Protests against education reform erupt across Colombia

Thousands of students, teachers and activists across the country demonstrated Thursday in opposition to education reforms that propose private funding for public institutions.

Students and faculty from public universities and union members from across Colombia closed down streets in their cities to protest Law 30 that President Juan Manuel Santos proposed on March 10, 2011.The law plans to bring in funding for public universities from the private sector and make the curriculum more international so that young people are competitive in the world market.

Those who oppose the law like protester and student Sandra ( who did not want to give her last name) from the National University of Medellin say that private funding is a step toward corporate control of the educational system in Colombia — a system that is known for maintaining its autonomy from businesses and authority.

Near the front of the massive line of protesters that wound through crowded downtown Medellin, Sandra explained her fear further, saying that if universities are privatized and research money comes from international corporations, “The universities will choose to direct their interest to where the money is — the international corporations — not helping Colombia develop itself.”

The president and vice-president of the Association of Professors for the University of Antioquia in Medellin, Marco Antonio Velez and Sara Yaneth Fernandez, explained to Colombia Reports at the protest Thursday that public universities in Colombia traditionally have a social function. They work and research for the benefit of society and this means doing public projects that will not deliver any financial payback for the university.

The professors fear that if private organizations gain influence on the funding structure, funds will divert from the social welfare goals of the universities and be directed toward research that will benefit the private company.

“Public education has a social interest. Private organizations have personal profit interests,” said Fernandez, adding, “We are against changing the essence of the public universities in Colombia.”

According to the two professor’s union directors, the University of Antioquia — where 90% of the students are said to be at or below the poverty line — is currently supported by three lines of income: national, departmental, and income that the university generates for itself with public interest projects. Fernandez says that the last of the three account for 50% of income.

Minister of Education, Maria Fernanda Campo, argued on W Radio Thursday afternoon that, “The public resources will never be sufficient and it is necessary to enter the private sector for them to help us finance non-profit.”

Prior to the proetests, Colombian intelligence agency DAS stated Wednesday that guerrilla groups such as the FARC and ELN, who have have historically had a reported presence on campuses across Colombia, embedded themselves within student protest groups and might provoke violence during demonstrations.

When asked about a guerrilla presence at the protest in Medellin, Fernandez responded, “Maybe there are but we can’t see them,” adding that the media report the presence of guerrilla to scare people.

University student Sandra believes DAS reported this because, “It is the only excuse they have to explain such a big mobilization. We are students, workers, mothers, fathers, teachers here to protect ourselves from this law.”

The Minister of Education reported that an extensive national debate to discuss the law with directors and students has been opened, saying, “They have opened all the mechanisms for discussion to be had in the second session of Congress.”

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