On April 25, over 60,000 university and high school students took to the streets in Santiago, Chile in defense of free education and against the anti-student policies of the government of president Sebastián Piñera. The students mobilized demanding an end to indebtedness, criminalization of students, gender-based inequality and sexual harassment. An improved budget for education, a mental health program in higher education institutions and spaces for civic education were some of their other demands.
The call for the protest was given by the Confederation of Chilean Students (CONFECH), Coordinating Assembly of High-school Students (ACES) and the National Coordinator of High-school Students (CONES).
The students marched from Plaza Baquedano towards Plaza Los Heroes, with banners and placards that read “To pull out trade and patriarchy from the classroom!”, “Your future is in debts!” etc. However, the peacefully protesting students were brutally repressed by Carabineros, a special Chilean national police force. Police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse the crowd, injuring several. In addition, around 35 students were arrested, among them 6 were children. Due to the police interference, the culminating act of the march was suspended, including student leaders’ speeches.
One of the central reasons behind students’ mobilization was the indebtedness of thousands of students. In Chile, students are often required to take up large amounts of bank loans to pay for their higher education which is prohibitively expensive. With the high interest rates and high expenses, students are trapped in their student debt often for decades since they graduate. In addition, the students who incurred debts with a bank, are prevented from obtaining loans for other purposes, for example, to buy a house.
Presently, there are more than 600,000 students indebted to banks for education loans. The students demanded that the government resolve the situation of thousands of current students and former students indebted under the Crédito con Aval del Estado (CAE), Credit with Guarantee of the State, a loan to finance higher education to students with financial difficulties who wish to enter or continue their higher education studies.
The march was also in rejection of the withdrawal of the benefit of free higher education to some 27,000 students who lost the benefit after falling behind in their studies and have left them with the obligation to take loans.
“There are 27,000 students who have been left adrift, the only response that they have received from the government is to continue taking loans, they do not know what will happen to their future and which is now posed a new credit that comes to establish the indebtedness,” said Constanza Uturbia, the president of the Students Federation of Santiago University (FEUSACH).
The idea of free university education was introduced by the former socialist president Michelle Bachelet in 2016. Bachelet had promised free university education for 70% of the population. However, only a small percentage of students receive the benefit of free education.
The other reason that motivated the march was the so-called “Safe Classroom” bill, recently sent by the president to Congress for debate. The said bill penalizes students, even children, for being involved in acts of violence, allowing their immediate expulsion from the educational institution.
The students also condemned another educational reform that restores a special method of selection of students to enter public schools, an education system inherited from the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). It had been prohibited by Bachelet’s government and modified by random selection method.
Students’ movement is one of the strongest movements in Chile. With a series of massive student protests seeking an educational reform, it had given a tough time to Piñera’s government, during his first presidential term between 2010 and 2014.