Chile: The Frontline of the Battle for Free Education

Screen Shot 2014-01-24 at 14.20.00One of the most interesting consequences of the recent presidential elections in Chile is the probable impact on that country’s tertiary education system: Michelle Bachelet, the president-elect on the ticket of the Nueva Mayoría or New Majority coalition, has promised to abolish university tuition fees, funding a free education model through increases in corporate taxes. This development is particularly notable because Chile has been the poster child for neoliberalism in South America; like in many countries, student debt and the cost of education have become live issues. Bachelet – who numbers the charismatic student leader turned Partido Comunista de Chile or Communist Party of Chile deputy Camila Vallejo (pictured below) amongst her coalition partners – has sought to decouple the provision of state education from the profit motive, declaring: ‘Profits can’t be the motor behind education because education isn’t merchandise and because dreams aren’t a consumer good.’

Assuming Bachelet succeeds in enacting her manifesto – she does not take office until 11th March 2014 – Chile could provide a model for students in countries such as the United States and England, where the burden of student debt is entering a surreal dimension and where a whole generation faces the unappealing prospect of debt slavery. While Bachelet’s contention about education not being merchandise could be viewed as populism rather than economics – schools, universities and educational materials do not produce themselves out of thin air – her shaking the coffers of corporate Chile to fund state education is anything but naïve. The former executive director of UN Women has recognised that there are actors within Chile’s economy who have creamed off predictably large amounts of money as the worldwide commodities boom has made Chilean copper highly sought-after – and that it is perceived as legitimate to ask questions of them.

Chile’s students succeeded in getting the issue of education onto the political map through standing up to a state that has not been known for its compassion; while far-left parties enjoy little support in a country which has an adjusted GDP per capita of over US$20,000.00, they have shown considerable recent political astuteness. The ultimate proof of this that Bachelet, a thoroughly mainstream candidate, is now espousing policies that although broadly logical would be perceived as unthinkable in many more developed and ‘freer’ polities.

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