Chilean student protests keep marching through Bachelet's reforms
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Chilean student protests keep marching through Bachelet's reforms

Burning $500 million worth of student debt is just one way to fight for free education in Chile. Last month, local activist and artist Francisco Tapia, also known as Papas Fritas, posted a YouTube video explaining why he destroyed a large stack of promissory notes from Chilean university Universidad del Mar – as he saw it, he was freeing students from millions of pesos of debt that many could never afford to pay back.

Newly-elected President Michelle Bachelet promised to reform the education system during her 2013 campaign, but students have seen little progress and aren’t ready to let go of their demands. In early May, they took to the streets for the first march of 2014 to show the government they were not yet satisfied with its response.

Two weeks later, Bachelet sent the Chilean Congress the first draft of a bill described by the government as the most significant educational reform in the last 50 years. Among other goals, this new initiative seeks to put an end to state subsidies that currently go to for-profit schools.

In the current system, for-profit and not-for-profit institutions receive state subsidies on equal terms. At the post-secondary level, universities are supposed to be non-profit – however, an investigation last year showed some new private universities were finding ways to return profits, often through outsourcing services or leasing buildings.

The reform aims to ensure public expenditure on education is directly reinvested in the institutions.

These Chilean student protests have been filling the country’s streets to demand reforms and a voice in policymaking since since 2006, using tactics such as occupying and barricading high schools and universities, and have recently begun demanding more transparency on university finances.

Unlawful profit in education

The Universidad del Mar, in Valparaiso, will close in December 2014, after an investigation uncovered a series of complaints of irregularities, non-payment of wages and the operation of 85 shell companies to divert profits in 2012.

Incoming education Minister Nicolas Eyzaguirre has launched reviews into seven other universities, including the Universidad de las Americas and the Universidad Andres Bello, which are now owned by the US-based Laureate Education, Inc.

In a 2006 annual report, Laureate described strategies to extract resources from universities in countries where profit-making within higher education is prohibited, such as Chile and Mexico. The document, which the Chilean Ministry of Education recently accessed, suggests international companies have developed strategies to circumvent existing laws and maximize profits even when doing so is illegal according to the local country’s laws.

Laureate has repeatedly denied the allegations and stated the business was not making any profit through its educational ventures.

For-profit schools are also criticized for using discriminatory practices in their recruitment, using criteria such as past performance, behavior, family income and other family characteristics to select pupils. The top-ranked universities are often financially out of reach for students with limited resources, so these students turn to lower-quality universities in which the only entrance requirement is payment. By the time these students graduate, they have accumulated millions of pesos of debt.

International organizations and human rights advocates have denounced such practices, which they say are detrimental to students’ right to education, in particular among institutions receiving state funding.