Students go on unprecedented online strikes for equality

Students at two Chilean universities – Universidad de Chile and Universidad San Sebastián – took the unheard of step of going on online strike.

The strike follows the shift in all higher education institutions to long distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We believe the conditions are not there for starting the academic year [which in Chile commences in March] because not all students are equipped to do so. For example, there is still no concrete solution for the 15% of students who do not own a computer, a situation that has worsened with the telework installed during the COVID quarantine,” Emilia Schneider, president of Universidad de Chile’s students’ federation (FECH), told University World News.

“We maintain that many economic measures and material and teaching requirements are not there for starting the academic year without affecting the quality of education and deepening inequalities in the university,” she added.

Universidad de Chile – the country’s largest university – started the academic year for undergraduates, 33,000 in all, with online learning. Given its novelty for teachers and students, they set up aid centres and support for students. Some 1.1 million higher education students do not have in-person instruction due to the pandemic.

Online teaching difficulties

Online teaching is posing problems to many Chilean teachers who are insufficiently trained for it, especially the older ones and those from distant regions. Added to these are practical problems of how to manage disciplines that cannot be imparted at a distance, such as physics, chemistry, medicine or physical education.

However, despite these shortcomings, specialists have stated “that the crisis is an opportunity to reinforce existing virtual programmes”.

The Ministry of Education launched a plan of action for supporting higher education institutions in the replacement of in-person instruction with online teaching, which includes providing an online teaching platform for institutions that do not have these tools.

It has also published a good practices manual for online teaching and is providing training by experienced teachers on this form of teaching and learning.

According to the Social Development Ministry, there are more than 76,000 families with no digital connectivity.

Juan Silva, from the Universidad de Santiago de Chile, said that “access to the internet is varied in terms of quantity and quality as well as among regions and social classes… If you live in the periphery, even if you can afford it, there can be no internet coverage or if there is, it may be of very bad quality.”

Marcela Varas, from the Universidad de Concepción, highlights another aspect of the online learning problems. She says that students need at least a quiet space, adequate equipment such as a notebook, a tablet or a desk computer with a good resolution screen, as well an internet connection that is stable and broadband of 512KB.

“Considering the vulnerability indices in Chile, I suspect that very few students have the proper conditions,” she said.

To incorporate students who do not have internet connections and-or cannot afford its cost, Universidad de Chile (UCH) started distributing 2,000 chips for unlimited traffic for tablets and smartphones to those students who do not have internet.

Speaking for the university’s students’ federation, Schneider says FECH appreciates the measure “but we must ensure that they are handed over. We are specially worried about students from regions. This is one of the reasons behind the online strike.”

“We are now asking the university to carry out a survey of how the chip distribution is progressing. Without this benefit received by all students, we will not start the academic year in equal conditions,” she said.

Other universities have also taken measures to supply their students with internet facilities. For example, the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (PUC) has given financial internet support to around 1,000 students and has bought 450 notebooks that will be lent to students.

Financial measures

Students are also demanding the reduction of tuition fees and the freezing of monthly payments so as to ease the pockets of families who will lose jobs as a consequence of COVID-19.

Universities are listening. Some are evaluating measures for making payments more flexible and have already taken some measures: UCH postponed the requirement of a promissory note covering the full-year tuition fees until the “sanitary emergency is over”; PUC is making payments more flexible for students who are affected economically.

According to the latest bulletin from Acción Educar, an educational think tank, cancelling or reducing school and higher education institution fees may mean a significant financial shortfall for them. Especially in the case of higher education, the main source of income is fees, 50% of which goes to pay teachers’ salaries. This is mainly true for private institutions that do not have state funding.

The Confederation of Chilean Students (CONFECH) understands the problem, which is why it proposed that payments to higher education institutions be suspended and then replenished by government funding.

“The petition is totally ridiculous… There are no [government] resources to devote to this,” Federico Valdés, rector of the Universidad del Desarrollo, told El Mercurio daily on 2 April.

Valdés also referred to a bill that is going through parliament to suspend all fees.

“Any binding reduction could leave institutions in an untenable financial position in a matter of three months… It could lead to a major crisis,” he added.

Unlike many other countries, in Chile donations, endowment or reserve funds in higher education institutions are very limited. Their main income sources are fiscal contributions, gratuity funds and tuition fees. For private higher education institutions, fees can make up to 88% of income.

Social commitment

Universities are collaborating in various ways to address the COVID-19 emergency. Besides on-campus information, prevention and health provision measures for students and teachers, they are assisting the community as a whole.

UCH and PUC rectors are members of the ‘Mesa Social’ – social council – that is defining the use of medical services for when they become scarce at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which for Chile has been estimated will take place at the end of April.

PUC has a nationwide campaign informing everyone of the prevention protocols; Universidad de La Serena, in the north of Chile, launched an online platform – Big Data ULS – that collects information of the coronavirus cases divided by region; Universidad de Santiago has a website with everything related to the pandemic.

Universidad de Concepción’s Telemedicine Unit is offering remote evaluations of patients with symptoms. This teleconsultation does not provide a diagnosis of the disease but is a way of preventing the collapse of health centres by determining where a test or hospitalisation is required.

UCH opened a website on the coronavirus in Creole, the language spoken by Haitian immigrants.

In the far north, Universidad de Atacama is providing more and faster coronavirus tests at its molecular biology lab; while an association of the universities of Talca, Concepción, La Frontera, Los Lagos and Austral will be producing around 100,000 facial masks with 3D printers, adapting models designed in Europe.

On the cultural front, many higher education institutions are offering free music or films via streaming.