Higher Education in Latin America 2011:The Burden of the Youth

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  • The high cost of public education combined with a deterioration in quality, two such consequences of the reforms being introduced to privatize education incited opposition in various Latin American states during 2011, particularly in Chile and Colombia.
  • The regressive atmosphere of higher education and its production of inequitable returns, most attributable to the neoliberal Organic Constitutional Law on Education (LOCE), underlined the grievances of the student movement in Chile.
  • Chilean activists finally ended their 6-month occupation of the Universidad de Chile, now planning for future demonstrations in 2012 after failing to influence a better funded education budget for the year.
  • In Colombia, the occupations of public universities, the suspension of classes and the near forfeiture of an academic semester, were all reactive measures to the government’s reform of a 19-year-old law on higher education, which many believe would have accelerated the privatization of education and spur the financial collapse of public universities.
  • After sustained opposition from student activists, the Colombian administration decided to revoke the legislation, now proceeding to draft a new reform measure together the nation’s student organizations.
Source: Guillermo Legaria

Three years after the global financial crisis triggered a wave of austerity measures across the world, the rising generation found itself systematically questioning the merits of the predatory capitalist models incorporated by the policy makers that are theoretically supposed to nurture them.  The rallying cry from the region’s newly empowered youth demanding change, went down as one of the lasting images of the year as it was drawing to an end.

The recent round of demonstrations witnessed in the developed nations have focused on the state of the economy and reflected the inequitable distribution of gains. In Latin America, particularly, the mood of dissidence against state mismanagement has aroused the most leftist viewpoints in youth circles in much of the region, coming to terms with a long cast shadow of greater taxation and fewer public benefits. Throughout the last twelve months, the inherent imbalances of education policies in the region have been among the primary sources of division and rancour between the state and its youthful citizens, frequently backed by their parents. Governments have been faced with the challenge to provide universal access to quality education within a harsh economic reality of limited resources, prompting substantive cuts in public funding earmarked for higher education. On the opposing side, youth activists invested in their collective future have tried to protect higher education as a public good, one that can steadily enrich and encourage social recalibration, as oppose to merely perpetuating the status quo.[1]

Since the 1980s, secondary education has flourished and, in its wake, created an even greater demand for higher education in Latin America, one that state governments have been unable to fulfill with an adequate amount of funding to ensure growth.[2] The privatization of education has been the conventional, and practical, approach to satisfy educational demand without gross public expenditures. However, the resulting demand-absorbing private institutions have been criticized for delivering predictably sub-standard, overpriced and poor quality of education.  At the present time, not only do state expenditures on education remain inadequate, but a clear state-provided system of grants for students remains incompletely implemented. Allocating too many state funds toward educational institutions is a guaranteed recipe for disaster, but no Latin American country so far has been able to sensibly balance the cost between the student and the taxpayer.[3] The hostile global economic environment also has played a big part in imposing a formidable amount of pressure on privatizing public services such as education, as state budgets have become constrained and required state governments to operate with heightened prudency.[4] Thus, both external and domestic pressures have influenced state government units to adopt, if not already so, a neoliberal strategy for education.

Sprouting Resistance Against Current Education Systems Operating in Latin America

In order to function without adequate state funding, public universities have had to invoke high tuition fees and raise interest on student loans to oppressive levels for the average student. In addition to acquiring funds from private sources, universities have simultaneously cut costs by hiring more part-time and adjunct faculty as well as expanding class sizes, which unsurprisingly, has led to the deterioration of the quality of the education being offered.[5] The high cost of tuition combined with the deterioration in quality, two adverse products of the reforms to privatize, have thus incited opposition in various Latin American states. For example, on November 24 2011, thousands of students in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela participated in the Latin American March for Education for the universal right to free quality public education.[6]

The epicenter of the conflict in 2011, however, was in Chile and Colombia. The movement in Colombia led a campaign to prevent the ratification of an education reform that would privatize the education system, while student activists in Chile rallied to demand better education, greater state expenditures on public education and subsidies for low-income students. Colombian activists were successful in preventing the reform from being ratified, while the students in Chile will have to reassemble for future demonstrations after being unable to sway the country’s education policy.

Chile: A Fractured Higher Education System                                                 

Chile’s youth, with widespread grass-root backing, spent eight months protesting against the state’s education policy, tarnishing the Piñera administration’s competency for public relations with every successive act of defiance. The highly regressive nature of Chile’s spectrum of higher education and its production of inequitable returns are consequences of the neoliberal Organic Constitutional Law on Education (LOCE), which was set into motion under the Pinochet regime in 1990 and underlined the long-standing grievances of the student movement.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that Chile’s universities receive the overwhelming majority of their funding from private sources, while only fifteen percent of investment comes from the government.[7] According to the OECD report, Chile, which went through “significant increases in student enrollment between 2000 and 2008, did not increase spending at the same pace; as a result, expenditure per student actually decreased.”[8] Thus, due to a relatively low level of state participation in funding and oversight, the new trend of forming profit-motivated universities, left unregulated, have proceeded to raise tuition fees even if they are delivering sub par levels of education. Middle-income students are now stretched beyond their means, taking on debt in order to finance their private education, while the high barriers to entry to these elite channels have provided limited choices to the lowest-income students. According the OECD’s PISA assessment of 65 countries, Chile ranks 64th “in terms of the variance of the results according to social class.”[9] In other words, income inequality is echoed through the country’s education system, and further reinforces the influence of one’s socio-economic background on the nature of the opportunity afforded to any one student. Reacting to the dysfunctional system, students have proclaimed for an end to state dormancy by authorization of meaningful disbursements toward free public higher education, subsidized through higher levels of taxation.

Ahead of the ratification of the 2012 education budget, Chilean activists went on strike to sway the ruling administration’s unsatisfactory proposal put before the national Congress.  Representing the interests of the protestors, the center-left political opposition known as Concertación was campaigning to increase government funding for education by USD 1 billion.[10] However, on November 28, 2011, the Chilean Chamber of Deputies passed the 2012 education budget with a supplement bill of USD 420 million combining for an overall allocation of USD 12.1 billion, much to the disappointment of Concertación senators who abstained from voting for the controversial legislation.[11]

An accompanying feature of the proposition was a governmental pledge to increase university scholarships for the sixty percent lowest income students for fiscal 2012. For example, scholarships at technical institutes will rise from 82,000 to 121,000, 1,800 to 20,000 in private universities and 52,000 to 99,000 in traditional elite universities.[12]  However, critics have viewed the expansion of scholarships as a diversion from the real matter of direct government financing for public institutions and the provision of free, quality, public education, which, after all, was the chief motive of the student-led protests. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the scholarship system only “protects and benefits private initiative,” maintaining a system that leads to “segmentation, discrimination and highly selective mechanisms.” [13] The European Parliament also expressed the necessity to restructure the current education system in Chile, which “infringes on the right to education for students from lower-income backgrounds and impedes the institutions’ ability to conduct high quality research.”[14]

Yet lacking empathy for the student cause and unwilling to compromise on the part of the government’s agenda, incumbent President José Piñera deflected the education crisis in Chile and replaced it with a crusade against ostensible public misconduct. To quell the force of the movement, the administration instituted a draft ordering 57,000 18-year olds to report immediately for military duty.[15] Taking further disciplinary measures, the government has threatened to recede the loans of students attending private universities who have failed to attend their classes.[16] Both of these measures undoubtedly tested the resolve of the movement, which seems to have lost its structural solidity, especially since spokespersons Camilla Vallejo and Giorgio Jackson finished their terms as student leaders. Before the end of the year, the student federation FECH symbolically ended the six-month occupation of the Universidad de Chile on December 21, 2011, the once focal point of the demonstrations.[17]

At the cost of foregoing an academic semester and increasing pressure on enrollment ceilings for the following one, Chile’s student movement will feel like it has made marginal gains by the standards it initially established. Yet, several noteworthy measures have been introduced by the administration; for starters, investment in higher education will increase by twenty six percent, interest rates on student loans have dropped from six to two percent, and debt refinancing for the loans of 110,000 students has been discussed.[18] While these measures do not nearly reflect the level of reform so keenly pursued, they at least signify a greater degree of investment in providing opportunity to the lowest-income student cohort. While preserving its agenda to transform the structure of public education in the country, the Chilean student movement will have to, at least for the moment, accept a process of bit-by-bit modification as opposed to the major overhaul it seeks.  The Piñera administration, however, ended the year without demonstrating a proper initiative to rectify the existing inequalities within the country, drawing a crumbled reputation amongst the lower-income neighborhoods in the process.

Colombia: A Victory Against Privatization

The prospect of an education policy analogous to the one that failed in Chile is exactly what spurred students in Colombia back in March 2011 to protest against a neoliberal education reform proposed by the Santos administration. Scores of riot police and tanks rolled into Bogotá’s Main Square in October using tear gas and water cannons to break up the demonstrations. In retrospect, the government’s demonstration of police enforcement only fueled their resistance. To voice their discontent against the proposed Law 30 education reform, the protestors came out in large numbers: 30,000 in Bogotá and 10,000 in Medellin, according to Colombia Reports.[19] The occupations of public universities, the suspension of classes and the near forfeiture of an academic semester were all reactive measures to the government’s reform of the 19-year-old law, which many believe would influence the privatization of education and spur a financial collapse of public universities.[20]

Until recently, the Colombian administration was adamant on passing the Law 30 education reform. The Minister of Education, María Fernanda Campo, iterated the expansion of student coverage, a superior quality of education, and the modernization of the education system as the overall benefits of the reform.[21] Included was a USD 3.5 billion supplement for higher education from 2012 to 2022, and a 600,000 enrollment expansion goal to be reached in the next two years.[22] Critics of the reform, however, did not consider the budget to suffice for the stipulated expansion of enrollment quotas. Acceptance quotas for university places have consistently increased in the past without the budget expanding accordingly, and the net result has always short-changed public universities. In fact, the proposed budget would provide less funding to these institutions than the current allocation, which, due to its insufficiency, would eventually induce a drop in standards.[23] Of greater influence would be the tendency to associate with private companies as a source of revenue, which would thus spur the partial privatization of the education system.

With sustained efforts by Colombian activists, the Santos administration had reached a crucial juncture this past November. In light of the strong dissidence toward it, the government’s expectations for the Law 30 reform diminished, leaving it no choice but to withdraw the proposal. As Senator Luis Fernando Velasco noted, “a law that encounters this much opposition does not stand much of a future.”[24] Not until Congress had officially revoked the legislation on November 17, 2011, was the national strike, which begun earlier that same month, terminated, allowing students to return to their classes.[25] The Santos administration will now proceed to draft a new reform, but with the input from the students, a contrast to the minimum level of accommodation the Chilean administration has yet afforded to its opposition. The introduction of private education was effective in Brazil, for example, because it was complemented with a strong foundation of public higher education. Thus, as the administration proceeds to develop a new education policy, its success will be determined by its ability to strike the right balance. It will need to partially privatize the education sector to encourage constructive competition between universities to attract students, but with the inclusion of a state presence that can elevate the standard of public education and prevent disenfranchising lower-income students.

Future Realities & Potential Policy Adjustments

Many Latin American governments, like those of Chile and Colombia, have embraced the neoliberal ideology by either completely dismantling public services like education or creating high barriers to entry into public universities. This has been then followed by a liberalization of private education sector, both processes ultimately allowing the state to avoid significant public expenditures by placing the expense upon the door of the consumer.[26] As the argument goes, the phenomenon has satisfied the fiscal conservatives by neutralizing rising demands for higher education while alleviating the pressures it would otherwise impose on the state. Meanwhile it gives the individual a direct stake in the returns from the higher education process.[27]  However, the exclusionary effect created by high tuition fees laid down by private institutions has given rise to a grand social tension that has questioned the fundamental merits of the privatization model. Within the process, students have become clients, schools have turned into businesses and the education experience has become a commodity.

On a larger scale, the 2011 demonstrations against the state of education revealed a divisive polarity between the government and citizen that necessitates reflection. More than merely struggling to reach a short-term compromise, the government’s relationship with the public, particularly in Chile, is fractured and requires serious mending. The ‘Communitas’ in Chile and Colombia, a spirit finally consolidated through the gradual build up of feeling disenfranchised by state indifference and the high youth unemployment realities of the moment, rapidly ascended to challenge the sustainability of certain neoliberal policies, or at least their application in Latin America.

The unfavorable economic environment throughout most of the hemisphere will insure that government investment in public education will continue to be marginal; the situation dictates that public institutions will have to get used to generating funds through private avenues.[28]As the director of the University of Costa Rica, Gabriel Macaya mentioned, “these activities must be seen as a complement and never a substitute to state funding.”[29] In light of surging demand, privatizing education and diminishing state responsibility is no longer acceptable in the long-term in a growing number of nations. Chile, in particular, under its present right wing government is guilty of letting market forces dictate the state of education, which now mirrors the overall glaring inequality of the country. With the issues pertaining to higher education left unresolved for both Colombia and Chile,  these two governments will now have to assess to what degree they want to be the guarantors of social welfare in  2012 in order to once again be receptive to the ‘Communitas’ that their citizenry obviously craves for.

References for this article can be found here.
For more on student protests, click here.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Faizaan Sami.
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