Sofia Donoso

When Chile is mentioned in the media, it is often to depict a success story of political and economic stability since the reinstatement of democracy in 1990. The country has also done well in education, where Chile outscored all other Latin American countries in the OECD’s 2009 PISA rankings. It is thus understandable that the university student demonstrations of 2011 took most external observers by surprise. Throughout most of last year high school and university students took to the streets, boycotted their lessons and lectures, and occupied their institutions. In Santiago the results were often violent; protesters were met by riot police armed deploying tear gas and water cannon. On one day alone (4th August) 900 people were arrested and nearly 100 police officers injured. The cost of damage was estimated at £1.2 m. Two education ministers resigned and there were four government reshuffles in 2011.

Yet, as in many other places around the world during last year, protests were unearthing long dormant contradictions. In the case of Chile, what surfaced was the deep discontent with both the governance formula that has characterized Chilean politics since 1990 and the predominance of neoliberalism, introduced in the 1980s by the military regime and its economic advisers, famously denoted as the ‘Chicago Boys’ due to the completion of their academic degrees at the University of Chicago.

Chile has undergone a double transition during the last three decades. On the one hand, the country transitioned from authoritarian regime to democracy and, on the other, from a state-led economy to neoliberalism. The university students that rocked the streets of Chile during 2011 form part of a generation that grew up during the ensuing process of realignment of the state, market and civil society. From May 2011 onwards, the student movement organized in new and creative ways to call for what they had been promised: an education system in which quality and equity are the principal pillars. This aim, the students have argued with unswerving commitment, is difficult to achieve if the neoliberal foundation of the education system and the governance formula that characterizes Chilean politics are maintained. Hence, the students have not only demanded a ‘public, free and quality education’, but also a new political constitution.

The origins of the governance formula that became the hallmark of the Concertación – the centre-left coalition that governed the country between 1990 and 2006 – lie in the delicate power balance and considerable institutional constraints that accompanied the return of democracy in 1990. Prioritizing the consolidation of democracy, it was decided on a gradual and consensus-seeking approach in which excessive social mobilization was avoided. Moreover, with the objective of allaying the apprehensions of the economic elites, who feared that a centre-left coalition in power could signify a return to the macroeconomic instability that characterized the period previous to the coup d’état in 1973, the neoliberal economic model that had been introduced during the dictatorship was maintained.

In the policy area of education, the predominance of the neoliberal paradigm was translated into strong incentives for the creation of a private market of education at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. Legislation introduced in 1981 aimed at gradually diminishing public expenditure on higher education and forcing public universities to find alternative financing mechanisms by competing in the market. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, higher education enrolment increased significantly due to the development of a private tertiary education market and cost-sharing schemes. In 2009, almost 40% of all Chileans in the cohort 18-24 attended a higher education institution, which can be compared to a 7% in the 1970s. It is also remarkable that 7 out of 10 Chileans accessing higher education are the first ones in their families to do so.

While the 1981 legislation included a system of student loans that later expanded, as the enrolment in higher education institutions increased, the availability of funding opportunities became insufficient. At the same time, throughout the 1990s fees increased significantly – almost 50% in the case of many universities. Today, Chile has one of the most expensive fees in the world together with Korea, New Zealand and the USA. The biggest share of the fee, approximately 84%, is paid by the students and their families. According to the UNDP, only 20% of Chilean families can pay for higher education fees without considerably affecting their family income. In addition, access to higher education between students from different backgrounds has remained unequal: 14.5% from the poorest quintile and 73.7% from the richest one is enrolled in a higher education institution. Finally, the type of education that students receive is highly correlated to their socio-economic background. Two thirds of the university students belong to the two richest quintiles. Shorter undergraduate programs such as those provided by professional institutes and centers of specific technical skills enroll mostly students from the poorest three quintiles.

In sum, while student enrolment in higher education increased drastically throughout the 1990s, university fees raised, access remained unequal, and the type of education that students got access to became highly dependent on the socio-economic background of the student.

Many have argued that the very progress that has been achieved in the education system in terms of increasing access to higher education has ushered in new demands, which explain the emergence of the 2011 university protests. Yet, this vision underestimates several dimensions of the unfolding of the student movement. To begin with, the efficient organization of the university student federations spearheaded by their umbrella federation: the CONFECH. 2011 was the year of remarkably skilful university leaders with promising political futures. One of the most visible faces, Camila Vallejo Dowling, was one of the best evaluated political figures of the year, with a 44% approval rate.

The timing of the protests and the ways in which they have been handled has likewise contributed to fuel the discontent. The first right-wing government in 20 years, in great part composed by free-market devotees, facilitated the identification of a common ‘enemy’. Shortcoming and delays in the reconstruction of housing and infrastructure after the severe earthquake Chile experienced in February 2010 provided a fertile soil for citizen disgruntlement. The lack of empathy to the student demands and the weak links with civil society that characterizes the current administration has resulted in an underestimation of the movement’s capacity, which led to several mistakes. The strategy to criminalize the movement has further aggravated the relationship with the student leaders.

Contesting the framing of the movement made by the government, the students have promoted creative demonstrations. Their repertoire of action has included students dancing to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, – depicting themselves as ‘zombies’ of the education system (later broadcasted on Youtube) –, and 1800 consecutive hours of running around the presidential palace by numerous students to symbolize the $1.8 billion that funding the 300.000 most vulnerable students would cost. As many surveys show, the student movement has strong support in public opinion, reaching approval rates close to 90%.

In their discourse, the university leaders have effectively linked the faults of the education system to the more general malaise of Chilean politics. If families in the country are highly indebted, the students have argued convincingly, it is due to the neoliberal underpinnings of the education system. And a change in the education system requires removing constraints posed the political system such as the binominal electoral system that defines the unrepresentative correlation of forces in congress and a ‘politics behind closed doors’.

These arguments have indeed echoed with the discontent and mistrust that Chileans feel towards their political system. Nonetheless, it has also limited the possibilities of negotiation with the government and congress. In light of prior experiences – especially the so-called Pingüino movement, a high school students’ movement in 2006 – the CONFECH leaders have been very suspicious of any government initiative to translate their demands into concrete policy outcomes. Last time Chile had a significant social movement, the university students assert in relation to the 2006 experience, their demands were dispelled once they entered the institutional arena. Furthermore, while the university students’ petition is to change the very foundation of the education system by introducing public, free and quality education, and more state regulation and accountability, the government’s proposals include reforms such as increasing scholarships and lowering the interest rates on the student loans, i.e., measures that operate within the current neoliberal logic that the students so fervently oppose to.

Without a doubt, the 2011 university protests in Chile have exposed the great burden that the cost of higher education signifies for most Chilean families. Yet, it has also made evident that Chile lacks credible institutional mechanisms to channel emerging demands ‘from below’. While it is true that the ambitious reforms called for in the 2011 protests might seem far-fetched at the moment, the shape of Chilean democracy will in great part depend on the political leaders’ capacity to adapt the political system to respond to the deep social transformations that Chile has undergone during the last decades, which have created many unfulfilled expectations. The failure to do so could result in a generation which does not find any reason to trust and negotiate within existing state institutions in a constructive away. That would be a real shame for Chile.

Sofia Donoso Knaudt is a visiting student with the Governance Team at IDS and a DPhil candidate in Development Studies at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford