Chile striking students break off talks with gov't

AP News
Posted: Oct 05, 2011 9:51 PM
Chile striking students break off talks with gov't

Leaders of Chile's striking students broke off negotiations with the government Wednesday complaining of official intransigence over their demands for free public education.

Some indicated students would return their focus to the street protests and campus occupations that have paralyzed many universities and secondary schools for more than five months.

Camila Vallejo, spokeswoman for leaders of students at 25 state universities, said government officials showed "no real willingness to build a free public education, of quality and democracy for everyone."

Education Minister Felipe Bulnes said after more than four hours of talks the two sides "have made no major progress" because of disagreements on how much the government can do to provide free education for everyone. He said the government would form a commission of experts to examine the issue.

Tensions were high even before both sides sat down, after President Sebastien Pinera said he was sending a bill to Congress that would criminalize the students' protests and school occupations.

The call for free education is one of the key demands of student groups, along with an end to education aid to private schools. They also want the government to spend more to improve the quality of education.

College costs in Chile are considered the most expensive in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States. A student's family must contribute 85 percent of university expenses, while the government provides 15 percent. Only the poorest students get a nearly free education, through scholarships, grants and low-cost loans.

Pinera's government has said it cannot afford to provide such support for all students.

The government has urged the protesters to return to classrooms, warning that students could lose scholarships and places in school if classes do not resume.

Student leaders have rejected that demand, and have called another big protest march for Thursday in Chile's capital, Santiago.

"It seems important for us to get this off the table and transfer to citizens the responsibility for solving this conflict," said Alfredo Vielma, a secondary student leader at the talks.