(MintPress) – As President Barack Obama wrapped up a tour of college campuses in North Carolina, Colorado and Iowa to address student loan debt interest in the United States, demonstrations sandwiched America as student loan protests revved up in Canada and South America. As college tuition steadily rises, or, in some cases, spikes, students are politicizing the issue as a manipulation of the education sector into a for-profit business.
The issue came to a head in Chile as tens of thousands of students demonstrated this week, demanding a better and more affordable education. An overwhelming majority of colleges and universities in Chile are private, stoking criticisms from protesters that education in the coastal country is treated more as a consumer product than a universal right.
In an effort to finance an education reform that would alleviate student loan pressure on graduating students, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera announced on Thursday that the government would increase the corporate tax rate, and reduce interest rates for student loans from 6 percent to 2 percent.
The protests also helped facilitate a loan repayment method that would allow the students to not pay back student loans until they enter the workforce and would also cap repayments at 10 percent of their income.
“Our entire society is making an enormous effort to finance this educational reform,” Pinera told Bloomberg. “We all must commit ourselves to this. That being said, the success of this education reform basically depends on the goodwill, effort and commitment of our students.”
A similar government response would surely like to be seen in Canada and the U.S., as protests of the university system have grown exponentially after student loan debt bypassed credit card debt in America, and provinces in Canada proposed up to a 75 percent tuition increase. While the response in Chile did not completely comply with what students were asking for – a divergence from privatized education – it created a focused energy on the issue.
In Canada, students have been protesting for months in Montreal against tuition hikes in Quebec. In order to combat a $2.4 million budget shortfall, officials in Quebec are looking to raise tuition by $1,625 over the span of five years – current tuition is $2,200. The proposal has elicited over 200,000 demonstrators since its inception, and a recent fury after the government in Quebec rejected discussions with student groups over the legislation.
Violence causes stalemate in Canada
Part of the issue in continuing talks has been the instances of violence and physical injury to both civilians and police officers during the protests. Three student groups make up the negotiating for the students with the Quebec government. The government has said they are willing to meet again in the future with FEUQ and FECQ, two groups representing students and universities. The other group, CLASSE, has been instructed not to attend the meetings because of a more “militant” approach to demonstrating that has led to violence and injuries.
Earlier in the week, 85 people were arrested during a protest in Montreal that left business fronts damaged and students and police fighting for several hours. In response to CLASSE being banned from negotiations by the province, protesters took to the street, as some resembled more of an angry mob after breaking windows in cars, at banks and a police station. Rocks and other projectiles are said to have been thrown, resulting in injuries.
Montreal police Sgt. Ian Lafrenière said that while he knows not all protesters are out to cause damage or harm, the department has to crackdown on demonstrations because of the risk.
“As a police officer, as a father, as a Montrealer, am I proud of what I’ve seen? Not at all,” Lafrenière said. “It’s sad to see something like that. And I had a number of students write me emails this morning saying, ‘You know what? We’re sad. We were there yesterday in a peaceful way but unfortunately some people took advantage of it.’”
On Thursday evening, the continued protest in Montreal was halted by police when the force told a group of protesters that what they were doing was illegal. The police department said that the group was throwing pyrotechnic devices at them.
Progression in Chile
On Wednesday, demonstrations occurred in both the U.S. and Chile, but for very different reasons: Chileans were protesting what had been done, while Americans were protesting what has not been done. Chileans demonstrated President Pinera’s reform plan that they felt did not do enough in restricting private institutions’ power. Americans hit the streets for “One Trillion Dollar Day” – pointing out the day student loan debt was expected to surpass $1 trillion in the U.S.
Depending on the particular movement, Americans are calling for a halt in rising tuition, inflating student loan rates and a college education that is becoming less and less accessible. The potential is there for student loan interest rates to double if Congress does not act to alleviate an expiring debt program.
But Canada and the U.S. can only look from afar as Chile tackles public concern over inaccessible education. While talk outside of Chile has led to little more than negotiations and stump speeches, President Pinera has pushed reform through relatively easily. And as a former educator, Pinera brings understanding of Chile’s education system to reform talks.
Pinera was an economics professor at the University of Chile, one of Chile’s few publicly run universities, as well as two other private institutions. That background has provided Pinera with an understanding of the system and the direction of his reform.
From the prospective of the demonstrators, the beginning of reform is a long time coming. As of last August, students filled the streets in Chile with demonstrations that ranged from hunger strikes to fake suicides.
The protests were violent, as 1,400 people were arrested and a teenage boy was shot and killed. But what started last spring quickly became recognized as the largest protest against the Chilean government since the return of democracy decades prior.
The demonstrations began with sharp criticisms of what protesters described as a “segregated” college and university system that determined, by economic class, where students could attend school.
In an interview with PBS last year, former ambassador of Chile to the U.S. and senior fellow at Inter-American Dialogue, Genaro Arriagada said that access to education has grown in Chile and that enrollments have tripled since 1990, education quality has not kept pace with the demographics attending school.
“The richest go to the excellent universities and the poorest go to the third class universities,” Arriagada said. “Education is very segregated, from your birth until you become a professional.”