Colombian Student Protesters Demand Quality – and Equality

The “occupation” of Bogotá by students, backed by parents and professors as well as social and cultural sectors, is continuing even after the Colombian government offered to withdraw its controversial bill to reform education if the protests were called off.

(IPS) – The “occupation” of Bogotá by students, backed by parents and professors as well as social and cultural sectors, is continuing even after the Colombian government offered to withdraw its controversial bill to reform education if the protests were called off.

The protesters turned down rightwing President Juan Manuel Santos’ request that they go back to classes. Some 200,000 university students demonstrated Thursday in Bogotá and other parts of the country for high-quality education with equality.

“We want something better than the proposals of neoliberal governments and the conditions imposed on the country by the free trade agreement with the United States,” approved by the U.S. Congress in October, Adriana Santos, a law student, told IPS.

A heavy downpour in Bogotá on Thursday Oct. 10 did not dampen the singing, dancing, speeches and embraces between students and their relatives, artists and professors, who marched from strategic points of the city towards Bolívar Square in the heart of the capital, the site of Congress, city hall, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace.

The protest movement is opposed to the bill reforming Law 30 of 1992 on higher education, which it claims it is an attempt to privatise the system by encouraging private investment and the creation of for-profit universities, while curtailing autonomy by granting the education ministry more control over public educational establishments.

Parallels with Chile

Colombian and Chilean students agree on the need for high-quality education, a bigger budget and wider coverage.

In both countries, the streets are the scenario of their demands for reform; in Chile, to change the prohibitively expensive system set in motion by the 1973-1990 dictatorship, and in Colombia to provide a tuition-free alternative to the government’s privatisation proposal. “The Chilean dictatorship leaned towards privatised education, which is now experiencing a crisis for economic reasons, and problems of unequal access to education are also becoming apparent,” Professor Víctor Manuel Moncayo of the National University of Colombia told IPS.

“Privatisation is not just about shifting state assets to the private sector, as in Chile, but also about imposing private sector logic on public institutions, like in Colombia,” he said.

“Colombia has imitated Chilean models in different areas, and is now attempting to do so in education – and going even further, by allowing the profit motive to rule state universities. Both public and private universities will have to compete for resources in the market, undermining their educational mission,” he warned.

The month-old education strike and the protests will continue regardless of this weekend’s meeting of the Broad National Student Council (MANE) to respond to the government proposal.

Meanwhile, the strikers have invited Education Minister María Fernanda Campo to take part in a televised prime time debate on Nov. 15.

“We want the country to know about our commitment to the construction of an alternative, democratic, free education system in the service of the vast majority” of the population, MANE spokespeople said.

“We want the youth of Colombia and the children of the poorest workers to have access to superior quality education. If we want progress, we need good education,” they added.

“The withdrawal of the bill, rather than a democratic gesture, is a sign of the strength and effectiveness of the student movement,” Víctor Manuel Moncayo, professor emeritus and former dean of the state National University of Colombia, told IPS.

“We have not seen anything like this since the 1970s, when there was a very effective student protest movement that achieved autonomy and deposed more than one university chancellor,” he said.

The student and teacher protest got under way as soon as the first drafts of the proposed reform were made known, in August 2010, when President Santos had just taken office.

The government bill, in many people’s view, represents continuity with the policy of the rightwing government of former president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), known as the “educational revolution”, which is essentially about privatisation, according to its critics.

The students asked to be actively included in drafting the education bill currently being debated, and have carried out demonstrations in Bogotá and other large Colombian cities since April.

“But there was no discussion or consultation over the draft. The ministry organised 28 forums but these were merely a mechanism to legitimise the government’s project,” said a student communiqué sent to Congress.

At first the protests were marred by scuffles and police crackdowns, but the students changed their tactics, and held a “hugathon” on Oct. 26 and a “kissathon” on Nov. 3.

“The MANE decided to change tactics by consensus, which is the way all our resolutions are decided and which has led to exciting days,” Viviana Rangel, the representative on the student council from the private Universidad Externado de Colombia, told IPS. The Externado is one of 26 private universities that have joined the protest “in solidarity with public universities, but also because the government reform affects our own sector,” said Rangel, who studies government and international relations.

In Rangel’s view, “the bill is directly linked with the free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States.

“Chapter 11 of the FTA calls for private investment in education. In other words, the profit motive prevails, which means that university fees can rise faster than the consumer price index, which used to regulate any increases,” she said.

“U.S. universities will also be allowed into the country, and they will train people to provide cheap labour for their economy, as well as dismantle other guarantees currently offered by private universities,” she said.

“Santos cannot give way easily, because he is deeply committed to the U.S. agenda,” Yamile Rojas, a law school graduate from the private Universidad Libre, told IPS.

Rangel said that within the context of neoliberal policies, the education reform stresses “student loans, which are a real nightmare for students and their parents. After five years of studying, the payments must continue for another 15 years,” she said.

Meanwhile, minister Campo is insisting that students must go back to classes, saying that if they fail the whole semester, the entry of new students will be limited next year.

The students’ reply is that it is better to fail a semester than to lose out on a lifetime of opportunities for themselves and future generations.