18 October 2011

CHE Reports from Santiago

image courtesy of The Chronicle of Higher Education

No, not Guevara (although I imagine he'd support the movement), but rather The Chronicle of Higher Education. An article in today's CHE examines the intricacies of the prolonged conflict over high tuition costs that lead to heavy personal debt (sound at all familiar to any current happenings in the US?). The article is fascinating for a variety of reasons. Not least of all is its framing of the concerns in contemporary Chilean higher education (which in many ways seem to be a microcosm of larger, global higher education topics). The article also builds nicely upon (or is, at the very least, tangential to) much of what Jordan has been writing about in his blog.

It doesn't really serve for me to recap the article in its entirety (in fact, I suggest we all read the article before meeting on Thursday morning; it's relatively short, very informative, and incredibly pertinent -- great for reading during a mid-afternoon coffee break), but I do want to draw your attention to a few key areas. CHE reporter Andrew Downie focuses a lot of effort (understandably so) on explaining the origin of the ongoing protests. Attempting to explain the impetus behind the protests, Downie states,
The question of why such protests have erupted in Chile, the country that is by many measures the most advanced in South America and the one that spends most on education, might seem perplexing to outside observers. The answer, say experts, is in the question: The unrest is precisely because of the country's leap forward.
Despite the money spent on education, many Chileans are criticizing the lack of reform in higher education. Indeed, these apparent leaps have been more closely resembled unimpassioned hops. Describing what he calls a "Failed 'Revolution,'" Downie explains,
The seeds of protest were sown in December, when the education minister said the government would begin a "revolution" in higher education. Previous governments had avoided higher-education reform, preferring to concentrate on elementary and secondary education, and the announcement was a welcome surprise to many. 
But when the government finally revealed only timid reforms, in May, there was widespread disappointment, says José Joaquin Brunner, who is one of Chile's most respected professors and education researchers.
While there are many variables at play in this social movement, the reporting about and from Chile emphasizes the widespread public support behind the protests.
Many shops, banks, and stores are boarded up for security, but the students retain widespread support from ordinary Chileans, with the polls consistently showing more than 70 percent backing their cause.
No matter how unreliable public polling may be, this is a significant point to keep in mind while reviewing the remainder of the article (and generally contemplating the movement). With so much popular support, one might assume the protests would lead to a swift sea change in Chilean higher education; remedying many of the earlier, yet still inchoate, reforms. Well, yes and no. The article concludes on a positive (albeit cautious) note:
If nothing else, the conflict has made reform now seem unavoidable. But a resolution could still be months away, and there is widespread concern that students will lose this academic year entirely. That would put hundreds of thousands of degrees into question and perhaps even threaten the survival of some universities, particularly the less wealthy ones, in the provinces. Neither the students nor the government is likely to end up satisfied, but most people believe the overall outcome will be positive.
This fuzzy optimism seems particularly important for each of us (as socially and intellectually engaged travelers  with particular observational focus on Chilean higher education) to consider. Although it is difficult to accurately forecast the path of the protests or the route to reform, these topics will undoubtedly be on the public's mind when we visit Chile in January. It serves well for each of us to be as knowledgeable as possible, while still remaining intellectually open (i.e. not to rush to judgement based upon preconceived notions resulting from foreign reporting, media bias, presumptions regarding the nature of social protest, lack of cultural context, etc.). Just one of the many topics to keep on the critically conscious radar before, during, and after our immersive whirlwind tour of Chilean higher education.

Still interested (I hope so)? Here's a brief archival selection of CHE coverage of related issues in South American higher education: