Lessons From Chilean Students’ Inspiring Movement For Affordable And Inclusive Education

Posted on May 21, 2014 in Education, GlobeScope

By Nishant Chhinkwani:

Babai Das, Jhontu to his family and friends, is a happy go lucky young lad of eleven who lives in a tiny one roomed structure with his parents and an older brother located in one of the numerous slums of South Kolkata and attends the state aided local municipal corporation school. He’s fairly proficient in Bengali, but barely muddles through History, Geography and Science, has trouble in answering multiple tables of 4 and cannot speak a word of English. The state run school doesn’t start teaching English till the 6th standard, notwithstanding the fact that almost all communication in the nation and most of the globe happens in English. His elder brother dropped out at 16 after finishing his class 10 board examinations and started helping out his father in running his tea shop. Jhontu, the bright young lad with an infectious smile seems to be following the footsteps of his father and brother, already skipping school regularly to help at the tea shop. Needless to say, this family looks set to sink further into the quagmire of poverty with rising prices and diminishing purchasing power of money steadily on the rise and none of its sons making a mark in education – a sure shot, tried and tested, yet slithery ladder out of poverty.

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There are millions of children and young adults like Jhontu and his brother who attend school and later drop out or do not pursue further education for the sake of earning the family bread, and remain stuck in their current predicament. They will probably end up passing down the same to their children and the vicious circle would go on and on.

The problem no longer lies in sending children to school. If the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) is to be believed, then 96.5% of all rural children between the ages of 6-14 years attended or were enrolled in school, a similar figure has been computed for urban children in the same age group. The question to be answered is why, even after notching up these admirable figures, are the children and the youth of our country coming from families of limited means, struggling to finish school or pursue higher education and how can this quandary be resolved?

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The answer to the former question lies in the poor standards of education that prevail in our state run schools which a majority of the underprivileged children attend. The possible answer to the latter part might lie half a world away in a different hemisphere. The place which, if one is inclined to believe the movie Motorcycle Diaries, forced Ernesto Che Guevara to rethink about his aim in life – history tells us the rest,

We could learn a thing or two from Chilean Student Protests also labeled as Chilean Winter or the Chilean Education Conflict by the media, which recently regained international attention with Chilean artist Francisco Tapia burning $500 million dollars worth student loan promissory notes that he had allegedly stolen from the Universidad del Mar after a student takeover. While that might not be the smartest move on the planet, it does shed light on the desperation of the Chilean students in face of poor State run public schools and exorbitant tuition fees in profit private institutions.

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The causes of the Chilean protests of 2011 might sound familiar. The Economist quotes, “one of world’s lowest levels of public funding for higher education, some of the longest degrees and no comprehensive system of student grants or subsidized loans.” BBC have attributed “students’ anger” to “a perception that Chile’s education system is grossly unfair — that it gives rich students access to some of the best schooling in Latin America while dumping poor pupils in shabby, under-funded state schools.” It can safely be inferred that Chile has long suffered from gross inequality in the quality of education and infrastructure between the State run public schools and the for profit private schools. Adding to the misery is a flat job market, which cannot gainfully employ a student unless he/she has a specific skill set that is best developed in a private school/University, given the pitiful infrastructure and standard of education in the State run institutions.

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

The first wave of the 2011 protests started in May and is said to have its roots in the 2006 student protests, now known as the Penguin Revolution. In fact, many protesters who were in high school in 2006 subsequently participated in the student protests of 2011 while completing their University education. These protests were triggered partly by the then Minister of Education Joaquin Lavin’s initiative to increase Government spending on non-traditional Universities that were seen as non profit on paper. The stark reality, however, was different. Most of these institutions were notorious for using legal loopholes to make profits.

The students’ demands mainly included subsidized to free tuition for higher education, creation of laws against for profit Universities, more stringent accreditation processes to weed out poor quality institutions or force them to improve their standards and increased state spending on high school education among many others.

El Mercurio states that on June 13, about 100 schools were occupied by students protesting for education reforms. The Chilean police quote the number to be 50. While the veracity of either statement cannot be completely trusted, it might be safe to assume that the Chilean student protesters had started to make themselves heard. On a massive demonstration on June 30, around two hundred thousand protesters were said to have taken to the streets forcing the Chilean President to make an announcement that detailed the education reforms that the Government was planning to bring about. The announcement was met with skepticism and even harsh criticism from most quarters as it emphasized on a new legal framework for for-profit education providers and rejecting the public ownership of education as demanded by the student calling it an infringement on freedom to education and that it might damage the quality of education seriously.

The protests continued. In the two years that were to follow, it saw countless demonstrations filled with its fair share of violence, many Government proposals that weren’t deemed to be enough, two cabinet reshuffles in which the Ministers of Education were reassigned to a different Ministry, breakdowns in negotiations, and last but not the least, a new Socialist Government in place in 2013 which announced placing a universally accepted system of free higher education in place in the next six years.


In a span of two years, the Chilean protests have achieved the most important thing that they wanted – a comprehensive education program to improve the quality and the reach of education at the same time, irrespective of whichever economic strata the student belonged to.

Chile’s expenditure on education in terms of its GDP was 4.4% in 2008. A World Bank survey places India’s expenditure on education in terms of its GDP at a measly 3.17% in 2011.

The equation is clear. The parallels have been drawn. If the Babai Das’ of the country need to be nurtured in a comprehensive education environment for them to realize their true potential, ‘Viva la Revolucion’ a la Chile could be one of the very few possible ways to force the Government to take those necessary steps.