Student protests may lead to education reforms in Chile

SANTIAGO, Chile – The student protests that paralyzed Chile last week have been widely depicted as a symptom of the failure of this country’s free-market-oriented education system. In reality, they are partly a product of its success, partly a result of its excesses.

Before we get into what went wrong, we have to remember that Chile has one of the best education systems in Latin America. In the latest international PISA test of 15-year-old students in math, science and reading comprehension, Chile ranked No. 1 in the region, ahead of Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.

When it comes to higher education, Chile has expanded its reach more than most of its neighbors: Its number of university students has soared from 200,000 two decades ago to nearly 1 million today. Nearly 50 percent of Chile’s college-age students are in college, more than in most countries in the region.

What’s more important, 70 percent of today’s university students are children of people who never went to college.

But judging from what I heard over the past few days in interviews with student movement leaders and government officials, the phenomenal expansion of Chile’s university system was done too fast, with too little planning and too little regulation.

Chile allowed private universities to compete freely with state-run universities, but failed to make sure that all private universities adhere to high academic standards, which led to creation of both first-class private universities and bad ones that are little more than diploma mills.

Because most students could not afford to pay their tuition, Chile adopted a system used in Australia, which allows students to begin paying for their tuition once they graduate from college and get a job.

It looked great on paper, but planners forget to take into account that, unlike in the United States or China, where families have a tradition of saving for their children’s college education since their early childhood, no such tradition existed in Chile.

With the explosion of students in recent years, new graduates – especially those from lower-quality private universities – found themselves with debts of up to $40,000, and not able to pay back their student loans.

And since their parents had guaranteed their loans, their whole families were in a bind – which helps explain the wide support for the student movement among Chilean grown-ups.

So far, the government of conservative President Sebastian Pinera has offered to inject more government funds to higher education, lower interest rates on student loans, and offer full scholarships to the poorest students. But student leaders, emboldened by their popular support, are pushing for more.

Camila Vallejo, the 23-year-old leader of the student movement who has charmed this country with her good looks and charisma, told me that the student federation is also demanding that the government ban profit-seeking universities.

Vallejo, a Communist Party member, said her movement wants “structural changes” to do away with the “neo-liberal education model.”

My opinion: In its hurry to join the First World and copy the U.S., Chinese and Indian university systems, Chile has gone too fast.

The students are right in demanding that the government do something to solve the graduates’ financial bottleneck, and that there be more regulation to ban diploma mills that leave students – and their families – badly indebted.

Still, these excesses can be fixed without reverting to the disastrous centrally controlled state university systems of some of Chile’s neighboring countries.

If they are solved, Chile will emerge a better country from this trauma.

Andres Oppenheimer, Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, can be reached at aoppenheimer[at]

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