benefits. Protests were also held in various cities across the country.

“They say that they will stop the law now, but then they will wait for things to calm and then try again later,” says Ms. Amando. “We do not trust the government and believe that we have to keep putting pressure on them, to keep the issue in the public eye and make sure this bill does not go through.”

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