Saturday, January 03, 2004

Interview: Chilean Student Activist On Educational Reform

Paulo is a former student activist from Chile, who spent a number of years as a representative in his union, he is now working in Ireland. After the Pinochet coup Chile was subjected to a vicious series of neo-liberal reforms such as the privatization of education. He recently spoke about privatization at the inaugural Irish Education Forum. We managed to grab him for a brief chat about his experiences in the student movement, what problems currently face education in Chile and how privatization is working twenty years on.

What sort of issues do students face in Chile?

Well, the biggest issue is the problem of privatisation. Secondly you have the problem of repression as well, there is a lot of repression against the student movement that tries to organise and fight back against the privatisation measures. That of course is a situation that comes out of the time of the dictatorship, from the reform of 1980 when there was a big cutback in education to allow the private sector to start investing more.

So you say 1980 was a period of intensive cutbacks to force privatisation, that appears quite similar to what the Irish state are doing now, what sort of reforms were brought in back in Chile?

In the University of Chile where I was studying, just 30% of the income is public sector, 70% comes from the private including fees, so that gives you an idea of how important the private sector is in education in Chile and how much of a business is as well. Of course all that happened through forced measures under the dictatorship when the mass movement had many other tasks to face as well. So I think in Ireland you are in a better position to fight it off because you don’t have such a repressive context in which you have to face military rule.

You say repression as well as privatisation is an issue facing the student movement in Chile, what exactly do you mean?

Well, you’re talking about a very subtle repression in some ways. Most of the academics were appointed under military rule, they got to university that way and they reproduce the same kind of people in the academy. Academics tend to be very right wing and the student movement tends to be very left wing. The most obvious form of repression is police repression. Every student march will finish with water cannon, with a number of students in prison with batterings, students in hospital; it’s really bad on that point as well. Every student march is the same, loads of tear gas, loads of riot sticks, it’s always the same.

So how does the student movement organise?

Well it’s basically organised through student federations and student unions, some federations are more militant than others, some have more rank and file organisations than others, you have federations that are in the hands of the right, some are strongholds of the left.

What sort of tactics have the Chilean students’ movement found to be most effective?

It varies from federation to federation, from students’ union to students’ union. Of course the most effective tactic is direct action, and of course I am an advocate of that, but there is always a tension between groups, we are always demanding rank and file action, real measures of pressure with struggle, and then there are those that are fond of lobbying. The right-wingers don’t really privilege any tactics, they just want the student union to organise football matches and stuff like that.

How does the student movement link in with other sectors?

Well, student movements in Chile have never been isolated, they have always played a very active role and been active participants in politics in general, both in reactionary politics and revolutionary politics, but the student movement has always been leaning to the left as a general trend and there’s always been historical links with the working class that go back to the beginning of the twentieth century. Actually the student movement was built on the revolutionary unions that at that time were all illegal and they were born as means of direct struggle and points where the working class met with students in the struggle for a better society, so that link always existed.

At the moment Ireland is witnessing a trend of neo-liberal reform, with a push being made for privatisation in education, transport and other sectors. Chile under military rule was a playground where these ideological models were played out first, leading some economists to claim there was an ‘economic miracle’, what do you think of neo-liberal reform in the public sector?

Well, Chile’s the best example that it’s not working. If you look at the distribution of income, if you look at the quality of public services, it’s appalling. There has been the rise of an elite, where only the privileged sectors of society have access to third level education. But the working class find it more and more difficult as each day passes. Not only access to education has been affected, it affects the whole education system. The wages of teachers get affected, so teachers have to work outside education as well, so university becomes more a burden for them than a real job, where they can dedicate real time. There are many problems where labs are in decline, research is in decline, there is a concentration of research. It affects education at all levels, we had very good top research, and it’s all gone in twenty years of neo-liberal reform.

If you are of the privileged, of course it’s a brilliant economic miracle. Of course if I’m getting richer, I’d tell all the world. But if you are working class, and are obliged to work twelve hours a day legally, if you have no rights at all and have been systematically abused under the administration, if you know your offspring have no hope of going to third level and are always queuing for crap public health, you will find it pretty tough to talk about an economic miracle. It all depends on what side are you on, it’s all class struggle.

What advice would you offer the student movement in Ireland?

Oppose fees at all costs, because it will rot the whole education system. If education goes down, society in general goes down, research, even life expectancy. But the most important thing is to understand that it’s an ideological battle, its not about whether you can afford fees, most Irish students don’t give a shit, most could afford the fees the state are offering, but the point is you can’t accept education as a commodity and not a right. It’s the most important thing, it’s a matter of principle not a matter of whether I can afford it. It’s a really different struggle, which can only be won if you really build links with the wider social movement, with the unions, with workers and their struggles.

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