Dissident student discourses for social transformation

The Confederation of Chilean Students, CONFECH, recently called for new protests against the higher education reform measures that the Michelle Bachelet government is implementing. One of the most controversial measures is free university education.

After some confusing announcements on the part of the government about who was going to receive this benefit, it was finally clarified that free higher education would be available for the poorest 50% of university students (both new and current), provided that their university fulfils some requirements.

The universities that have subscribed to the agreement with government include all traditional universities – 25 state and private universities – plus five new private universities that have obtained four-year institutional accreditation and are not-for-profit institutions.

Although it was originally estimated that around 160,000 students would receive free higher education, the current number is not yet clear. However, it has been calculated that only around 120,000 students have so far received it.

Students reject the policy, arguing that it does not adequately address the agenda that the student movement has been pursuing since 2011 – basically, the student movement claimed both free and good quality higher education.

Underpinning this claim was a critique of the privatisation of higher education (three in four students are enrolled in private universities); its commercialisation (most students are heavily in debt through fees and around 17% are enrolled in ‘profit-like’ universities although for-profit universities are banned in Chile); and poor quality (it was discovered that a number of new private universities bribed some members of the national agency for quality assurance in order to obtain quality accreditation).

Students have also been urging a stronger role on the part of the state, both financially and in certifying quality standards in higher education.

Change of government

Student protests had an important impact in 2011, provoking instability in Sebastián Piñera’s government and a series of changes at the Ministry of Education.

The student demands were considered by a candidate for the presidency in 2013, Michelle Bachelet, who committed to addressing student claims if she was elected as president.

When elected, Bachelet’s government immediately announced a series of measures to address student claims, the first one being free higher education, which was declared a social right rather than a commodity for purchase.

But students consider that the ways in which free higher education is being implemented contradict the main principles they have been trying to promote.

Student objections

A recent document published by the Confederation of Chilean Students asserts that the free higher education policy amounts to no more than a kind of scholarship for individuals.

This is because the policy does not entail a structural refinancing of higher education, but rather subsidises a group of students – and only if they meet certain socio-economic and academic requirements.

Students also point out that the increase in public investment in higher education through this measure is similar to the public investment over the last five years in scholarships.

What is more, students observe that the old scholarships – which covered a wide range of students – have in effect been significantly reduced so as to provide free higher education, but just for a small group of students. As a result, fewer students receive the new benefits.

Finally, a recent study by Marco Kremerman and Alexander Páez has shown that the state is currently investing significant public funds in buying 48% of the loans given by private banks to students – an agreement was reached in 2006 between the government and some private banks to incentivise banks to offer student loans.

Paradoxically, then, the state is reinforcing the privatisation and commercialisation of higher education.

Student leaders in parliament

The student movement has left a political and a social mark on the Chilean landscape.

As well as prompting a reform agenda that is still working its way through parliament, the student movement has seen three of its former leaders gain parliamentary seats.

Students have been able to problematise a neo-liberal agenda, which underpinned the higher education system during the Augusto Pinochet regime and was reinforced during subsequent democratic governments.

They have also been able to organise themselves into a collective movement to resist the dominant discourse associated with the marketisation of education. Students have shaped new discourses and mobilised other interest groups to promote a change in the relationship between the state – in its provision of higher education – and the market.

It is true that the student movement has lost some of its force over the last four years.

Nevertheless, the movement shows that changes – and even structural changes – are possible in social systems dominated by global discourses that promote the commercialisation of education. Without dissident voices, such social changes are seldom possible.

Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela is a researcher at the Centre for Advanced Research in Education or CIAE, University of Chile. She conducts research into the impacts of global transformations on the contemporary university and also on university teaching-learning processes.