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Chilean student unrest: "We don't want to trade debt for debt, which is what the government is offering us."

Thousands rallied in Santiago, Chile on Wednesday August 8th, 2012, to protest their right to a free education. The students believe they are entitled to a government-subsidized education as opposed to the free-market model they are currently subject to. Unfortunately protests have turned violent, leaving both students and police officers badly injured; school busses were also reported to have been set aflame.  The Chilean Government responded on August 8th with force due to the fact that the government had revoked the students’ right to protest after their last demonstration on June 28th, 2012 also took a turn for the worse. The “Hinzpeter Law,” approved in late June, restricts students’ rights to freedom of assembly—an issue that both students and teachers can agree is unlawful.


Student disatisfaction at the Chilean Government’s lack of response

In a speech prepared for the August 8th protest, Gabriel Boric, president of the University of Chile Student Federation, expressed the frustration of the students to Minister of Education Harald Beyer. Boric said, “It is their indolence, their hidden deafness, forcing us to shout louder. Violence is in his actions, not ours. You are the ones that generate anger and indignation.  You are the ones responsible for the growing social unrest and the decline of our democracy.”

These protests are a part of a larger storm that’s been hanging over Chile since May 2011. In April of 2012, Education Minister Harald Beyer proposed a new university funding plan, which would remove private sector banks from the process of granting student loans and reduce interest rates on loans from six to two per cent. Student leader Gabriel Boric rejected the plan, stating: "We don't want to trade debt for debt, which is what the government is offering us."


Student voices: President of the University of Chile Student Federation, 23-year-old Camila Vallejo was voted person of the year in a poll of guardian.co.uk readers. She says, “We never in our dreams imagined it would grow so big so fast.” Hear her story here!


Teacher unions back students: Hinzpeter Law is a “backward step.”

On June 25, 2012, at a press conference the president of the Chilean Teachers Association, Jaime Gajardo, described the draft law (or Hinzpeter Law) being discussed in Congress as a "backward step".

At the Extraordinary National Assembly of Teachers about 200 teachers nationwide expressed their rejection to the legal measures on the education sector boosted by the government.

Gallardo reiterated that the law was extremely regressive because it meant fewer rights for the teachers and in fact, they were aimed at controlling and consolidating the privatisation of the educational system in Chile.

EI's affiliate, El Colegio de Profesores, CPC, rejects the violent actions of the Chilean Police Special Force, who on August 8th reacted with "violence and unjust repression. The Chilean Government is contributing an anti-democratic attitude with an utter lack of understanding about this social movement, "said the union's national director Barbara Figueroa who, along with the National Director of the Magisterium Silvia Valdivia, attended the demonstration. El Colegio de Profesores had identified in its last National Assembly Extraordinary support the mobilization of students, in sympathy with the times and protecting secondary schools. Figueroa has stated that "in an effort to improve the quality of education for our children and our young teachers we are calling for a coming nationwide strike by teachers on August 28th, every single teacher from across the globe is invited to join; it’s a universal mobilization for which we invite all stakeholders to join."


'Hinzpeter Law':

The Hinzpeter Law was drafted toward the end of the so-called “Chilean Winter,” a six-month period last year in which Chile saw a string of massive and frequently destructive protests. If implemented, the Public Order Control Law would set up harsher penalties (up to three years in prison) for anyone charged with violently occupying hospitals, schools and other public institutions.

The law was approved by the Civil Security Committee in Chile’s Chamber of Deputies during the last week of June and will soon be debated on the floor. “The problem with this law is that it does not define disorder,” said Amnesty International Chile Executive Director Ana Piquer. “This means that anyone could be prosecuted, even those who protest peacefully, without violence, guns or any type of disorderly action.”

As a result, Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Acción Asociación, previously organized a peaceful protest in Santiago’s Plaza Italia on July 31st, 2012 against the law.


Chilean student demands: 2011-2012

University students: Chilean university students are represented by CONFECH, the Confederation of Chilean Student Federations, a national body made up of student governments at Chilean universities. The CONFECH's proposal, known as the "Social Agreement for Chilean Education" (Acuerdo Social por la Educación Chilena), demands:

  • increased state support for public universities, which currently finance their activities mostly through tuition;
  • more equitable admissions process to prestigious universities, with less emphasis on the Prueba de Selección Universitaria standardized test;
  • free public education, so access to higher education doesn't depend on families’ economic situation;
  • the creation of a government agency to apply the law against profit in higher education and prosecute those universities that are allegedly using loopholes to profit;
  • a more serious accreditation process to improve quality and end indirect state support for poor quality institutions;
  • the creation of an "intercultural university" that meets the unique demands of Mapuche students;
  • and the repeal of laws forbidding student participation in university governance.

High school students: Chilean high school students are more loosely organized than the university students, with no national federation. However, their demands have also been included in CONFECH's proposal and include:

  • central government control over secondary and primary public schools, to replace the current system of municipal control which allegedly leads to inequalities;
  • the application of Chile's school voucher system in pre-school, primary and secondary levels be applicable only to non-profit schools;
  • an increase in state spending ( Chile only spends 4,4 per cent of its GDP on education, compared to the 7 per cent of the GDP recommended by the UN for developed nations.);
  • use of student bus pass throughout the year;
  • development of more vocational high schools;
  • reconstruction of schools damaged during the 2010 Chilean earthquake;
  • a moratorium on the creation of new voucher/charter schools;
  • and higher pay for teachers and a national plan to attract the best talent to the profession and raise its social stature.


CPC's National Director, Barbara Figueroa, in support of the students: “We teachers have come here to support and reinforce the demands made by the students, as they are also the demands of the teachers,” said Barbara Figueroa, of the CPC Executive Board. “The CPC has stood against municipalisation ever since its introduction in the 80’s, for we believe it only deepens inequity among people.” She went on to declare that, “We denounce the tax reform that has been recently implemented by the Government, because it exonerates parents from payment whose children attend private schools; this is an obvious slap in the face for public education. In an effort to achieve better public education for our youth, the CPC is calling upon all teachers to participate in a national one-day strike. We cannot allow our Government to continue to deny the Chilean youth an equal access to quality public education. Social activists, teachers, students and additional education-sector workers have repeatedly shown that they will not be silent nor will they forfeit their demands in the face of repression. The Chilean Government is projecting that the educational spending is only funnelled into increasing teachers’ salaries; this neglects the important aspects of the teaching profession which are a necessary expense of the education-sector, such as teacher-training or public-service field training! The CPC strongly believes that with the collaborative effort from the State, Chilean society could enjoy an integral education system that offers real opportunities from the classroom.”


Fragmented education system

In Chile, there is neither a national curriculum nor a central education budget. Each local council runs its schools and they define their own educational line, including a 'standard for admission' of students.

There are several private consultants (the so -called technical education agencies), which design the annual plan at a cost of US$15,000 dollars. Families receive vouchers and must pay the school they can afford.

This fragmented education system resembles a chain of agencies – similar to a chain of supermarkets or some other business - competing with each other, and with the private sector, to attract clients and make a profit.


Teacher de-professionalization

One of the most troubling issues for unions is the de-professionalization of teaching. Due to the Education Act passed in 2006, non-qualified teachers are now allowed to work as teachers.

The teaching profession is precarious, with salaries 40 per cent lower than that of other equally-qualified professionals’ and with highly unstable working conditions. Recent studies show that 16 per cent of teachers in Chile suffer from anxiety disorders and depression.

In addition, the lack of public resources to meet teacher training and retraining requirements means that teachers must pay for their own learning and development.


Punitive assessment

Trade unions claim that Law 20,501 passed in 2011, supposedly created to evaluate teaching staff, actually imposes new penalties on teachers and is, in effect, a new tool for dismissal.

This law allows school management to dismiss teachers and hire any professional with only eight months of university studies in any field. It also affects labour and social rights, including the right to maternity leave and nursery access.


EI Solidarity

The EI delegation met with Chilean education unions on a massive march in favour of public education, taking place in the country´s capital, Santiago. Over 50.000 people called for the fundamental right to quality education to be guaranteed and funded by the state. Present was EI Deputy General Secretary, David Edwards, Latin America’s chief regional coordinator, Combertty Rodriguez, and both President and Vice President of EI's Latin America Regional Committee, Hugo Yasky and Fatima da Silva.

The trade union leaders met with teachers, academics and students’ organisations. They also met with the Chilean Education Minister Harald Beyer and shared their concerns about his unwillingness to listen to the legitimate demands made by social organisations.

In addition, the delegation met representatives from the International Labour Organisation in Chile, raising concerns from the global educational community regarding the “historic debt” that Chile still owes to thousands of teachers since the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

The EI delegation will also be part of the First National Meeting of Organised Teachers, from 27-28 April, 2012, which will bring together teachers from both the public and private sector, both subsidised and unsubsidised, for the first time.

"This march shows the Chilean people´s firm conviction that education is a fundamental and universal right," stated EI Deputy General Secretary, David Edwards. Edwards stressed the need for a profound reform of the Chilean educational system to create an alternative to the neo-liberal education policies in place. He believes in "A process by which teachers unions are and will continue to be key players in the recovery of a non-elitist education system; a system open to everyone.”


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