Students demand education not segregation

Education in any part of the world is, or should be, not just a human right but also a strategic tool for the development of societies. So what happens when education has lost its way, or when education leads to economic impoverishment?

What happens when the objective of education is not to improve the standard of living of human beings in harmony with the environment, but to improve the efficiency and profitability of companies, despite the ecological and human damage this causes?

What happens when the strategic objectives of our models of development are not equality, freedom and dignity of people, but the reproduction and growing profundity of inequalities, based on the accumulation of wealth, or even the generation of new forms of slavery like indebtedness and drugs?

In Chile, students opted to fight

In Chile, the student movement has clearly opted to fight this process.

In our country, it’s not just that we aren’t guaranteed the human right to education in our political constitution since economic freedom has a greater priority, but the design of our education system was precisely intended to maintain and reproduce the neoliberal economic model imposed during the military dictatorship that began in 1973.

It’s no coincidence that the set of social movements that have risen up in Chile, at least from 2010 onwards, have all come to question our model of development.

What has happened is that people have realised that this model has not been able to deliver on the promises it has been making for more than 30 years and has deepened inequality, left millions in debt and led to the profit of a few at the expense of millions.

Chile has one of the highest levels of inequality in the world. According to figures from the SOL foundation, a non-profit organisation that conducts investigations into the world of work in Chile, inequality between the rich and poor has increased by 46 times since the 1980s.

Since the 1990s, productive economic growth has been at 80% while workers’ wages have only increased by 20%. Some 46% of the population earns less than the minimum wage (less than US$400 dollars) and two out of three people who are under the poverty line are salaried workers.

The truth is that inequality has increased in Chile since neoliberal policies were put in place and fundamental rights are now the province of the privileged few. Because they do not have enough money to live on, the workforce has been forced to borrow from private banks to finance education, health, food, clothing and basic services for their families.

Faced with this reality, which is never mentioned in official speeches about our 'great' macro-economic policy, it seems to us intolerable that education wasn’t designed to overcome such inequality, but to reproduce and deepen it.

Privatisation of education

In the 1980s, in the midst of military dictatorship and with no popular mandate, the state was reduced to a mere subsidiary role, giving the market the powers and resources to transform education and other fundamental rights into profitable business propositions. Public education was abandoned, and private education grew rapidly.

Today, public education is underfunded. State universities receive less than 15% of their budgets from the state, so families are forced to foot the bill directly (US$30,000 per degree on average), or by getting into debt (which can increase the cost of a degree by 200%).

The private system grows with no regulation. Investors from Chile and other parts of the world inject financial capital into this large and profitable business.

As a result, education in Chile is not only among the most expensive in the world, but the country also has one of the most segregated education systems. An OECD report showed that Chilean education is consciously structured according to social class.

Education in Chile was created for the maintenance and differentiation of social classes; we have education for the rich, for the middle classes and for the poor. Higher technical education produces cheap manual labour, while private universities turn out the future directors of large companies. Everyone is separated according to their ability to pay, and the large majority are in debt.

The aim of privatisation was not only to maintain social inequality and to destroy public education as a space of social integration. It also destroyed public education aimed at producing critical citizens, who think about our national reality and its injustices and are active in the process of internal democratisation of educational institutions.

What it sought to destroy was the possibility that education would impart the necessary tools for students to be not just good professionals, but critical citizens rather than mere automatons contained within the large university-company.

It progressively eliminated civic education in public schools. The reduction of hours spent teaching history, philosophy, art and music demonstrates how our people have had to suffer an education that is geared towards neoliberalism. It has profoundly reduced students' political and social awareness.

Students, teachers demand a paradigm shift

Civic education was fundamental to the construction of popular organisations in our country during the 1960s and 1970s and to our own struggles.

After decades spent strengthening student politics, Chilean students in 2011 managed not only to come up with economically sound ideas to improve the financing of public education, but also to understand the ideological bias of our education system and its tendency to deepen social inequality.

Teachers, rectors and education workers came together and were able to demand, en masse in the streets, a paradigm shift in the Chilean education model, and with that a change in our society.

This paradigm shift does not only imply the recovery of the constitutional guarantee of the right to education – and therefore, that the state will ensure free public education and a quality space for social integration – but fundamentally it has to do with the need to defend and give meaning back to the public sector, as a place for democratic appropriation in the generation and transmission of knowledge.

Today new generations of students keep our ancestors’ spirit of rebellion alive, and because of this we support the struggles of others around our continent, such as our Canadian brothers, who recently managed to halt the rise in fees.

Our Puerto Rican comrades; our Colombian comrades who demonstrate daily that despite difficult conditions and under constant persecution and threats, the order of the day is the fight for an education that answers the interests of the people.

The Dominican students who demand 4% of GDP for education; the Ecuadorian student movement that fights to maintain the established ideals of autonomy and student co-government in Córdoba; and the Brazilian students who protest because 10% of GDP is invested in education.

And we, the Chilean students who fight against the free market model imposed by the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship and who today defy the violation of human rights and the proposal of laws that penalise protestors to the tune of three years in prison for occupying a school or a a public plaza or obstructing traffic.

Our vision for the future of education is one where we are committed to integrating ancient indigenous concepts through intercultural educational processes, which give a new, post-capitalist, civilising vision that works in harmony with nature and the responsible and sovereign use of our limited primary materials and resources.

Developing this vision is exactly what gives the Latin American educational process its own identity today.

* Camila Vallejo is president of the University of Chile Student Federation. This is an edited version of her speech given at the Global Student Leadership Summit in September. The full speech is available here.