Protagonists from the student movements that have swept the hemisphere from the Chilean Winter to Quebec’s Maple Spring gathered in New York at CUNY Graduate Center on October 15 to discuss the tactics that have raised the political stakes of educational reform and to seek common ground in addressing the challenges that lie ahead.

Chilean student leader and President of the Universidad Católica Student Federation Noam Titelman opened his remarks by describing the decades-long march of neoliberal deregulation implemented in Chile under the US-backed Pinochet dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s which led directly to privatization, and the cutback of social services, reshaping state institutions from industry to defense to education.

As Camila Vallejo—Vice President of the Universidad de Chile Student Federation and media darling of the country’s student movement—later added, “we resolved the problem of the dictatorship but we have not resolved the models and structures that the dictatorship left in place.” These structures have contributed to a university system that proportionally ranks as one of the most expensive in the world. The country's average college tuition is $3,400 in a nation where the average salary comes to $8,500. Oppressive student debt and the proliferation of what Titelman dubbed “fast food universities,” or private online institutions “that promise a lot, but deliver very little” revealed that “something wasn’t working in this story where education could work like any other market.”

Demanding what Vallejo termed “the recuperation of public education,” Chilean students at both the high school and university level launched mass protests and demonstrations, joined teachers and workers on strike, and did substantial damage to right-wing president Sebastián Piñera’s approval ratings over the past year. Referencing Chile’s concentrated wealth and high level of income inequality, Vallejo explained that “education models may either transform society’s social structures or serve to reproduce them.” She views Chile’s system as perpetuating class divisions, and emphasized efforts beyond privatization to “diminish and dismantle the public system” to its “ minimum possible expression” in an attempt to dampen dissent. 

While the student leaders participating in the panel recognized the radically different historical contexts that shaped the systems they are engaged with, patterns of criticism emerged. Denise Romero Franco of Bottom Up Baruch and Students United for a Free CUNY brought up CUNY’s controversial Pathways program, enacted by the Board of Trustees, which students and faculty fear will dilute educational opportunities in an effort to facilitate transfer between CUNY campuses. “We see it as an attack on programs that are not prioritized,” Romero Franco said. “We see it as the reduction of important departments like ethnic studies, women’s studies, and gender studies,” or programs critical to combating inequality.

Conor Tomás Reed, a CUNY Graduate Center organizer and Adjunct Project Coordinator, described education as “in a profound crisis…basically the last major social sphere that’s being privatized.” He brought up a widely read blog post by Debra Leigh Scott that he found particularly insightful, entitled “How the American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps.” After listing the withdrawal of public funding, the deprofessionalization and impoverishment of professors, the administrative takeover, the flood of corporate money, and the ruining of students through uncritical curricula and debt burdens, he looked out to the audience—“Tell me if any of this sounds familiar.”

Representatives from the movement in Quebec—Jamie Burnett, a McGill strike organizer and former AUS councillor and Irmak Bahar, a Concordia strike organizer and CSU councillor—described how sustained strikes against the government’s plan to increase tuition fees prompted the defeat of provincial premier, Jean Charest, and pforced cancellation of the hike and repeal of the legislation enacted to crack down on demonstrators. Noting the singular aims of the movement, Burnett advocated next steps of “opening up the university” and “challenging what actually gets taught, what the point of education is.”

For Vallejo, recuperating public education likewise involves challenging the fundamental underpinnings of the system. Beyond increased state funding, Chilean students demand “sense and meaning in public institutions,” that is, disentanglement from corporate governance to ensure access and representation reflective of national diversity, and “democratized knowledge production” designed to meet the needs of students. Throughout the protest process, she explained, student leaders caught up on civic education lessons decades absent from the university system.

As both Vallejo and Titelman made clear, Chile’s educational system is symptomatic of the country’s “impoverished democracy,” and student protests have sparked calls for deeper structural change, a call that is today resonating with young people all over the world.