By Manuel Riesco

“I like students because they’re like yeast,” sang Violeta Parra. Chilean students have mobilized massive segments of the population once again, and they have Chile at their feet. Of course, they also have President Piñera and the members of the political class, among others, at their throats. The student movement leaves no doubt that efforts to privatize education in Chile have led to a full-blown crisis.

The students have shown that the transition institutions conceived to preserve the dictator Pinochet’s unjust social and economic model are obsolete and must be changed.

This is something that even the Financial Times can grasp. In a recent editorial, the paper described the situation more or less in those terms. Nevertheless, authorities did not understand this message before the agitation reached its current boiling point. It will probably continue to boil over into the future – in the 1980s the student movement lasted three years—until it can untangle the conflict on a deeper level.

This is how things in Chile have been progressing all during the last century, always propelled from underneath by a very patient populous which, while sometimes poorly informed, is well aware of issues and loses its patience every twenty years. What is immediately and fundamentally necessary is that the government respond to the students. After three months of massive, persistent, joyful and creative mobilization, they deserve to return to classes with clear objectives inspired by a detailed and widely shared diagnosis.

For the protesting students and academics, and for the overwhelming majority of the citizens that actively support them, this diagnosis is clear. The educational crisis has its roots in the national public education system’s dismantlement after the military coup. The solution is simple: reconstruct the system from elements that already exist and turn it into a superb, modern service.

Chile constructed the current system throughout the previous half century in an epic process taken on by a string of development governments, first by the military government in the 1920s and then by political coalitions with all manner of democratic tonalities. Salvador Allende was the most important figure of this period and the only universal Chilean politician. He actively participated in the student movement as one of its leader in the 1920s, as Secretary of State in the 1930s, as a member of parliament and president of the Senate in the 1950s and 60s and finally as the president of the republic between 1970 and 1973. During his administration, he was able to report that 30 of every 100 Chileans of all ages were studying in free, high quality educational institutions across all levels of learning and across the nation.

Compare that with the 26 per cent of the current population that studies in all levels of public and private institutions, whose quality is notably deficient. Enrollment has been cut in half at public institutions and cut down to 15 percent at the university level. Today, families must pay more than half of the total expense of education and much more at higher levels, where the state’s support has plummeted to less than a sixth of the total cost.

The increased educational coverage that the government claims is a great achievement can be explained mainly by a decrease in youth in proportion to the total population. Nevertheless, the country’s falling behind in the area of post-secondary education reflects the education system’s contraction in proportion to the population. There, the coverage is less than 40 per cent, a number way below that of neighbors Argentina and Uruguay, which surpass 60 percent, and is at an abysmal distance in comparison to the most vigorous emerging countries like South Korea, which has a 98 per cent coverage in this level.

The public education system was first destroyed by the military coup, whose members were convinced that it was a gathering place for the “internal enemy” it had trained to defend itself from at the School of the Americas. The military government was incited against public education by an elite class that justly attributed it with having politicized peasants and prompted their revolutionary movement, which ended in a profound agrarian reform.

The period’s devastation was brutal, comparable to that of a war or an invasion. Many of the best professors and students were expelled. School administrators were replaced by military officials. Entire departments were closed, classes and authors prohibited and books burned. The budget was reduced to half and professors’ salaries to one third. National universities were dismembered and colleges were scattered throughout municipalities that had no hope for administering them. In 1982, there were fewer enrolled students than there were before the 1973 coup.

Starting in 1981 and under the inspiration of Milton Friedman, there was an attempt to replace the public system with a private education industry, subsidized by the state using “vouchers” given to students. This system is in force today and has failed completely.

The 2006 rebellion of secondary students, affectionately called “penguins” because of the colors of their uniforms, evidenced the disastrous condition of primary and secondary education. Now, the penguins of the past are in college, and the time has come for them to protest the higher education system.

If public financing for primary and secondary education is a bit more than half, for the other sector financing has been reduced to less than a sixth of the total and to zero in the case of higher technical education. Consequently, universities and centers for technical education must now finance themselves with increases in tuition and fees. In 2009, the students’ payments students totaled the equivalent of half of income taxes paid in the same year by all the wealthy people and businesses in the country, including the copper mines.

Given that families don’t have the money to pay for education, they have access to a government-approved bank loan, which increases the total debt each year by a six per cent interest rate, benefitting the bank. According to a recent World Bank study, a veterinarian, for example, would end up paying a third of her salary toward such a loan.

All signs indicate that this is an unsustainable situation. It is also unjust and inefficient, as its repercussions are felt mainly by middle-class families and because it proposes to finance education through credit-financed tuition payments.  In practice, these are a high tax on the earnings of professionals. This, in turn, stunts the competitiveness of national companies.

Additionally, as a recent OECD study has shown, the plan to finance universities through tuition only works in institutions that exclusively focus on teaching. Their “academics” are so precarious that they’re called “taxis”, because they must run from one place to another to patch together a poor wage. That is how the majority of the 60 “universities” created in recent years work, and most provide a very low quality of education.

On the other hand, charges like students’ barely covers a small part of the budget of the few universities that carry out research – only five deserve this denomination and are where almost all scientific publications, half of fulltime academics and almost all those with doctoral degrees are found. For these reasons, the current financial plan is very expensive and, at the same time, it degrades true universities by creating a situation in which they must neglect research for teaching.

In light of this diagnosis, the solution that is most widely agreed upon in the student and teacher movement and in public opinion consists in reconstructing the national public education system on every level. This would mean first reinstating public spending on education as it was four decades ago when it was up to seven per cent of the GDP (today it is less than 4.5 per cent of the GDP). This would especially have to happen in spending for higher education, which has fallen from 0.9 per cent of the GDP before the coup to 0.4 per cent of the GDP currently, a situation made even worse by the fact that the number of students at this level has increased. In response to the mobilizations, the Secretary of the Treasury has offered to raise the educational budget 9 per cent annually over the course of the next few years. This would not be far from what is required.

In primary and secondary education there is a consensus to do away with the transfer to municipalities and turn schools back over to the State. Furthermore, it has been proposed that the State take on educational administration directly, hiring the professors it now subsidizes in private schools and taking back additional services, like buildings, from these schools. In this way, in a short time and without a substantial increase in cost, it could be possible to install a good, free, public school in each neighborhood of each city and town. There is also a proposal to reconstruct the national system of technical education. On the last day of his rule, Pinochet gave the main state institution, the Technological University of Chile (INACAP), to a fundamentalist religious sect. Literally no money changed hands in the transaction. Today it is one of the most lucrative universities, and its students have demanded that it be returned to the state.

In the universities there is wide spread consensus that costs to students should be cut in half and that debts be pardoned in a similar proportion. Scholarships and solidarity credits would guarantee that everyone could pay for reduced tuition and fees. This financing should be replaced – as the OECD has suggested – with stable, growing fundamental support for all public universities and especially in state universities, which are in a critical situation that has been condemned by their rectors. But in the same sense, all the institutions that are not for profit and carry out research and community programs in addition to teaching, shouldn’t discriminate negatively in any way and should guarantee their activities by basing them on an internal democratic government with multi strata participation.

All those plans can be implemented on a strictly voluntary basis that maintains current subsidies to all private, non profit organizations that wish to continue operating in new conditions of competitiveness defined by the existence of a massive public alternative; one that is of good quality, free and low cost. The described program, propelled by the student, professor and academic movement, has achieved a wide consensus that includes all the opposition parties as well as influential representatives, important institutes of learning and figures from the right.

It is possible that advances will be made in this direction. That won’t end the general protests, but it would be a well-deserved prize for the refreshing movement led by students.

Manuel Riesco is Vice President of the Center for National Studies of Alternative Development  (CENDA)  and a contributor to the CIP Americas Program