A student’s triumph: University education is now free in Chile
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A student’s triumph: University education is now free in Chile

Thousands of Chilean students previously unable to afford higher education tuition fees can now breathe a sigh of relief,  as the long, hard battle towards free university education has been realized with Gratuity 2016.

Grace Paris Ruiz is one of the students who will experience a tuition-free school year ahead. She graduated secondary school in 2015 and will enter the University of Chile to study Obstetrics without being crippled by fees.

Her family’s humble house in Lo Prado received Chilean President Michelle Bachelet on Monday where the country’s leader congratulated her.

“We are happy and excited as Grace and Marcia (Grace’s mother). She is an example, but many other families are equally happy now because finally, the ability, the talent, the will, and the desire to study will not be hampered because they do not have enough money,” President Bachelet said.

Education minister Adriana Delpiano, who accompanied Bachelet to the Ruiz’ house, said that the president’s visit to the  family symbolizes her administration’s recognition of the youth and determination to have everyone access the benefits. The head of state shared breakfast with the family alongside Lo Prado Mayor Gonzalo Navarrete.

About 165,000 students can attend university for free this year. Thirty universities will offer free schooling to higher education students. The University of Concepción, Federico Santa María Technical University, Valparaiso University, University of Santiago, Austral University of Chile,and the University of Bio Bio had the most number of applicants.

“We always believed that education is a right, and the fact that we are moving ahead strongly in that direction fills us with joy,” Bachelet said.

Obstetrics and medicine are the most taken courses, followed by civil engineering, commercial engineering, construction, and dentistry. According to Delpiano, students in their second year of university who are receiving financial aid from the government will be benefitted as well.

Bachelet urged the students to strive as the state “will reward your effort so you can begin your university education,” promising that the scope of free education will expand in the following years.

“I would have liked all young people to be able to enter and have free education, but we must be responsible because of the economic scenario facing the country,” she said, referring to the slow economic growth in 2015 that is expected to continue this year.

Transfer of administration

The infamous Organic Constitutional Act of Teaching (LOCE) enacted on the last day of Augusto Pinochet’s 16-year dictatorship still haunts the present-day administration.

Pinochet’s era saw the privatization of the education sector and a 20-percent drop in the sector’s budget. The ruling government streamlined the process of establishing private universities, and because of the budget cuts, public universities had to collect fees in order to remain operational.

The public was also angered by the transfer of authority from the Ministry of Education to municipal level, creating private schools subsidized by the government. As funding dries out, municipal governments had to source the funds from provincial budgets. The smaller the provincial budget, the smaller amount it can extend to support its schools. This affects the quality of education, school facilities, and teachers’ wages.

Bachelet in 2006 

Gratuity in 2016 is the first truly significant accomplishment of Bachelet’s promise to the nation in June 1 of 2006.

During Bachelet’s first presidential term from 2006 to 2010, students of different universities staged a series of rallies calling for the abolition of the LOCE. A total of 790,000 students joined together on May 30 and marched throughout the country, marking the largest student strike in decades and dubbed as the “Penguin Revolution” because of the participants’ uniforms.

Bachelet announced the next day new regulations for education that satisfied most of the students’ demand, but not quite.

Elitism was subtly dominant in the following education reforms.

The LOCE was not entirely repealed but was only modified and renamed as the General Law on Education (LGE) in 2009. Students and teachers were still opposed to the LGE for its “failure to reform the government’s basic financial strategy for a more equal educational system.”

Chilean education continues to be market-based which will surely promote unequality between students from the country’s vulnerable population and those who can afford university fees.

Here’s to hoping that Gratuity 2016 will be the beginning of the government’s real answer to students’ and teachers’ complaints.

See more:

World Bank grants $100 million loan to Chile for education reforms

The slow march to education reform tests Chileans’ patience