Chile's students hold first meeting with Piñera

Two sides talk after three months of riots over educational reform

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera met with protesting student, university, and teachers' union leaders for nearly four hours on Saturday at the government palace La Moneda in Santiago. Both sides laid out their terms and agreed to keep negotiating in search of ways to implement education reform.

The discussions came after three months of protests that have thrown the education system into turmoil and turned into the nation's foremost issue. It has also seen Piñera's approval rating for any president slump to the lowest level since democracy was restored in 1990.

Also present were government spokesman Andrés Chadwick, Education Minister Felipe Bulnes, the rectors of the Universidad de Chile, Universidad Católica and Universidad de Santiago, and the president of the teachers union. The education minister gave reporters an upbeat assessment of the meeting, describing it as "frank and positive."

"The meeting showed willingness for progress, and that is what is important to note," said Camila Vallejo, the president of the Universidad de Chile Students Federation (Confech) and a leader in the protest movement.

The student representatives presented a list of 12 points drawn up in August. These included guaranteeing free education as a constitutional right and improving access to education for low-income applicants in the form of grants and scholarships, as well as greater recognition for indigenous student rights and the removal of control of low-performing schools from municipalities.

The students also want an end to for-profit educational institutions, a point that ties in to the demand of eliminating the role of private banks in financing tuition loans.

But the issue that has caused bitter divisions is guaranteeing free education.

Technically, making a profit from owning and managing schools is illegal under the Chilean Constitution. But the existence of numerous private institutions throughout Chile bears testament to the way this rule has been overlooked.

The awkward legal contradiction has been the reason behind a bill recently introduced by the Piñera administration, which proposes to legalize education as a commodity legitimately bought and sold. In response, student leaders have called on the government to freeze deliberations on any bills while talks between the two sides continue.

President Piñera is considering tax reforms to fund increased spending on education.

"We are taking a look at the tax system," Piñera said in an interview last week with the Chilevisión television network. "It's an issue that's in analysis. It's not resolved."

Piñera is proposing an extra 4 billion dollars over the next four to six years on loans, grants and improved supervision, which Finance Minister Felipe Larrain said doesn't require tax increases. Student and teachers' unions say those measures don't go far enough and call for a greater role for the state.

The protests and labor strikes have helped make Piñera the least popular president since Chile restored democracy two decades ago. His approval rating dropped to 26 percent in a poll last month by Santiago-based CEP, the lowest level of the five presidents since 1990.

Confech will discuss the government's response at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday in Talca.

Talks will continue this week with the Minister of Education.

Meanwhile, protests look set to continue. "This doesn't mean we are going to give up the protest movement," Vallejo said after the meeting.

Student representatives go to "La Moneda" to meet with President Piñera.
Student representatives go to "La Moneda" to meet with President Piñera.MARIO RUIZ (EFE)
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