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Published on November 3rd, 2011 | by David Christie
Image © [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="240" caption="Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo. Image from Alejandro Bonilla's photostream"]Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo.  Image from Alejandro Bonilla's photostream[/caption] Chilean students are still in revolt over their government’s refusal to introduce free public education.  Chile’s education system is one of the most privatised in the developed world, with nearly 40% of all education expenditure coming from students’ families in the form of tuition fees.  Talks between the students and the government broke down in October, and there have been many student protests in Santiago since May, often ending in violent street confrontations between demonstrators and riot police.  More than 100 high schools were taken over by pupils during this academic year, and twelve universities were shut down.  The government has included a 7.2% increase in education spending in its proposed budget for next year, and have offered to lower interest rates on student loans, but the students argue that these measures do not go anywhere near far enough.  The movement is not in the mood to back down, and has the backing of most of the Chilean population: approximately 70% of the public supports the students’ demands.  The students also feel emboldened by protest movements elsewhere in the world. The main students’ union in Chile is led by Camila Vallejo, a charismatic 23-year old geography student and member of the youth wing of the Chilean Communist Party.  Should she be viewed as a role model for student leaders elsewhere?  Even if some of her views are rather extreme, student leaders in the UK should take note of her willingness to risk her personal safety for the sake of her principles (at a demonstration on 6 October, she was temporarily paralysed after suffering an allergic reaction to tear gas).  For too long, student union officials in this country (both at the national and local level) seem to have regarded their role as a box-ticking exercise for their CV, not as an opportunity to advance the interests of students, or to stand up for what they believe in.  Vallejo is a world apart from the careerist complacency of non-entities like former NUS President Aaron Porter.  Porter stepped down earlier this year and was replaced by Liam Burns.  Burns has made a few radical noises, such as arguing that students should mimic the direct action tactics of UK Uncut, but he still seems a far cry from Vallejo. The British student movement, like that in Chile (which supported a two-day general strike by transport and public sector workers in August) is able to connect with trade unions and other protest campaigns.  The student demonstration against education cuts which will take place in London next Wednesday (9 November) has union support, and will be joined by striking electricians who are protesting against a 35% national pay cut.  The demonstration will march to the City of London to show solidarity with the Occupy LSX protesters outside St Paul’s Cathedral (who have now been allowed to stay until the beginning of next year).  Many student anti-cuts activists will also be taking action to support the public sector strikes which will take place on 30 November. However, the student movement over here is unlikely to achieve the same level of support among the public enjoyed by its Chilean counterpart.  This is partly because the various anti-cuts campaigns in the UK have not had enough impact on public opinion yet.  It is perhaps also due to an anti-intellectual attitude which seems to prevail in this country: sadly, students are often portrayed as scrounging layabouts, and the value of education itself often goes unrecognised.

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Could this country’s student movement learn from its Chilean counterpart?

Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo.  Image from Alejandro Bonilla's photostream

Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo. Image from Alejandro Bonilla's photostream

Chilean students are still in revolt over their government’s refusal to introduce free public education.  Chile’s education system is one of the most privatised in the developed world, with nearly 40% of all education expenditure coming from students’ families in the form of tuition fees.  Talks between the students and the government broke down in October, and there have been many student protests in Santiago since May, often ending in violent street confrontations between demonstrators and riot police.  More than 100 high schools were taken over by pupils during this academic year, and twelve universities were shut down.  The government has included a 7.2% increase in education spending in its proposed budget for next year, and have offered to lower interest rates on student loans, but the students argue that these measures do not go anywhere near far enough.  The movement is not in the mood to back down, and has the backing of most of the Chilean population: approximately 70% of the public supports the students’ demands.  The students also feel emboldened by protest movements elsewhere in the world.

The main students’ union in Chile is led by Camila Vallejo, a charismatic 23-year old geography student and member of the youth wing of the Chilean Communist Party.  Should she be viewed as a role model for student leaders elsewhere?  Even if some of her views are rather extreme, student leaders in the UK should take note of her willingness to risk her personal safety for the sake of her principles (at a demonstration on 6 October, she was temporarily paralysed after suffering an allergic reaction to tear gas).  For too long, student union officials in this country (both at the national and local level) seem to have regarded their role as a box-ticking exercise for their CV, not as an opportunity to advance the interests of students, or to stand up for what they believe in.  Vallejo is a world apart from the careerist complacency of non-entities like former NUS President Aaron Porter.  Porter stepped down earlier this year and was replaced by Liam Burns.  Burns has made a few radical noises, such as arguing that students should mimic the direct action tactics of UK Uncut, but he still seems a far cry from Vallejo.

The British student movement, like that in Chile (which supported a two-day general strike by transport and public sector workers in August) is able to connect with trade unions and other protest campaigns.  The student demonstration against education cuts which will take place in London next Wednesday (9 November) has union support, and will be joined by striking electricians who are protesting against a 35% national pay cut.  The demonstration will march to the City of London to show solidarity with the Occupy LSX protesters outside St Paul’s Cathedral (who have now been allowed to stay until the beginning of next year).  Many student anti-cuts activists will also be taking action to support the public sector strikes which will take place on 30 November.

However, the student movement over here is unlikely to achieve the same level of support among the public enjoyed by its Chilean counterpart.  This is partly because the various anti-cuts campaigns in the UK have not had enough impact on public opinion yet.  It is perhaps also due to an anti-intellectual attitude which seems to prevail in this country: sadly, students are often portrayed as scrounging layabouts, and the value of education itself often goes unrecognised.

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