Colombian Students Mobilise Against Education Reforms

William Lloyd George Oct 10, 2011

(Photo courtesy of It’s a quiet Monday afternoon in central Bogota. The usual police sirens can be heard in the distance and birds singing in the predominantly green city. Suddenly, the peace is broken. Whistling, explosions and chanting can all be heard in the distance. “Education for the masses,” chant the columns of colourful students as they make their way down to one of Bogota’s main roads.

Many of them, who look no older than twenty, hold placards calling for “Free education” and “No to privatisation”. At main roads, they block the traffic with whatever they can find, while businessmen look on, seemingly scared by the fiery procession. Alerted by potential trouble, scores of riot police sporting robotic attire run down to the protesters. Tanks later follow.

For hours, until darkness, the police and students battle it out, blocking one of the cities most important routes. Tear gas, water cannons, noise bombs are all used at an increasing level until the students finally disperse. “It is very dangerous for us,” one student, told Upside Down World, while wiping tear gas from his eyes. “But we have to do it, not for us, but for the future generations.”

Their sense of duty has come upon them following the potential education reforms, which would allow for profit making universities to be created. Following nationwide student protests in March against the reform, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos indicated that he would not introduce the reform. “The government accepts that maybe it is not the time to introduce the profit component, which maybe the environment isn’t quite ready for,” he said. Despite this statement, only weeks later the reform was introduced to congress, who will vote on whether it will be passed.

Having been told by Santos reforms would not take place only for it later to be introduced, students across the country are furious. Public universities in several of the major cities have gone on protest against the potential reforms, camping out in university centers and making plans to block off streets. Protests erupted in several major cities, some turning violent. As students battled it out on Thursday with riot police across the country, it is reported that over 20 people have been injured in the clashes.

As public universities across the country go on strike, thousands of students are discussing the next step on how to make sure the reform isn’t passed. The main focus of criticism for the reform is Law 30, which would break from the past and allow for private businesses to run schools for profit. At present, even the most expensive schools are not allowed to make a profit. Every peso they make has to be reinvested in the institution.

Taking a break from a hectic protest in Bogota, in which thousands of students blocked the ‘7th’, the city’s main road, Natalia Amado, a student leader, says they are not rebels. “We are not just protesting for the sake of it,” she says untying a colourful flag from her back. “Colombia needs decent public education so the masses can attend universities, it is their right.” She added that the introduction of profit-making universities would mean that the public universities would be neglected and important subjects like humanities would most likely be dropped for business-minded studies. “This would really damage our society,” she says.

According to Carlos Miñana, an anthropology professor at the National University in Bogota, the government should not introduce this law until they have sorted out public universities, which he says are in a mess. “The introduction of profit-making education worked in Brazil because first they made massive improvements in the public universalities,” he says, sitting behind his desk in the colourful university. He explains that the university’s budget is not enough to run the school. Many of the classes do not even have teachers. “In the sociology department there are only two teachers when there should be six, those two have to cover the other classes,” he says, providing an example.

University National, considered to be one of the most privileged and well-funded in the country, has taken a hit, while many across the county suffer even worse. According to Miñana, many of the professors spend most of their time trying to make money out of their class hours just in order to afford to teach. “They love teaching, so they work outside of the university so they can afford to. It should not be like that.” Many of the professors and students are furious with the government for even thinking about introducing for-profit universities without first improving the public education system, which many say is in a complete mess.

According to María Ortiz, a historian and former history student at the National University, one of the main sources of underfunding is due to lack of reforms since 1982. While the budget has increased with inflation, this is not enough. “It’s been over twenty years since we had a budget review, there are so many more demands than there used to be for education,” she says. “Now we need computers, more books and more technology than before.” The government has also increased the number of students the universities should take, without increasing the budget accordingly. While the reform does suggest a 3 percent increase in the budget, many believe that firstly this is not enough, and secondly, that some of this will go towards student loans, which could be used for private universities.

Many students and professors believe that the introduction of more student loan opportunities through private for-profit companies will only worsen the situation in Colombia. “Most the country is poor, they cannot afford to repay loans, with high interest rates set by private companies,” says Ortiz. “These loans are not designed to help educate people, but they are designed to make profit.” She also says it is unlikely they will function as they do in other countries, where you don’t have to repay until you are earning a certain amount. She pointed to the high unemployment among youth in Colombia, stating that even after they study many students will not be able to repay their loans and will be stuck in poverty.

However, according to Colombian education minister, María Fernanda Campo, an increase in student loans will help more poor people to get higher education. She told local newspaper El Espectador, that the rates of interest would be regulated and subsidized, allegedly removing the dangers of the loans becoming heavy burdens. In the interview she said that the education ministers were against the introduction of profit-making universities and had taken Law 30 out. She also said that they proposed increasing resources in stages and supported the autonomy of universities. “This project will allow in the next four years more than 640,000 new young graduates who are graduating, and the youth who would not have had access, have access to higher education,” said Campo.

On Friday afternoon, amid growing discontent by students who believe the government will later include the for-profit law, Santos said he was completely behind the reforms. “Failure to pass this reform would be the worst news for the education of Colombia,” he said. Santos said that they will invest more than 11 billion pesos in higher education in the next 10 years. “We owe it to the youth! In the past eight years, 3 million of them did not have the opportunity to study higher education or, what is equally sad, is many had to drop out,” said Santos.

Despite assurances from Santos and Campo few are convinced. “We believe it is a lie when they say they withdrew the profit motive in order to give more resources,” said the spokesman for the Federation of University Students, Jairo Rivera. “We must not lift the strike until we are sure they have removed the draft,” he said, adding that it is very easy for them to add Law 30 later on, as has been done many times before. “It is true there will be more resources for universities, but still the amount is insufficient with respect to the goals set by the Government because they set the level at 600,000 new student places when in fact it will only reach 20,000.”

While the mistrust remains between the students and the government, it is expected that the university strikes will continue, as will the protests. Speaking over g-chat, an anonymous student leader told Upside Down World. “They say one thing, then they do something else, how we can trust them,” he said. “The protests are just going to increase and I expect things will get ugly.” During the protests the police often clash with students and in the past students have disappeared, never to be seen again. “They always accuse us of being guerillas to get rid of us, but we are just trying to improve our country,” the student leader said.

The conflict between the left-wing guerillas, the FARC, and the state military and right-wing paramilitaries, has long complicated student protests and the operating of universities. During the 1980s, before the reform was adopted promoting university autonomy and the prohibition of military or police, there would often be a soldier in each classroom monitoring the teaching activities. Since then, police are no longer inside but it is clear that the mistrust and suspicions remains. Outside every university there are always groups of police.

The government has long blamed the FARC for infiltrating universities and inciting protests and violence. However, this has long been used an excuse for the targeting of leaders and dismissing genuine and important demands. During the protests on September 7, hooded, and masked protesters sprayed FARC slogans all down the main street, on shop fronts. However, as one student told Upside Down World, “These are just a few out of tens of thousands of students across the country,” she says while dancing at a traffic light. “Just because there are a few, does not mean the government can ignore the demands of an entire nation of students who do not like the FARC, but just want high quality education for future generations.”

On Friday the Colombian police force released a statement claiming that the FARC had infiltrated the recent student protests. They allege that a 35-year-old Argentinian man called Facundo Molares, alias “Camilo” or “El Argentino”, who arrived in Colombia in 2002 is in charge of the FARC’s operations to infiltrate the student movement. On Monday the government arrested ten people for allegedly supporting the FARC. Eight of them were students while the other two were professors.

In the past professors have been ordered to – and voluntarily – hand over lists of suspected FARC supporting students, to the notorious right wing Paramilitaries. This has led to leaders being assassinated for appearing “too left-wing”. And in a country where trade unions are not tolerated, countless union leaders have been murdered for standing up for worker rights. These assassinations are often excused by claiming the victims were FARC supporters and the perpetrators act with impunity. “Colombia is one of the most dangerous places in the world to stand up for your rights,” says Luis Alberta Vanegas, a human rights expert at trade union CUT. “Even the government has been involved in the killing of union and student leaders, just because they are standing up for their rights does not make them guerillas.”

According to student leader Amado, the students are just trying to make sure that education in the country is not destroyed. “We are not student rebels, protesting to make chaos. Like in Chile, we are trying to save education in our country,” she says. In Chile students have been protesting for months against high costs of for-profit universities, and against one of the lowest levels of government spending on higher education in the world. The protests have gained fast momentum and quickly decreased the popularity of president Sebastian Pinera.

In an online vote on Colombia’s main newspaper, El Tiempo, 67 percent of the country voted against the reforms.

Despite the Colombian government pushing ahead with the reform regardless of public opinion, it is clear the protests will not go away. The students are angry, and want to make sure public education is improved before for-profit universities take over. A nationwide march has been organised for October 12 and if the government shows no signs of compromise, or proof that for-profit higher education will definitely not be introduced, the protests could easily end up turning into nationwide strikes. “What you are seeing in Chile now, will definitely happen in Colombia if they the government does not definitely remove Law 30,” says a student. “But it will be ten times worse here.”

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