CHILE: Opposition and students unveil reform plan

The sixth-month-long battle over reforms to Chile's higher education has moved from the streets to parliament. Student representatives of the 25 universities that make up the Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities have spent a week with opposition politicians hammering out a united position on the education budget for 2012, which has to be approved by the end of November.

Working with the politicians has led to the students being accused of treason by more radical students who reject any deal with the government. They continue to strike and are still taking over university campuses.

Despite their willingness to lay out a plan the moderates, like their radical colleagues, believe in continuing to keep up the pressure, with three more marches scheduled.

There are sound reasons why student leaders are focusing their efforts on the 2012 education budget.

Chileans have grown tired of student marches, with more than 40 staged since last May. Often ending in riots and vandalism, the protests also threaten the academic year for some students and have caused huge economic losses for public universities.

Striking students have not paid their fees, with many not returning for the second semester and some migrating to private universities, which have been less touched by the conflict.

"The government has become unpopular and tired, and the students have lost their popular appeal and sense of direction," said José Joaquín Brunner, a renowned higher education expert and former education minister.

"Both are having to act in a play they never wanted to be in - the national budget - and to follow scripts they did not write and that do not suit them," he added.

The right-leaning Chilean government appears comfortable with the country's increasingly privatised education sector. The opposition and students want to protect education as a public good where quality and equity must be property guaranteed by the state.

"There are more resources, more programmes. The problem is that the [education] model assumed that more competition would generate quality. It did not generate quality but inequality," Carlos Montes, an opposition spokesman, told Radio Cooperativa, a leading Chilean radio station.

Montes helped draft a reform proposal tabled by the opposition on 14 November, which includes most of the students' demands.

The proposal calls on the government to provide grants to 70% of the students from Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities (CRUCH) universities, compared to 40% in the government's budget proposal.

The gratuity for the 70% of lower income students would gradually be extended to those from private universities, but only after the latter meet certain standards.

Bowing to calls for a more level playing field for private universities, the opposition also advocates one system of credit for all. The existing credit system discriminates in favour of 30% of the country's one million higher education students attending CRUCH universities.

To strengthen state universities, a key demand of students, the opposition is asking for a large increase in the financial support budgeted by the government.

The opposition plan for improving primary, secondary and tertiary education would cost US$1 billion, on top of the $460 million included in the budget proposal. The money, they say, should come out of a national fund raised through a tax reform.

If no compromise is reached before the end of November deadline - a real possibility since the opposition holds a majority of seats in the senate - then this year's budget will continue into next year.

The government is hoping for a long-term deal with the opposition. If one is not reached the student demonstrations will likely intensify.

"We cannot ask for everything in a single year. I hope that we agree to not only next year's budget but also a broader framework for improving Chile's education," said Senator Ena von Baer from the ruling coalition.

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