Chilean protester calls for accountability for universities

By Andréa Rojas

Chilean student leader Camilo Ballesteros delivered a speech at the University of Calgary Feb. 6 as part of a month-long Canadian tour to raise awareness about education issues in South America. Ballesteros, who just finished a term as president of the University of Santiago’s Students’ Union, was one of the leaders of a large-scale 2011 movement to protest the inaccessibility of higher education.

Chile has one of the highest levels of economic inequality in the world, In 1990, a free-market based approach to education was implemented by dictator Augusto Pinochet. It involved de-centralizing schools and privatizing education. Today, schools are heavily subsidized by the government through a voucher system, but these vouchers are disproportionately distributed to members of the already-wealthy upper class.

From May to December of 2011, students petitioned the government of current Chilean president Sebastian Piñera for increased and universal access to government subsidies for higher education. Over half a million people came out to the events organized by protesters, according to Ballesteros.

The movement resulted in a marginal increase in education spending and an almost 30 per cent drop in Piñera’s ratings, but for Ballesteros, the movement is far from over. He would like to see more change in Chile’s education system.

“They do not envision repeating protests of 2011, but making 2012 and 2013 new horizons in their campaigns to return educational rights in the country,” said U of C anthropology professor Rita Henderson, who served as Ballesteros’s translator and host.

Ballestero not only wants free education but quality education for Chileans.

“Our demand is that education is a right. So we ask for an educational system that [is] free in the sense that everyone can study,” she said. “And that it be public making the government accountable to students.”

U of C Students’ Union president Dylan Jones was among the attendees.

“I think it’s interesting to gain perspective on the kinds of issues that students are facing around the world,” he said. “What they’ve done in Chile is impressive — I mean, the ability to mobilize that amount of people for something that they believe is right.”

What was most difficult for Jones to hear, however, was that universities in Chile are funded solely by tuition. The U of C SU’s operational funding comes from a range of sources, such as conference revenue and events hosted by the university. According to Jones, the provincial government covers most of the cost of running the university, meaning that U of C students pay about 24 per cent of the real cost of their education.

“We actually have one of the lowest student levies in the country,” said Jones.

However, two years ago, protests against a 40 per cent increase in tuition for professional faculties drew hundreds to the MacEwan Student Centre. Because of this, Henderson believes Ballesteros’s work is worth noting for U of C students.

“When U of C students have struggled in recent years to protect certain benefits to their education, it is important that they have a sense of the direction such struggles take elsewhere, and that the concerns they have are shared by youth around the world.”

For Ballesteros, the gap between Canadian and Chilean students may be difficult to bridge geographically speaking, but the university experience is something that unites.

“Our realities are very different, but the student mindset is the same,” said Ballesteros.

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