CHILE: Government rejects student demands

A conflict in Chile over significant reforms to education, that has already reached the three-month mark, is now showing fewer indications that it could end. The popularity of President Sebastián Piñera (pictured) has plunged to an historical low of 27%, but despite being under pressure to resolve the problem, the government on Thursday rejected most of the conditions demanded by students.

The students reacted by calling for new, massive marches in all main cities on 22 and 29 September.

"Our demands still stand and we will show in the streets that this is a historic movement and that we are ready to carry on until we achieve our aims," said Sebastián Farfán, President of Valparaíso University's student federation.

The government is still calling for dialogue but is playing for time. It believes student support is declining. Students risk losing the academic year, scholarships and subsidised loans, and universities have been feeling financially strapped by a situation that has seen fees go unpaid due to the protracted strike.

If talks between the government and students take place, they will hinge on 12 key demands made by students at a meeting with Piñera on 3 September.

The students identified some common ground on six points. These include enshrining the right to education in the constitution, strengthening public universities, improving the admission system and guaranteeing quality in education.

There were high expectations that the meeting with the president would ease the conflict, but it only succeeded in setting in motion a long process towards negotiations - with no end in sight.

The students rejected an agenda and framework for dialogue presented by the government on 5 September. They said they preferred one, not three, negotiating groups and disagreed on what should be discussed first.

Then on 12 September, student leaders made a counter-proposal in which they demanded four guarantees that the government must meet before any negotiations begin.

The counter-proposal asked that two student loans and indebtedness bills now in parliament be frozen and that the deadline for closing the first semester be extended. It also asked that the talks be broadcast and that the government stop subsidising for-profit universities.

The bills in question were tabled by the government in an attempt to win over striking students. One is designed to cut the interest charged on student loans from 5.6% to 2%. The other would allow 110,000 students in default to renegotiate their debts.

The students back both bills but argue that they should be discussed in conjunction with the rest of their demands.

Failure to lift the 7 October cut-off for the first semester will make the thousands of striking students lose the academic year, loans and scholarships.

The government has only agreed to the fourth condition - to stop subsidies to universities that have profit-making ventures. Education Minister Felipe Bulnes said that the government would table a bill next month "that creates a Superintendent's Office for Higher Education that will supervise...higher education institutions".

Beginning with the reforms of the early 1980s by former dictator Augusto Pinochet, Chile's state involvement in higher education has diminished. There are currently only 25 public universities, compared to 46 private ones, with the government providing only 14% of their funding.

Because of this, public universities have had to charge tuition fees that are often as high as those of private universities. According to the OECD, university fees in Chile are the sixth highest in the world.

Nevertheless, the number of higher education students has increased dramatically in the past quarter century thanks to government-backed loans. But many families are now highly indebted and university graduates find themselves not earning enough to repay their loans.

This explains why, according to a recent poll, 76% of Chileans back the student movement despite the prevailing atmosphere of anxiety and insecurity caused by months of mass demonstrations, riots and occupations of schools and universities.