“Quien es usted?” (“Who are you?”)
“Soy estudiante!” (“I am a student!”)
“No lo escuché“ (“I didn’t hear you”)
“Soy estudiante!” (“I am a student!”)
“Una vez más?” (“One more time?”)
“Soy estudiante soy. Yo quiero estudiar, (“I am a student, I want to study,
para cambiar la sociedad” to change society”)
“Viva la lucha!” (“Long live the struggle!”)
As this, one of many student movement chants, thundered out from packed in Calle 45, Juan tried to explain to me what this particular protest was all about.
“That rat Santos made guarantees last year that he wouldn’t try to privatise the education system, after everyone rejected his reforms to Law 30. But he’s still trying to pass them, so we’re here to let him know that he can’t use backhanded and undemocratic means to get what he wants less than a year later. You want some paint balls?”
Throwing paint balls at riot police sounds like fun, but journalistic integrity suggests I leave him to it. He pulls his scarf over his face, throws his hood over his head and runs off to spray “A estudiar y luchar” (“to study and struggle”) on the window of a nearby branch of Banco Popular.
Some recent research and conversations have confirmed a dramatic rift between private and public education in Colombia. Under funded public universities like the Bogotá campus of Universidad Nacional de Colombia struggle with crumbling infrastructure and an interminable bureaucracy, receiving thousands of applicants every semester for courses (take Philosophy for example) that only have about 45 places available. Tens of thousands of would-be students miss out every semester across the country, having to settle instead for so-called “garage universities” and a nothing degree, or give up and get a Joe job.
Meanwhile, the numerous private universities (around five or six within several blocks of our house in La Candelaria alone) are relatively easier to enter academically, the majority of prospective students being filtered out by incredibly high tuition fees. In 2010 the average Colombian university degree cost around US$6000, and the most expensive was more than double that. The average Colombian GDP per capita was US$9200 in the same year. As a result, 52% of all Colombian university students come from the richest 20% of society, while the poorest 20% account for only 3% of students. To fix the economic disparity in this country higher education needs to become more affordable. And there’s only more students coming – 2011 data says that 30% of Colombia’s population is under 15 years of age, and the number of high school graduates increased 50% from 2002 to 2010. The problem of giving a university education to those who want it is only going to get bigger in coming years.
So what to do? Last year, in an attempt to find other sources of funding for education the government of President Juan Manuel Santos tried to reform Higher Education Law 30, to allow private companies to invest in and fund private education. Students, educators and a large percentage of the population rejected the plan outright, claiming it would lead to an increase in tuition fees and that universities would become like businesses, run at the lowest cost possible with little attention given to the actual quality of education provided. Concerns were raised that education was becoming a service, not a right. The law was ultimately defeated after mass protests and strikes, but now some students and educators are worried (text in Spanish) the government has now turned to undemocratic means to push through some aspects of last year’s proposed reforms. For this, they returned to the streets last Wednesday (text in Spanish) to remind Santos that yes, they’re still quite sure they don’t want their education system privatised.
The protest itself was characterised by a general sense of community and cheerful indignation. The majority of protesters were students from Universidad Nacional and other public institutions, but smaller numbers representing the private universities made sure their presence was felt. Students chanted “Santoooos! Santoooos!” every time they passed government buildings and there was always a beat of some kind going on. However, as the march passed along Carrera 7 through the more affluent northern section of the CBD, any signs of capitalism, perceived foreign imperialism or government offices became targets for rocks, paint balls and graffiti. Banks, car dealers and casinos locked their doors and stone faced employees looked on from inside as youths defaced and even smashed their windows. Riot police formed lines in front of government buildings, their shields pelted with paintballs as students danced out in front. People stood in front of their homes and businesses holding signs of support, and children running to the windows of their schools and kindergartens to wave were greeted warmly. The crowds swelled into the thousands as we neared Plaza Simón Bolívar, where a heavy police presence waited with a few hundred professors and educators, who had marched earlier in the day. A punk rock show started and for a while things looked like they might get out of control, but somehow it all calmed down as I left for a class.
Studying on exchange at Universidad del Rosario and taking Spanish at Universidad Nacional has made pertinent the differences between the public and private spheres, and the economic disparity that the current situation continues to exacerbate. Rosario is clean, efficient, with immaculate facilities and smart, middle to upper class kids who work hard because they know their parents are forking out big bucks for them to be there. Nacional is a chaotic, graffiti streaked hotbed of socialism where the kids are from all classes of society and earned their places by being the best out of hundreds, possibly thousands of applicants. My fellow students are the lucky ones – the question is those who can’t afford to study, and those who feel they may not be able to continue in a privatised system. Student and teacher organisations want to find an alternative solution to what is obviously a pretty big problem. The question is, will the government sit down and listen to them?