The similarities between protesting students in Quebec and Chile are striking, but not nearly so much as the differences.
Some of the student leaders in Quebec and Chile are glamorous and eloquent, and some of them seek radical social change beyond the changes to university tuition fees they’re after. Also, in Quebec and Chile, protesters like to bang pots and pans. (Chileans thought of it earlier.) And the large demonstrations in both places have brought civic life to a halt.
But there’s good reason for the Chilean students to make noise. In Quebec, there isn’t.
Students in Chile pay roughly $3,400 a year in university tuition, in a country where the average household income is $8,500. For Quebeckers to pay the same proportion, their tuition fees would have to be $25,000. Instead, they pay $2,500 a year. In other words, for every dollar paid by a Chilean student and his or her family, Quebec students pay 10 cents.
And Chile is one of the world’s most unequal societies. That inequality is reinforced by tuition fees that put 75 per cent of university costs on the shoulders of students. Only 40 per cent of Chilean young people go to free public high schools, a sign of the damage to public education done decades ago by the dictator Augusto Pinochet, and never fully undone by the democratic leaders who followed. In Quebec, Premier Jean Charest has promised increased bursaries for low-income students so they would be untouched by tuition hikes.
What is the fight in Chile about? The students demand wider access to education as a means of creating a more meritocratic society. What is the fight in Quebec about? A group of students refuses to contribute a small extra share to their own education – though wide access isn’t threatened. It is a fight over a symbol. The Quebec government’s planned increase of $325 a year for five years, later amended to $219 a year for seven years, is neither large enough to affect access nor – let’s face it – to give a substantial boost to university revenues. The fight in Chile is over real access and equity.
Now, talks have collapsed between the Quebec government and students. The students insist that their four-month “strike” has won them the right to have their own way. Quebec students should look to Chile for a little perspective.