Protests against inequality put universities in turmoil

Universities in Chile are considering taking the drastic action of extending the current semester from December to March to cope with the impact of ongoing mass protests in Chile, which have already seen many academics lose their jobs – and numerous protesters lose their lives.

As of 2 November, 75% of the 29 public and private university members of the Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities (CRUCH) were on strike. More are currently voting on whether to stop classes as well. Others have been shut down for fear of rioting until further notice.

The semester extension is being discussed in most universities as many have not opened their doors since 18 October, the start of the so-called ‘October revolt’ in which nearly two dozen protesters have died and thousands have been injured during violence by police trying to control the protests.

In the meantime, students and academics have been left uncertain over the future of their courses and jobs.

On 4 November armed policemen dispersed a protest at PUC’s large San Joaquín campus in Santiago using teargas canisters, a water cannon and rubber bullets. Three students were hurt in what Rector Ignacio Sánchez labelled as “disproportionate violence” by the police.

Students at Universidad de Chile, Chile’s largest university, voted for an indefinite strike. Nicole Martínez, vice-president of Universidad de Chile’s students’ association, said that her university as well as other state universities “should not go back to class until the government effectively does away with human rights violations and gives a clear political signal for a new Constitution,” according to a report in the daily, El Mercurio.

Changing the Constitution, approved under the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship and later amended, is quickly becoming street protesters’ most popular demand up and down Chile.

Academics issue statement

Academics, students and personnel at universities that are not on strike or closed down are holding joint talks on the social and political situation in the country. Two thousand students, teachers and personnel of Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María participated in dialogues on 5 November, for example.

At the same time, many academics have issued statements on the current crisis, which has almost brought Chile to a stop.

On 22 October, political and social scientists sent a letter to Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera in which they call for a far-reaching social, political and economic agreement between politicians, academic, economic and political actors.

They state that they have for long “been working and even warning about the tensions in the socio-political fabric and [suggesting] possible ways of recomposing it”. They end by offering themselves to contribute, from their strengths, to “build a fairer, more inclusive and democratic country”.

Fifty teachers of the faculty of education at PUC proposed an “educational agenda for the new Chile”. They criticise the nation’s higher education system for the “disproportionate proliferation of teaching degrees and private universities that are badly regulated, massive and destined for the poorest students who are excluded from select universities that recruit higher income groups”.

They call for a dialogue to develop a fresh agenda. Educational communities and actors, the academic community, education authorities and political leaders should take part in the dialogue, they say.

For their part, academics from state universities advocated in their public statement, among other things, the implementation of constitutional changes that give back to the state its responsibility for “public education for all”, modifying the voucher system the government provides for each registered student, as well as changing evaluation systems for students and teachers. The declaration was signed by 100 academics from a large number of national universities and university departments.

Secondary school students spark protests

It was secondary school students, a very politicised and vocal group in Chile, who lit the match that started the unending wave of protests. Infuriated by the hike of the metro ticket in peak hours by 3.75%, amounting to CLP30 (US$0.04), they organised a massive metro fare evasion in which they pushed their way forcefully into the metro stations. Vandals took advantage of the turmoil to destroy and set fire to several stations.

The fare evasion demo quickly evolved into massive protests, the biggest Chile has witnessed since the 17-year rule of the dictator Pinochet that ended in December 1990. One of the marches in the capital, Santiago, was 1.2 million strong, according to figures by Santiago’s borough council.

Large protest marches have been staged from the northernmost city of Arica to the southernmost city of Punta Arenas in downtown centres and boroughs. Most of them have been peaceful, but there has also been lots of arson and looting, mainly of supermarkets.

The government’s answer to the havoc was to bring the military into the streets and install curfews, which added fuel to the fire. To dampen people’s anger, the government revoked these measures.

“The protests aren’t because of the metro price – they are because the system is squeezing us like lemons,” said Bessy Gallardo, a 34-year-old law student who joined the protests.

“This is happening because of decades of injustice, abuse and inequality. There is no social security in this country. People earn little and work a lot and wages are not enough to make ends meet.”

Up to now Chile was hailed in Latin America as an economic success, even attracting migrants from places such as Haiti, Colombia, Perú and Venezuela. It has the lowest number of people in Latin America under the poverty line (about 14%) and the highest life expectancy (79 years of age). Gross tertiary enrolment in Chile is 88.46% (2017), more than double that of Mexico at 40.23% (2017), according to UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

But the problem is the country’s huge social and economic inequalities that include a stark class divide which sets the rich apart from the poor and causes huge grievances for the latter.

No group or political party has led the protests; it is just angry Chileans who have taken to the streets. The people are demanding better health, higher pensions, cheaper and better education, a minimum wage hike, higher taxes for the rich, better and cheaper transport and even a constitutional change.

Impact of higher education expansion

Interestingly, the large increase in access to higher education has played an important part in the anger expressed by Chileans on the streets. The number of people from 18 to 24 years of age in higher education went from 8% to 53% between the years 1980 and 2018. However, though many graduates have climbed the social ladder, they have found that a university degree often does not lead to a good or secure job.

Hence a large majority of the Chilean population, mostly the young, are constantly exposed to economic uncertainty and instability. Indebtedness is the norm for them. Worse, they no longer qualify for social security benefits so they are left in a no man’s land.

Young Chileans under 35 years of age, who make up 27% of the 4,664,902 population of Santiago, have been the visible face of citizens’ protests. A study, “The Chile that is Dawning”, by consulting group Cadem, revealed that 57% of this group admits to having taken part in marches or in banging pots and pans, a typical way of showing discontent, compared to 34% of those between 35 and 54 years of age.

Some 81% of young people share the view that the current crisis is due to a generalised discontent and constitute 66% of those who rate poorly the social agenda proposed by the government.

Though President Piñera reversed the metro fare increase and announced other measures such as a pension reform and a minimum wage increase, the national upheaval has carried on into a third week.

In the period since the protests started on 18 October up to 3 November, 23 people were killed, 2,500 injured, 4,400 detained and dozens partially blinded by rubber projectiles and teargas canisters fired by the police and soldiers.

The ongoing protests forced President Piñera to cancel the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit of nations, which Chile was hosting in November, as well as the climate change meeting known as COP25 in December. Though the cancellations tarnished Chile’s international image, Piñera explained that his duty was to attend to the country’s socio-political situation.