Chile Promises Free University Education To All

Can the leaders of the 2011 student revolt ensure the new Government keeps its promises?
by Gordon Campbell

Free university education? Are Chileans crazy? No, not all. Since 2006, students in Chile have successfully rallied the entire society around the idea that free education is a right, and not a privilege – and that universities are more than (a) mere assembly lines for turning out corporate drones or (b) utilities whereby the private sector can gouge profits out of a social need. On Sunday, December 15, the second round of its presidential elections will almost certainly have seen former President Michelle Bachelet score a resounding victory over her right wing opponent. As a result, Chile will embark on a course of providing universal access to higher education at no cost to students.

What is being proposed in Chile is the virtual nationalisation of Chile’s tertiary education system via the scrapping of for-profit private sector universities, which have come to occupy a significant niche in the provision of higher education. Aside from nominal administration fees, Chile’s children already have access to primary and high school education at no cost. The panel that Bachelet has established to oversee the tertiary education changes consists of five academics and is headed by Valentina Quiroga, the founder of an education NGO called Educacion 2020, whose website is here. Reportedly, Quiroga has stated that the panel’s mission statement is to “advance the possibility of a country where education is the source of equality.”

Bachelet has not been at the forefront of this revolution. The main drivers have been the students themselves. In the first round of voting on November 17, several former leaders of the student movement – Camila Vallejo, Giorgio Jackson, Gabriel Boric and Karol Cariola (pictured below with Camila Vallejo in Cuba, earlier this year) – were all elected as deputies to the new Chilean Parliament. Their participation in traditional electoral politics has not been without criticism from some former colleagues and supporters, yet they will be crucial to ensuring that Bachelet does not sell out, or water down the basic demands. Student protests that began in 2006 with demonstrations about a price hike in bus passes have ended up with a revolution that has not only changed the course of electoral politics in Chile, but taken the profit motive out of the tertiary education sector.

As yet it is not entirely clear how the transition to the new system will occur. There are three main types of undergraduate education in Chile : 60 universities, 44 Professional Institutes and 59 Technical Learning Centers, for a total of 163 in all. In a country of only 17 million, this proliferation of tertiary education has been a direct product of the “more market” ethos of the Pinochet dictatorship, and its immediate successors. In effect, the market was used to create a two tier system of quality education for the rich who could afford it, and a different system for the poor, where quality issues largely went by the board.

Changing the system therefore, will not be a simple matter of consolidation, although that will need to take place. The details have still to be worked out as to how and when the tertiary learning institutions will be compensated for the changeover to free and universal access to higher education of a more consistent standard. The fate of the 35 private universities in particular is still unclear – presumably, some will close, and some may be incorporated into the state system. The overall cost of the transition has been estimated – by Bachelet’s opponents – to be around $$US3.5 billion a year. This is likely to be an exaggeration. Clearly, it will have to fit within Bachelet’s wider plans for tax reform, which will reportedly deliver $US9 billion in added revenues over four years through a programme that will eliminate several of the existing tax exemptions and benefits to small and medium-sized enterprises, and will increase some taxes on business, and on the wealthy. (Even so, Bachelet also has plans to reduce the overall maximum personal tax rate from 40% to 35%. )

The height of the student protests came in 2011, when Camila Vallejo (see left) was president of the Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile, aka FECH. In 2012, she became a candidate for the Communist Party of Chile and has since been elected to public office as part of Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoría coalition. While Vallejo still enjoys rock star status outside Chile, she was defeated for the FECH presidency by Gabriel Boric, also now a deputy in the parliamentary Chamber of Deputies. Karol Cariola a 26 year old midwife, student leader and another Communist Party candidate, was also elected in November. Earlier this year, yet another former student leader and recently elected deputy – Giorgio Jackson, pictured below – explained the gap between the world’s prior perception of Chile as a successful neoliberal experiment, and the new reality:

At the level of political decision-making and in public policy I have the feeling that a light switch has gone on, and other countries are realizing that there was something hidden behind these macro-economic figures that wasn’t reflected in the official numbers. The student movement now, and since 2011, has tried to reveal these warnings to other countries that see Chile as a successful example. We’re trying to show the risks of privatizing basic services – and through this show that this experiment is flawed, not just in our opinion but according to the figures. If one examines the Chilean system carefully they’ll see inequalities that are intolerable in other parts of the world.

The goals of the Chilean student movement – as set out its June 2012 mission statement were comprehensive, and they consisted of six main points :

1. To create a New National System of Education, public, free, autonomous, democratic, pluralistic, inter-cultural and of excellence.

2. Public, because we conceive education as a social universal right that must be guaranteed as such by the Chilean Constitution.

3. Free, as education is a social investment and not one that is purely individual. Gratuity is a necessary condition for the effective realization of education as a social public good.

4. Autonomous, democratic and pluralistic.

5. Of excellence, namely, one education which instils values such as solidarity, tolerance, equality, respect for the environment, the identity and the cultural and historical roots of our society, and aims at living in harmony with the needs of the country, both productive and cultural.

6. Intercultural, since we consider as something fundamental the recognition of the cultural realities of our country, including the knowledge of the indigenous peoples in all levels of formal education.

To complement those goals, a stepped series of gradual funding increases were also set out, with the overall target of allocating 6% of the country’s GDP to education “in the medium term.” The guidelines explicitly cite the need for the eradication of the profit motive in education and for5 regulation in order to achieve quality – “through the effective prohibition of the profit motive in primary and secondary, as well as in higher education, etc.”

After Sunday, December 15th, 2013 it will be up to Michele Bachelet to manage this intense pressure for her country to deliver free education of high standard to all who aspire to it. There is another, related goal on the agenda of the incoming government as well. The voting system – which has been a terrible relic of the Pinochet years – will also need to be changed. Chile’s so-called “ binomial” voting system had been borrowed by Pinochet from the dying authoritarian regime in Poland, which had used it as a weapon to block the rise of the Solidarity democratic movement. In essence, the voting system is a form of proportional representation that forces small parties into one of two competing blocs, and then apportions the elected deputies between the winning and the losing coalition, one apiece. In other words, the binomial system means that the first and the second majority bloc get equal representation unless the first majority somehow manages to win twice the votes of the bloc that comes in second. The binomial system has not only stifled political discourse and forced parties into straitjackets – it has also enabled the right wing to cling to far more deputies in the Chilean parliament than its real electoral support (or lack of it) can possibly justify, on any genuinely democratic grounds.

The four former student leaders – whatever their personal and ideological differences may be – are united in regarding the ending of the binomial system as being one of the other main aims of the new government to which they now belong. From being a “free market” laboratory, Chile is on the brink of becoming something more interesting, and far more relevant to the real needs of its citizens and of South America as a whole : namely, a model for a truly democratic and modern form of socialism.