New unrest wave as students protest at 20 universities

Chilean students from more than 20 public and private universities are on strike, pressing the government and universities to agree to a long list of national and internal demands. This year is witnessing a new phase of paralysing student unrest, which started with the massive protests that rocked the country in 2011.

“We have learnt that only social pressure will push the government into deeper reforms,” says Valentina Saavedra, president of the student federation at Universidad de Chile. Most of the university’s premises have been under student control for more than a month.

But it is the strike in 21 schools at the prestigious, private Universidad Diego Portales, or UDP, that is being hailed as a sign of the strength of the 2015 student movement.

“It is a historic feat in the history of our university," claim UDP students.

Key points of the national student agenda for change are free education for all; scrapping the reform bill for the teaching profession, now in parliament; an end to profit-making by universities; and greater student participation in the management of institutions.

Ruling principles for HE reform

The content of the government’s higher reform, as well as the lack of student involvement in its drafting, are two more stones in the shoes of the student movement.

“We have no idea of the ruling principles of the new government projects for higher education,” Saavedra tells University World News.

The principles favoured by the students include “moving away from a market education to education as a social right… from an educational model where education is mainly private and competitive – including public universities – to a collaborative and democratic one… that obeys a national strategy”.

This translates into no profit in higher education, university governance by academics, students and other staff, financial transparency, labour stability for all staff, and government core financing of all activities.

Students also want a new university entry test because, they maintain, the current one favours secondary students from elite schools.

Regulate private universities

At UDP students are also calling on the government to regulate the private university sector – home to 70% of Chilean university students – and to act as guarantor by, for example, ensuring greater internal democracy and participation.

Nicolás Fernández, president of UDP’s students’ federation, accuses the government of having left private universities to their own devices. “We want, once and for all, an Education Ministry that is present,” he says.

An end to police repression is another heart-felt demand.

“No more gas bombs, no more water cannons," says Fernández, alluding to the grave injuries suffered by Rodrigo Aviles, a university student who was severely wounded when knocked over by a police water cannon during a protest in Valparaíso last month.

Besides the universal call for greater student participation, internal demands vary from university to university.

At the University of Chile, for instance, demands include dealing swiftly with complaints, reviewing the budget distribution within the university, and instituting monthly meetings between the rector, vice-rector and students “in order to anticipate, monitor and mediate in case of conflict”.

Minister tries to cool matters down

In an attempt to lure students back to class, Education Minister Nicolás Eyzaguirre said last week that he would do his best to extend free tuition to all private universities – the majority – that were excluded from the gratuity for the poorest 60% of students, announced by President Michelle Bachelet on 21 May.

“However, we won’t finance any university,” warned Eyzaguirre.

Qualifying criteria mentioned by the minister are the independence of universities, academic freedom and financial transparency. His words were welcomed by most university rectors.

José Joaquín Brunner, former minister and an academic, blamed the rarified climate of Chile’s university sector on “the government’s inability to channel demands and the high expectations it has raised".

“The Ministry of Education acts in an improvised way, with no clear policy, and sends confused signals,” Brunner maintains.

There is no end in sight to the commotion affecting universities in Chile.

“Protests will go on until the government engages in meaningful dialogues with society and agrees to the substantial reform we are asking for,” says Valentina Saavedra.

Furthermore, the student movement is strengthening its hand through alliances with other social protestors. On 17 June they joined street protests by teachers and dock workers.