Chile mulls deal with students to end protests

The Chilean government is trying to strike a deal with the students who have staged a wave of protests since May to demand educational reform, senior officials said Wednesday.

The students’ demands have been heard and the government is working on a reform to meet them, Chilean Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter said.

Hinzpeter’s words came after Chilean President Sebastian Pinera proposed a fund of 4 billion U.S. dollars for higher education. In a televised speech on Tuesday, Pinera also outlined measures for more scholarships, more aid to low-income students and cheaper student loans.

Pinera said the fund is the answer to the students’ demands as “the Chilean society owes a debt to its students.”

It is time for the students and officials to sit down for a dialogue since the president has made “meaningful announcements” and the protesters have made themselves heard, Hinzpeter said.

However, Senate President Guido Giardi said the president’s offer was inadequate. “The proposal made by the president is a good effort but it is not enough to answer the demands (of the students).”

Giardi proposed on Tuesday to add 1 percent of Chile’s gross domestic product (GDP) each year to education, saying the 4 billion dollars proposed “are not enough to solve the problems of the educational system” in Chile.

Chile invests 4 percent of its GDP in education, well below the 7-percent ratio for developed countries as suggested by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Fees at public and private universities in Chile average from 400 to 800 U.S. dollars a month, an amount most Chileans cannot afford.

University students, organized by the Student Confederation of Chile (CONFECH), have protested since May, demanding an increase of education budget and non-profit public education. CONFECH says the current educational system is mainly financed by student fees.

The students also demand the Education Ministry strip municipal and provincial governments the rights to manage public high schools and universities. Local governments are blamed for privatizing education in Chile.

One of the biggest protests broke out on June 30 when more than 80,000 students took to the streets in Santiago. A total of 38 people were arrested.

Hinzpeter urged the students to go back to their class rooms after two months of disruption. “Together with their rights, they have certain duties with the country, with their families and with themselves, which have to do with fulfilling their careers and academic obligations,” he said.

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