POLITICS

No free education, former Chilean president says of student protesters

06/05/2012 04:11 EDT | Updated 08/05/2012 05:12 EDT
OTTAWA - There's no such thing as a free education, former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos said Tuesday about the ongoing student protests in his own country and in Montreal.

Lagos, Chile's leader from 2000-2006, said a government has only two choices to cover the cost of post-secondary education: either raise taxes or increase tuition fees.

He was asked about the Quebec student protests after a speech in Ottawa at the International Development Research Centre. Chile has seen its own wave of student protests over the last year.

Lagos noted that Quebec students pay some of the lowest tuition fees in Canada.

"At the very end, there is no free education. Education has to be paid," he said.

"The question is: is it going to be paid through taxes that all of us are going to pay or is it going to be paid by those that are going to school after high school?

"This is a discussion that we already had in Chile. When students are asking for free education, what they are saying is, 'Look, we would like to have education financed through taxation.'"

Montreal's streets have been filled nightly for the last month and a half with protests against the proposed tuition rate hikes in Quebec. The province wants to increase tuition to colleges and universities by up to $1,624 over seven years.

Chilean students face a much tougher situation.

In Chile, students can pay as much as $1,000 a month for programs that last an average of six years. If Quebec's fee increase went ahead, it would cost students $3,800 per year.

Chile's student movement nearly ground the country's major cities to a halt last year, and the demonstrators returned in force in mid March to renew their grievances.

Chile has seen impressive economic growth as its post-secondary student population has climbed five-fold since 1990 to more than 1 million. But Chilean students face onerous tuition requirements that force its growing middle class to take out loans, which are fuelling large debt.

The current education protests in Chile have hammered the popularity rating of President Sebastian Pinera.

Lagos enjoyed a staggering 70 per cent popularity rating when he left office six years ago. It was the culmination of a political career that began in the 1980s when was an ardent opponent of former dictator Augusto Pinochet, who originally privatized Chile's education system.

During his six years in power, Lagos oversaw policies that reduced poverty, extended social services and broadened trade. He has been credited with Chile's transformation to a middle income country.

Lagos cited the rising expectations of his country's growing middle class as an underlying factor in the current student unrest. And he noted that his government created the borrowing system that has helped more Chilean families send their children to university.

"Those that were making most of the noise last year in Chile was this new emerging middle class because they couldn't afford to pay tuition," he said.

"I say, look, I did what I could do because I was unable to increase taxes. I don't think it is correct to say you will have a free or fully paid education because, at the end, everybody has to pay for that."

The current Chilean government has said it will raise about $700 million in taxes for education, but students say that is not enough.