Chile: President Bachelet Signs Decree Granting Free University Education
Four years after Chilean students began protesting en masse in search of a free, quality university education, President Michelle Bachelet signed a decree that will grant just that to hundreds of thousands of students in a move that fulfills one of her election campaign promises.
“We have taken an important step today, a step that just a short while ago seemed impossible and unthinkable. In the upcoming year, thousands and thousands of young people can finally attend university without cost,” said Bachelet from La Moneda, the presidential palace.
“We have made good on the promises we made and the words we spoke to the students and their families. It has not been easy, but thankfully common sense has prevailed,” she said just after she signed the decree national television shortly after the bill was approved by both houses of Congress.
Although small groups still marched on the streets claiming that the reform does not go far enough, it was a far cry from the last major-scale protest that took place some six months ago when over 200,000 took to the streets for free, high-quality education.
Since 2011, the Confederation of Chilean Students (CONFECH) has been organizing and carrying out massive marches in Santiago and elsewhere in Chile, but the first demonstrations actually began during Bachelet’s first term (2006-2010). During those four years and afterward, she enjoyed extremely high approval ratings, although 2006 and 2008 were both marked by student protests with major walkouts and demonstrations nationwide, especially in 2006.
She was succeeded by the center-right billionaire businessman Sebastián Piñera (2010-2014) and during his mandate, the student-led demonstrations increased in size and in intensity.
Pushed to the streets by the same reasons as before, including the poor state of public education, the proliferation of for-profit schools (which are some of the most expensive in the world when local average wages are taken into account) and the extreme inequality in between, the demonstrations lasted on and off for over two years and resulted in hundreds of students and policemen injured in clashes.
The fact that Chile’s private high schools and colleges are among the best in the region while their public institutions are some of the worst only compounded problems, as did the fact that the system is a remnant of Augusto Pinochet 1973-1990 dictatorship.
When Bachelet returned to the presidency in March of 2014, many students that had led the previous protests earned political spots in her majority coalition and, because she was blocked from instituting many reforms concerning education during her first tenure by the opposition in Congress, it was expected that she would make good on her promises this time around.
When she was inaugurated for the second time, she made education reform a priority and presented a plan to overhaul the system in Chile. The changes outlined, however, come short of meeting the CONFECH’s demands and the reform bill’s movement at a snail’s pace toward ratification led the students onto the streets time and time again.
To make matters worse, the marches typically end when a tiny fraction of the demonstrators, the ‘encapuchados’ (protesters with their faces covered), engage in pitched battles with Carabineros (military police) and both sides blame each other for inciting the disturbances.
In the face of those ongoing challenges and clashes, not only with students but also instructors in the educational system, Bachelet first took action by replacing Nicolás Eyzaguirre as Education Minister with Adriana Delpiano. Bachelet took the action, she said, because the students strongly opposed Eyzaguirre and his nonchalant attitude about the issue, something the students described as “deaf pride.”
Delpiano, a professor by training, is former director of a foundation dedicated to improving education called Education 2020, a pertinent number given that Bachelet’s plan is to have all students covered for free higher education by that year.
Specifically, per Bachelet’s announcement, the deal reached in Congress on educational reform will free up enough funds in 2016 for just under 200,000 students to attend university free of charge, a figure that corresponds to nearly 30 percent of all university students in the country. The students that are the most economically disadvantaged will be the first to benefit from the law. The development comes just in time as thousands of students will file their applications to attend schools on December 27.
From 2016, that figure will increase over the years and by 2018, when Bachelet’s four-year mandate is set to end (March), her government says that it will have 70 percent of students covered for free higher education. Finally, by 2020, the coverage for free university education is expected to become universal.
Potential students will now be able to choose from the 25 different universities (16 state schools and nine private schools) that belong to the Council of Rectors of Chilean Universities (CRUCH), an elite group that is composed of universities in Chile that have the most prominence and tradition. More universities, however, are expected to join the list in the future.
Furthermore, students will also be covered while attending not only universities but also professional institutes, vocational academies and technical schools, both public and private.
Prior to the passage of the education reform, no university in Chile was free of charge and Chilean families had some of the highest rates of debt in Latin America (while having some of the highest average monthly wages) due to the stress placed on their finances by the cost of higher education.
Public education institutions, meanwhile, were given very meager shares of the national budget, well below the average in the region, which meant that very few scholarships were available and that public school teachers were paid very poorly.
Many students, meanwhile, claim that the reform bill is “improved” and does not do what Bachelet says, which is “provide free education to everyone.” The reason is that those in the greatest financial need are put at the front of the line and their places are only guaranteed throughout 2016, although as outlined, the government is planning for future expansion of the program.
The issue on the other end, however, is that the opposition continually attempted to sabotage any and all attempts by Bachelet to offer truly free education for everyone and thus, according to the President, the reform bill passed as-is due to the “legal and budgetary restraints.”
“The fight for free, high-quality education has been given a big boost today, but it is merely one development and not the end by any means. We will continue pushing forward in the coming years so that Chile will eventually have a truly inclusive educational system, one where an individual’s intelligence and work will have the final say in their education and not the size of their family’s bank account,” Bachelet concluded.