Higher learning

“Education must not be for sale”

In Chile, the young generation is angry because the education system produces and reinforces inequality. Students want the government to do something about the matter.
Two protesters hold a Chilean flag with the slogan “free education” (in Spanish) in Santiago in June 2016. Gomez/picture-alliance /NurPhoto Two protesters hold a Chilean flag with the slogan “free education” (in Spanish) in Santiago in June 2016.

Chile’s youth have been expressing frustration with the country’s education system for a long time. Ten years ago, high school students protested vehemently, and another wave of rallies swept the country in 2011. That was the same year that the Arab spring erupted, the Indignados shook Spain and the Occupy Wall Street movement spread from New York to many other places.

In Chile, 12 years of schooling are compulsory. There are three types of schools:

  • public schools (colegio municipal), which are state-run and free of costs,
  • subsidised private schools (colegio particular subvencionado), which are privately run but receive state subsidies and therefore charge relatively low school fees, and 
  • entirely private schools (colegio particular), which demand very high school fees.

The big issue is that they differ in quality. According to the statistics department of the University of Chile, pupils from private schools regularly have better results in the university entrance exams. These results are very important. To get into a good university and get grants, one needs good marks. After graduation, moreover, job opportunities depend on having attended a university with a strong reputation.

In 2011, students shouted: “Down with Pinochet education!” They were alluding to the military dictator who had ruled the country for almost three decades after a bloody coup in 1973. His right-wing regime substantially cut funding for public education and encouraged private education. Pretty soon the public schools were in a bad shape. The educational gaps grew wider between those whose parents could afford private schools, and those whose parents could not. The gaps did not close again. Democracy was reintroduced in 1990, but Pinochet’s market-radical ideology has left its mark on the country. The young generation demands that must change.

According to OECD statistics, Chile is currently the member country with the highest income inequality. The income of the richest 10 % is 26 times higher than that of the poorest 10 %. For those who cannot afford to pay expensive school fees, the fundamental right of access to good education is limited because the rules of the market apply. School fees are a tremendous burden on many people in Chile.

Debt because of student loans

Tertiary education is costly in Chile too. The average of the 15 highest annual tuition fees which have to be paid at Chile’s excellent private universities is the equivalent of about $ 5,900. Accordingly, many students need bank loans. Public universities are cheaper, but they are not as good.

A programme to help students pay university fees has been in place since 2005. It is called “Crédito con Aval del Estado” (CAE). It supports student loans with governmental guarantees. The loans have to be repaid, of course, and the interest rates are quite high. According to the non-governmental Fundación Sol, which does research on financial and work-related issues, this system works only in strictly financial terms. One problem the foundation sees is that, due to the debts which students accumulate, banks control their present and future lives. Young people have to start repaying the loans after graduation, when they start looking for their first professional job.

Fundación Sol reports that the number of students almost doubled to more than 1.2 million from 2005 to 2015. But it laments that “the privatisation of the higher education system is advancing”.

There are many pitfalls in Chile’s education system. Claudia Barrientos, for instance, did not get good results in the university entrance exams, so she had to choose a private university, and her mother had to sign as her guarantor. But shortly after the girl started her studies, her mother lost her job.“I had to leave university, because I couldn’t pay the tuition fees anymore,” Barrientos says. “Although I had studied only for three months, from March to May, I had to pay fees for the whole year.” She still owes the university the equivalent of $ 740.

Francisca Muñoz is 20 years old, and like her sister, she wants to go to university. “The results of my entrance exam were not good enough to apply for a grant,” she reports. “My sister was studying already, and my parents could not afford to pay fees for me too.” Her frustration clearly shows on her face. She adds: “Now I work and I try to save money, so maybe in 2018, I can enrol in university.”

Recaredo Gálvez is the former president of the “Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Concepción”, a students’ union. He says that young people enter into a vicious cycle when they finance their studies with loans: “According to the National Institute of Statistics, half of all working Chileans did not earn more than $ 523 per month in 2015. With this kind of income, you cannot pay back loans for your education.” He points out that 4 million of 11 million people who are paying back such debts are late in their instalments. “In a country where so many people only have precarious jobs, this system cannot work,” Gálvez says.

Demand for public education

The Ministry of Education claims that its job is “to provide quality education, free of cost, giving access to all citizens and promoting social inclusion and equality”. It does not live up to this promise. The truth is that low-quality public high schools are funded with everybody’s tax money, whereas only prosperous people can afford to send their children to higher-quality private schools.

Fernando Atria is a lawyer who has done research on the education system. His assessment is: “The movement of 2011 showed clearly that education cannot be sold like other goods. It must not be distributed according to purchasing power, because that will lead to inequality and segregation.” Atria appreciates students’ demands to move on from a market-based system to one of social rights.

Gabriel Boric is a former student leader who was elected to the Congreso Nacional, the national parliament in 2013. “Congress is a hermetic place,” Boric maintains. “The economically powerful groups are influential across party lines.” He says he only has few allies – including three other former student leaders. Their goal is to strengthen public education: “We don’t want the inequality in Chile to reproduce itself over and over.”

Sociologist Alberto Mayol, however, maintains that the political system so far has hardly responded to recurring student protests. Students regularly organise ralles to demand education that is good, free of cost and not geared to financial gains. “These marches are signs of social problems,” Mayol says. “However, my impression is that the authorities don’t get the message.” In his eyes, the elites are resisting change. Something should be done, he says, otherwise “we can get ready for the next students’ revolt.”

Javier Cisterna Figueroa is a journalist and lives in Concepción, Chile.

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