19 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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CHILE: Reform plan fails to stop student protests

Disappointed by new higher education measures announced by President Sebastián Piñera, which included a $4 billion education fund, Chilean students have called for a national strike on 14 July. But the vice-chancellors of Chile's 25 state-run universities seem to have buried their hatchets and are talking to the government again.

Since April students, teachers and parents have staged a succession of massive street demonstrations to demand increased government investment in higher education and the strengthening of state-supported universities.

The new fund, announced on 5 July, will increase the number of student loans, offering merit scholarships for students from the poorest 40% of the population and for those enrolled in technical programmes, along with extra revenue for public universities.

Two institutions, one a policy group and the other to monitor and sanction non-compliance, have also been proposed.

A key issue in the conflict has been for-profit universities. While they have been legally banned since 1981, many have been established.

Two government ministers, Education Minister Joaquín Lavín and Cristián Larroulet, a minister in the presidency, are currently being investigated over their investments in Universidad del Desarrollo, one of Chile's more than 60 private universities.

Students are not only calling for an end to for-profit institutions but are also questioning the very existence of private universities. They want higher education to be provided by the government.

The Confederation of Chilean Students says that the recovery of public education is the cornerstone of its demands. They say knowledge generation is not a commercial product and that the student-teacher relationship should not be equated with that of client and supplier.

Piñera promised in his speech to open a national debate to define clearly what constitutes a for-profit university. Those classified as such would pay taxes, with the tax revenue going entirely "to finance scholarships and loans for the most vulnerable students".

Protest leader Camila Vallejos, president of the student federation of Universidad de Chile, the country's largest university, reacted angrily to the proposal.

"It is disgraceful and irresponsible for the president to legitimise profit in higher education," she declared. In another interview she added that the government's proposal is "made to measure" for the for-profit education providers.

Víctor Pérez, Chancellor of Universidad de Chile, read Piñera's position differently:

He said new institutions that would be set up would provide a guarantee that the law prohibiting universities from making profits would be enforced.

Both students and academics welcomed Piñera's promises to improve funding for state universities and to reduce red tape. Institutions currently receive only 10% to 15% of their budgets from government funding and are highly indebted, with many hampered by bureaucracy.

Many of the teachers working at state universities have been nicknamed 'taxi professors', due to their low salaries, their need to teach in several places and their lack of tenure or benefits.

Piñera's reform framework also partly addresses concerns about the quality of training in some private universities, which has been criticised for having sloppy and biased accreditation. The plan proposes improvements in accreditation procedures and transparency.

Students have also called for the abolition of the national test for admission into higher education. The government only promised to improve the admission system by also taking secondary school marks into account.

The mechanisms and timing for implementing the proposed measures are not yet clear.

Education Minister Joaquín Lavín said committees would start working shortly on the various aspects of the 'Great National Education Accord' and that priority would be given to bills dealing with student loans and the establishment of new education institutions.
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