The Chilean flag: A blue square on the left hand corner, with the rest of the flag divided horizontally in half, with white on top and red on the bottom. On the foreground, the a black fleur-de-lys.

Features | The butterfly effect

Student struggles for accessible education, from Chile to Quebec

When those of us from outside Quebec first arrive at McGill, we all hear variations on the same theme from someone who is earnestly trying to welcome us. Do what you can to leave the McGill bubble, they tell us, get involved with the Montreal community – after all, there’s more to the city east of St. Denis!

And we try: Our cool Frosh leader with an eyebrow piercing offers to take us bouldering somewhere up in the Mile End. We look for jobs at cafes after perfecting the phrase “bonjour-hi-quelque-chose-à-boire-something-to-drink?” Maybe we get a ‘job’ promoting a nightclub, because our only marketable talent at 18 is being good at convincing people in rez to go clubbing, and we are so desperate for acceptance and popularity that we are willing to accept alcohol as payment.

Then the perfect storm of labs, readings, group projects, and reinventing ourselves during our first year away from home hits, and before you know it, our political energy is more concentrated on removing bike gates from campus than trying to do something about the provincial budget cuts that led to the slashing of more than 100 Arts classes.

My point is that it’s disturbingly easy for students, especially international and out-of-province students, to be apolitical at McGill. It’s easy to ignore the anti-austerity movement, because we’ve got weights to lift, we’ve got papers to write, we’ve got wine-and-cheeses to attend, and we’ve got Management Undergraduate Society (MUS) concerts at which to rage.

Before you know it, our political energy is more concentrated on removing bike gates from campus than trying to do something about the provincial budget cuts that led to the slashing of more than 100 Arts classes.

Many before me have made this point, citing the difficulty of convincing anglophone students to become invested in the confusing political landscape of Quebec, the conservative attitude of the McGill administration, and other systemic challenges. As a world-class university that attracts well-to-do students from outside Quebec (such as myself), McGill invites a certain degree of conservatism, or at the very least, of tacit complicity with the status quo. The residence system and the fact that many out-of-province and international students tend to hang out together create a feedback loop that makes getting involved in local affairs seem difficult or impossible.

Broadly, it can all be chalked up to living inside the proverbial McGill bubble, both physically and mentally.

As an American whose decision to come to McGill was heavily influenced by its tuition rates (which, though high for international students, are much lower than those of a comparable American university), when I first got to McGill I held the naive and dismissive belief that Quebecois students were being ridiculous – tuition is already so cheap for them! Why were they rioting over such a small increase in price over a long period of time? They should be grateful they pay so little, while I pay so much.

This attitude stems from the normalization of astronomical prices for higher education in the U.S.. There exists a commonly-held belief that, in order to get an education, you have to go into debt. This belief comes from a sinister combination of predatory loan interest rates, bloated salaries for senior administrative staff, and a general misunderstanding of what a university should offer. Today, universities must compete for students and are all expected to have shiny new libraries covered in chrome, and multi-million-dollar athletic centres.

There exists a commonly-held belief that, in order to get an education, you have to go into debt.

Linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky once said that tuition and the debt that accompanies it are a disciplinary technique – “when you trap people in a system of debt, they can’t afford the time to think.”

For years, I bought into this idea that in order to go to university, it’s only fair that I go into debt.

That view changed dramatically when I befriended people who were quite literally fighting in the streets for a free education. People who risked their lives for the opportunity to write for a student newspaper. People who held their elected officials and student unions to a high standard and were willing to fight for their beliefs.

Though there are plenty of those people here, I didn’t meet them in Montreal. I met them in Valparaíso, Chile, at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso (PUCV).

“Ya viene la fuerza”: A brief economic history of Chile

I had the incredible opportunity to study at PUCV from February to July this year. In late February, the whispers of an impending strike in Chile began to reach my ears at the same time as the Printemps 2015 movement was building steam back in Montreal. In June 2015, university student unions and professor unions across Chile went on strike, demanding a total shift in the national education policy.

I had been loosely following the 2015 anti-austerity movement in Montreal, but it was when I was outside the city, and in a country where neoliberal economics and the legacy of a dictatorship had made the need for action all the more urgent, that the movement and its goals began to make more sense to me.

Of course, it was tremendously difficult to be apathetic toward the student movements in Chile when my classes were cancelled for months as the entire nation’s university system went on strike.

Broadly speaking, Chile’s education system can be characterized as “el hermano más feo y weón” (the uglier and dirtier brother) of the U.S. higher education system. Its roots can be traced back to the military coup in 1973 in which General Augusto Pinochet and the Chilean Air Force, backed by former U.S. president Richard Nixon, bombed downtown Santiago and assassinated Salvador Allende, the world’s first democratically elected Marxist. Until 1990, Chile was ruled by Pinochet and a military junta that killed and disappeared thousands of civilians, all the while laying the foundations for a massive shift in economic policy toward a neoliberal model developed at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman and his famous “Chicago Boys.”

Broadly speaking, Chile’s education system can be characterized as “el hermano más feo y weón” (the uglier and dirtier brother) of the U.S. higher education system.

The Chicago Boys were Chilean students trained in neoliberal economic theory at the University of Chicago who returned to South America amid the military coups in the 1970s. They served as economic advisors to dictators propped up by the U.S. through Operación Cóndor in Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and many other countries.

One of the most dramatic changes Pinochet made to the Chilean education system at the primary and secondary level was shifting the administration of public schools from the federal government to the municipal governments. Federal funds are still provided to public schools, but they are administered at the municipal level.

Chile, much like Canada, is a country where a huge percentage of the country is sparsely inhabited or uninhabited. Due to the changes Pinochet introduced, the responsibility of maintaining and evaluating these schools has been passed from the wealthy federal government to the considerably less wealthy municipal governments, especially those outside the Santiago metropolitan area.

Pedro Cárdenas Figueroa, a music student at a Chilean university, explained to me in Spanish that “the only public schools that can compete with wealthy private universities are in Santiago. If you go to a place like Osorno [in the southern Los Lagos Region], the only decent-quality schools are all private – the German school, the French school, Jesuit schools – and they’re all expensive. Public [secondary] schools regularly have forty or more students per classroom, which discourages students and teachers. It’s a form of violence against education.”

Because the maintenance of public schools fell by the wayside and the attraction of foreign investment took priority, Cárdenas continued, “private schools were made much wealthier, especially the schools far from Santiago. This process, combined with the centralization of all institutions in Santiago, concentrated the wealth, education, and status in the hands of a very small new elite.”

“The only public schools that can compete with wealthy private universities are in Santiago. If you go to a place like Osorno [in the southern Los Lagos Region], the only decent-quality schools are all private – the German school, the French school, Jesuit schools – and they’re all expensive.”

In addition to the classic private/public school split, there is a third model in Chile called the “sector subvencionado,” or the voucher system. In this system, schools are funded by the state based on enrolment rates.

Carlos Caceres, a professor at PUCV, explained in an email in Spanish that the voucher system is “financed by the state, but administered privately with the option to demand tuition payments from the family of the student. This is a system created and introduced by the Pinochet dictatorship to encourage private enterprise.”

This educational system breeds inequality of income and access to education, which has seeped into the post-secondary system as well. Since Chile transitioned to democracy in 1991, not a single public university has been created. According to Caceres, because public universities and vocational schools were stripped of funding during the dictatorship, the economic deficit was passed on to students and their families. This has led to a disturbing trend where public universities are financed just as much by student and family contributions as private universities.

A bachelor’s degree in Chile takes approximately six years, during which it is extremely uncommon for a student to live anywhere but home, as tuition is simply too expensive for a student to also shoulder living expenses. This means that if you have the misfortune to be born anywhere but in Santiago, you are very unlikely to move hundreds of kilometres away to study.

“Nobody risks their life if it’s not already in danger. People have died here in these protests.”

More glaringly, this situation leads to astronomical debt for students. I spoke with a Chilean university student who wished to remain anonymous about their financial situation. After six years studying at a private university, they will have incurred a debt of nearly 11,000 USD in student loans, interest not included. Although Chile’s income per capita is listed by the World Bank as approximately 22,000 USD – quite high for South America – this is a deceptive figure because of the large numer of unemployed people, especially youth, and because it is not representative of people outside the Santiago metropolitan area, where the population of Chile is concentrated.

This student told me, “Nobody risks their life if it’s not already in danger. People have died here in these protests.” They added that income inequality and the inaccessibility of education breed violence: “Young lads get shot because they were trying to keep their parents from having to pay one arm and several legs for a fucking degree. That’s the funny thing here in this country. It seems like it’d be the best economy in Latin America. And when foreigners come, they seem not to notice [these problems] since poverty is just amazingly well hidden.”

“Te amo, Camila”: How the Chilean student movement changed the world

In 2011, Chilean university students staged massive protests against the public education system’s increasing emphasis on profit. Although the struggle has been long and violent, the 2011 protests saw considerable success and garnered major media coverage worldwide. A conservative estimate of 1,800 arrests, at least one death, millions of dollars in property damage, and hundreds of injuries were recorded between 2011 and 2013. The student unions that spearheaded the movement used direct occupation of the campuses as their main weapon, taking a nod from the 2006 “Penguins’ Revolution,” in which Chilean secondary school students occupied more than 420 campuses in a successful campaign for reduced transportation fares to and from school.

The momentum generated by the protests was instrumental in the election of activist leader Camila Vallejo as a Chilean Communist Party member of parliament and of Chilean Socialist Party leader Michelle Bachelet as president in 2013. Bachelet had been vocally supportive of the fight for universal and free access to higher education.

According to Caceres, the 2015 wave of strikes focused on forcing Bachelet’s hand. The movement is now shifting to pressuring the National Assembly, as the executive branch (Bachelet in particular) has stood with the students. The movement’s next steps are currently being discussed.

“The idea is to progressively increase this number until the 2018-19 academic year, when 100 per cent of students in these public universities have full scholarships funded by the state.”

Caceres said, “Overall, in 2016, state universities (or public vocational colleges) are expected to ensure that 50 per cent of the poorest students are able to attend for free. The idea is to progressively increase this number until the 2018-19 academic year, when 100 per cent of students in these public universities have full scholarships funded by the state.”

The 2011 student movement drove Chile closer to better access to education than it had been at any point since 1970. It also directly contributed to the election of a leftist coalition in 2013. Its 2015 incarnation has become a visible and important reminder to the Bachelet government that Chilean students will not accept a halfway solution to a broken education system.

The students who are currently fighting tooth and nail in Chile are the first generation born after 1990; they are the first generation coming of age in a time when the curfews, media repression, disappearances, and murders of the dictatorship are not a part of daily life. This generation knows how much it has to lose, and its sense of urgency is contagious.

“La gente unida jamás será vencida”: the Printemps Érable and the Chilean Winter

The relative success of the 2011 Chilean protests had a direct impact on the 2012 protests in Quebec. According to Gabriel Velasco, a student activist at Concordia University, the Quebec movements in 2012 and 2015 were galvanized by the momentum of the similar movements happening in Chile. However, the key difference between the two was the pressure that the student movement in Chile was able to put on during the election that immediately followed, while its Quebec counterpart failed to do so.

According to Velasco, “The Quebec provincial election in 2012 stabbed the movement in the heart. When the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) called the election and the Parti Québécois (PQ) won a minority, that was a massive demobilizing force within the movement.”

When the PQ came to power, the student movement lost momentum, as the newly elected government demanded that universities cut $140 million from their budgets. However, the PQ was more generous in its social spending than the next PLQ government would be, with its dedication to a zero-deficit budget. Following the Quebec Charter of Values fiasco, which ended with the PLQ being elected again, the activists that had been previously focused on improving access to education found themselves facing an even greater challenge – provincial austerity measures. The PLQ’s proposed cuts to the public sector, especially in health and education, demanded new energy from these activist groups.

“The Quebec provincial election in 2012 stabbed the movement in the heart. When the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) called the election and the Parti Québécois (PQ) won a minority, that was a massive demobilizing force within the movement.”

Velasco explained that one major solution to austerity measures, proposed by activist groups like the Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante (ASSÉ) student federation, is increasing the number of tax brackets in Quebec from three to ten. According to Velasco, this would ensure a more equitable income tax distribution, lower the tax burden for approximately 90 per cent of the population, and net the provincial government an additional $1 billion annually. However, the 10 per cent that would see their income tax increase represents the small section of the population that is the most influential politically.

Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) VP External Emily Boytinck shared her opinion on why, despite being a large, competitive, and well-known university in Montreal, McGill remains relatively uninvolved in Montreal politics.

Boytinck told me that “McGill students have historically participated much less in the Quebec student movement at large. Last year, there was some mobilization, and it was very much led […] by the unions. And it was often sort of just a collaboration of existing activist groups on campus.”

However, the fight is far from over. “This year there’s been sort of a new group of students that have cropped up, we call ourselves McGill Against Austerity,” Boytinck continued. “Organizing movements at McGill is a very slow and laborious process and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’re still at baseline mobilization, but I do feel like it’s growing.”

Chile’s student movement is a striking example of the power that a united people can wield over its government.

Thankfully, Quebec is not heir to the same legacy of violence that the Chilean dictatorship left on its people. Even the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) have nothing on the Carabineros de Chile, the Chilean military police, in terms of access to weaponry and reputation for violence.

However, it is critical to realize that just like their Chilean counterparts, Quebec students have a lot to lose if tuition rates increase and austerity measures persist. Even if tuition rates do not increase, the cuts to education enacted by the provincial government will negatively affect both the quality of education and its accessibility. In turn, this causes inequality to grow.

My interview with Cárdenas concluded with him saying, “In Chile, it is well known that the state is nothing more than a mafia palace where the left and right join hands to fill their bellies, fill their wallets […] while fucking us over.” Whether or not this applies to Quebec, Chile’s student movement is a striking example of the power that a united people can wield over its government. No matter where you come from, as a resident of Quebec, you owe it to yourself to learn about and take a stance on its political issues, especially austerity. After all, we are all part of this community, whether we want to be or not.

Y así, la lucha continúa.
And so, the battle continues.


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