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School students demand free tertiary education in Chile

Over the last five months, school and university students in Chile have been holding demonstrations and boycotting classes to demand free education at university level.

Talks with the government over the issue have recently broken down and trade unions have promised to join the protest movement by holding a two-day stoppage on 18th-19th October. The last such strike led to violent clashes between protestors and police and the government has expressed concerns that the student movement is now being run by extremists. In reply to these assertions, the young leader of the Confech student federation blamed the government for the collapse of the talks and said that ministers “did not have the political will to meet the demands of the great majority”. She urged both school and university students to continue their boycott of lessons for the second term of the academic year.

In response to the protests, the President of Chile, Sebastian Pinera, has pledged to make some reforms of the system. He has promised around 4 billion dollars in extra funding will provide more grants and cheaper student loans. Mr Pinera also said his government would examine the admission and accreditation systems of the country’s universities and look into whether the taxes paid by private colleges could be reinvested into scholarships and loans. However the President has rejected demands to return university education into state hands, offer free tertiary education for all and take control of secondary schools back from the municipalities and put them under central administration.

In one Santiago school, a large group of teenage girls has been staging a live-in protest for nearly five months. Having barricaded themselves inside the school buildings, when police try to displace them, the students use their mobiles and Facebook pages to rally support from other schoolchildren and sympathetic adults in the neighbourhood. Having put the take-over of the school to the vote and won the backing of other students, the young protestors sleep at the school each night and attend talks by guest lecturers during the day. Extracurricular activities inside the school include yoga and salsa lessons and at weekends, rock bands perform in the gym. Under Chilean law, the state is obliged to feed the students at the school, even though normal lessons are not taking place.

Students here and at other occupied schools express the view that education should not be considered a “consumer good” to be bought and sold on the open market. Currently, many universities, colleges and schools, are run as profit-making organisations in Chile. Five months after the first protests started, around 200 state schools have been taken over by their students, with a dozen or so universities also joining in. Weekly marches also attract up to 100,000 student participants. Though polls suggest 6 out of 10 adults support the students, some Chileans are concerned by the violence of recent protests and some parents are worried that 2011 will be a lost year for children in the public education sector.

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