Violence adds to pressure for HE reform bill changes

August was coming to an end when a group of angry students barged into the office of Eduardo Silva, rector of the Jesuit university Universidad Alberto Hurtado, in Santiago, Chile. In an email, Silva told colleagues that 70 students “intimidated, scared and insulted” him, administrative personnel and academics working on his floor.

The students locked up Silva and other staff for two hours, during which time they scribbled on the walls, damaged property and caused significant destruction. The police were called in and, the students say, beat them up. Three of those involved were expelled, 22 suspended, and five taken to court.

Rectors of all Chilean universities extended their sympathies to Silva and said firmly they rejected any student violence, adding that they welcomed student proposals put forward peacefully.

“There is ‘fascism of the left’ in the students’ movement,” commented Carolina Tohá, mayor of Santiago.

The students were attempting to put pressure on the rector to stop the expulsion of 289 students and the suspension for a year of another 22 for damages caused during a month-long sit-in and for having failed their grades during the occupation. The students are also asking for greater participation in the election of university authorities.

The action against the rector was organised by the students’ federation called Juventud Guevarista or JG, named after the revolutionary Che Guevara. JG is reputed to be at the most radical end of the student movement spectrum. According to Alexis González, a JG member, JG has supporters in four other Chilean universities as well as in Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela.

“Neither the government nor parliament, nor participating in the reform of higher education will bring us universal free tuition and democratisation. Our only way is to keep protesting loudly."

Occupations and indefinite strikes

At the time of the occupation of Universidad Alberto Hurtado, another 16 universities were also taken over by students; and another 25 were on an indefinite strike.

Every university had internal reasons for protesting – at Universidad Central de Chile, for example, they were asking for tuition fees to be frozen – as well as responding to the call made by the Confederation of Chilean Students, or CONFECH, to raise the level of protests because the government was not including most of their proposals in the higher education reform bill.

CONFECH’s proposals ranged from free university for all because education is a right, to modifying the state-backed credit for students, expanding and strengthening state education and cancelling students’ debts.

An April 2016 report found that 40% of university students were not up to date with their loan payments and 31% had scholarships.

Reform bill criticised

On 5 July, after two-and-a-half years of consultations with all involved, the government tabled the much-awaited higher education reform bill.

The bill sets out a framework for the higher education system, including new institutions, private and public universities, a novel way of financing, sanctions for those establishments found to be engaging in profit-making and a detailed plan for the implementation of free education for all.

The chapter on the road towards universally free higher education took the limelight. Until 2017, half of the most vulnerable students – up to the fifth-lowest income bracket – that register in eligible universities will benefit. Next year those from low-income families studying at technical training centres and professional institutes will also be eligible once these centres and institutes have become non-profit.

The promise is that by next year free tuition will be available to the sixth-lowest income bracket. What happens next will depend on the state of the economy. However, last year only half of applicants from the 50% most vulnerable families studied for free because they did not comply with additional requirements.

The bill is being criticised left, right and centre. The right sees it as a move towards much greater state control of higher education institutions – for example, the Education Ministry would set admission policies and approve accreditation standards, a new superintendency would supervise the economic health of higher education institutions, and a new quality council would decide on new degrees or the opening of new premises.

Students disliked many aspects of the reform bill, including the weak support for state universities.

“State universities are much more in tune with the country’s needs, and this has not been acknowledged in the higher education reform,” said Javiera Reyes, vice-president of Universidad de Chile’s student federation.

To avoid an almost certain rejection of the bill by Parliament, Education Minister Adriana Delpiano said on 7 September the government was working on correcting three vital aspects:
  • • The government is considering putting a new government agency, created for the purpose, in charge of state-backed student loans, which are unpopular for leaving students indebted and for bringing juicy dividends to the private banks that administer them;

  • • Legal penalties may be introduced for those institutions found to be engaged in profit-making;

  • • The bill’s financial aspects are being reviewed. The main criticism on this front is the elimination in the government’s project of direct financial support for universities and its replacement with a biddable research fund.
The education reform bill, now making its passage through the Chamber of Deputies, is expected to be approved there by next March. Then it goes to the Senate for final approval.