[Latin America] Free Education and Chile's Student Movement


Thanks to the 2011 student movement, Chile’s government is offering full university coverage for 50% of its poor students as part of a larger drive to achieve full free education within the next four years. To understand this victory and its future direction, it is important to understand the 2011 student movement. The 2011 student movement was a series of nationwide demonstrations by university and high school students. The movement is considered one of the strongest since Chile’s return to democracy. In conjunction with other events during the second year of the Sebastián Piñera[1] government, it is seen as part of a larger social movement[2] demanding substantive reforms to the economic model and policy established during Chile’s military dictatorship (1973 to 1990) and which continued without substantive changes for the next twenty years. The reforms were aimed at reducing Chile’s high income inequality: Despite its robust 6% annual economic growth, Chile has the most unequal income distribution among OECD[3] countries. Yet, taxes and government measures favor the rich and do not reduce the socioeconomic gap.

The changes proposed by Chile’s student movement were meant to address inequality by providing poor people access to quality higher education. The protests rejected Chile’s education system, which allowed greater participation of the private sector relative to that of the state.[4] The first protests were convened in Santiago by the Confederation of Chilean Students (Confech)[5] on May 12 against the lack of funding, delays in grants, and problems with the National Student Card (TNE)[6]. The mobilization resulted in the first national march in which Confech mobilized more than fifteen thousand students in the capital city. The protests were timed before President Sebastián Piñera’s May 21 speech presenting his educational policy to Congress. After the speech, Confech rejected the measures proposed and called another march for May 26. The march convened 8,000 students in the capital (including two thousand high school students). They submitted a letter to Education Minister Joaquin Lavin demanding a stronger role by the state in education.

After a month of strikes, the government presented its first proposal, establishing a new fund for education and facilitating access to college loans. The main organizations rejected the proposal and demanded more substantive measures. Successive government proposals opened the possibility of reforming the system, such as having the state be directly in charge of high schools rather than municipalities or a constitutional change to ensure quality education. Yet, these measures were rejected as insufficient.

Radicalization of the Movement

On June 8, students from the University of Chile and the Central University of Chile in Santiago protested in front of the Christian Democratic[7] headquarters for their "inconsistency" in supporting public education but having businesses in private universities such as the Central University of Chile.

On June 11, university and high school students announced a "radicalization" of the student movement calling for marches the following week. On June 15, high school students and striking workers[8] also joined. The participation of the miners marked the first time that movements from other sectors joined. The march brought together seven thousand people and culminated in Almagro Park where riots and clashes with police broke out. On June 16, Confech and the Teachers College convened one of the largest mobilizations after the dictatorship. Eighty thousand gathered in the capital (with some estimating 100,000). Nationally, around two hundred thousand people participated. The movement included private universities.

The next march was organized by high school students for June 23. Twenty thousand people gathered in the center of Santiago. That same day, the minister of education presented the high school student leaders with a set of proposal to address their demands. The students rejected the document in their national assembly. Likewise, the Confech also rejected the government's proposals for university students.

Impact of the demonstrations in Society

During the first days of the demonstrations, public support was lukewarm: In mid-June, only 37% of Chileans supported the demonstrations. After two months of strikes, around 70% of the population supported the main demands of the movement. The government, meanwhile, entered a crisis that led to a record drop in the approval rating of the president resulting in successive cabinet reshuffles. Ultimately, the student demonstrations led to the defeat of Sebastián Piñera’s government and paved the way for a victory by the center-left sectors led by Michelle Bachelet of the Socialist Party of Chile and her proposals for free education.


written by Matias Vallejos (Chilean medical student studying in Bolivia)

[1] Sebastián Piñera was the first conservative president that achieved power after the return to democracy in Chile.

[2] The main student organization in the 2011 movement was CONFECH [Confederacion de Estudiantes de Chile (Student Confederation of Chile)] which had great revolutionary and left ideological influences.

[3] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Economic

[4] The current system was designed under Pinochet’s military dictatorship (1973 to 1990), in particular the 1980s. In 1981, the administration of elementary and high school was gradually transferred from the Ministry of Education to the private sector, which received state funding. The system for founding private universities was also liberalized and the University of Chile was dismembered into regional universities that were autonomous and could make decisions without accountability to a central body.

In one of his final acts, Pinochet created the LOCE [Ley Organica Constitucional de Enseñanza (Organic Constitutional Law of Teaching)]. This law delegated the great majority of teaching to the private sector and relegated the state to a regulator. After the protests in 2006, the LOCE was replaced in 2009 with the General Law of education which many still deemed insufficient.

[5] The CONFECH (Confederation of Students of Chile) is a student organization that brings together student federations from universities.

[6] A card used by students to get discounts in public transportation.

[7] The Democratic Christian Party is the main center-left party. It is the main bridge between the conservatives and the leftists.

[8] The striking workers were from the Teniente mine owned by Codelco.