Camila Vallejo is leading the fight on education in Chile, and the eradication of the neoliberal approach that dictates her country’s higher education system. She is also a razor-sharp communicator, whether it’s with megaphone in hand or in her blog.
Activist and revolutionary: Vallejo is both of these things and more. Adept at getting her message across, she is spreading a populist manifesto that is listened to not only by the poor but also by the middle classes throughout Chile and beyond. She is empowering the young, and providing a voice for Chile’s student population. With her ever more iconic image, devout followers on the ground and over 300,000 on Twitter, she will only grow in popularity and stature both in South America and worldwide, with a position in Chilean politics surely in the offing.
‘Reform requires a first step,’ she proclaims. ‘To increase public spending on higher education, and measures that ensure resources are targeted effectively towards the development of a better quality of learning. Turning reforms into credit backs the logic that generates a huge debt hard to bear for students in Chile.’
In 2006, Vallejo entered the University of Chile to study geography. It was here that her connection to leftist politics was cemented. She became an active member of the Juventudes Comunistas de Chile (Chilean Communist Youth), and was a councillor on the University of Chile’s student union, becoming president in 2010. She was only the second female to hold the post in the union’s 105-year history.
Coming in from the cold
The 2011 Chilean protests – or the Chilean winter, as some analysts have called it – saw thousands of students demonstrating for educational reform, demanding more state participation and the end of a profit-based, business-driven model. The demonstrations sparked high levels of violence from the Chilean police and protesters, resulting in more than 900 arrests in one day alone.
No new universities have been built in Chile since the end of the Pinochet era (1990), even though there has been a gradual increase in student numbers. This, combined with high levels of inequality, have bred discontent among the young people of Chile, who face rising unemployment and one of world’s lowest levels of public funding for higher education, some of the longest degrees and no comprehensive system of student grants or subsidised loans.
The protests ignited an instant political reaction, prompting a cabinet reshuffle and the replacement of education minister Joaquín Lavín. The Chilean coalition, La Concertación, famed for overthrowing Pinochet, has felt the effects of the youth movement, and its approval ratings have dropped significantly. Sebastián Piñera, Chile’s president and a billionaire businessman, has also seen his popularity dented, according to local opinion polls.
Vallejo recently declared: ‘Education is a fundamental aspect of human growth, and the main catalyst for the development of humanity in general.’ The demands of Vallejo and her followers include increased state support for public universities, which currently finance their activities mostly through tuition. They are also pushing for more equitable admissions procedures to the prestigious universities, with less emphasis on the Prueba de Selección Universitaria standardised test. The movement does not want small changes, but an overhaul of the whole system they feel is currently failing students.
The Chilean student movement values longevity and sustainability before profit and promotes revived and dignified politics. They see the current regime constantly playing to big business and economic groups, and neglecting the needs of the impoverished or the working classes. Vallejo states in her blog: ‘Education contributes to achievement at all levels of the nation: economic, cultural, social, political and spiritual. Putting it at the service of private interests and power groups makes it a tool of domination. Placed in the hands of the people and for the use of society as a whole, it is a weapon of emancipation.’
Vallejo’s ideas and ethos are simple: they start with education and finish with education. She projects a vision for the future that benefits the majority, not the minority. Her aim is to cut through the euphemisms and in-house rhetoric of the politicians and revolutionise the way young people harness knowledge and power in Chile.
The movement’s vision is for the Chilean government to recognise education as a universal right, and as a fundamental social investment in the harmonious development of the country and its strength as a democracy.