Students and staff at Colombia’s public universities announced an indefinite general strike after holding a series of massive marches and rallies throughout the country Wednesday, which saw over 100,000 Colombians demanding more resources for the country’s public universities.
“The student councils of the public universities have declared themselves in a national indefinite strike. Professors are in permanent assemblies, thus the universities are in an anomalous academic situation,” Edgar Varela, director of the University of El Valle in Cali, said.
Nelson Alarcon of the Colombian Federation of Education Workers (Fecode) announced the union will join the strike until the government responds to the students and the education sector’s demands.
President Ivan Duque announced the government will assign half a billion pesos to public higher education, however, this figure doesn't cover the $3.2 billion pesos needed for the sector's most immediate financial needs, including salaries and deteriorating infrastructure.
Duque said Wednesday they have made an immense effort to release the funds but confirmed the government is missing resources.
“I understand the anguish and demands of our young people and we have made efforts with conviction,” he said in an official statement.
The Colombian Congress will have to end debate on the 2019 budget by Oct. 20, and those who marched in defense of public education hope their efforts will get the necessary budget to keep public universities running.
Despite the fact that the budget for higher education is higher than the budget for defense, students have called for further cuts to the Defense Ministry's budget and an end to the policies of war in Colombia.
“Stop investing in an unjust war, a war that is not worth it. That is why we march today,” a Colombian student told local media.
Varela is concerned that the extra resources will be given to the Ministry of Education to be distributed, not necessarily to public universities. “We want the resources for the 32 public universities of the country, not to higher education, because then what happens is what has happened before, the Ministry of Education takes the money and gives it to private universities.”
Two major complaints are that the financial resources that should go to public universities have been given to private schools through programs like Ser Pilo Paga (Being Smart Pays) through which Icetex, Colombia’s student loan agency covers the cost of education for Colombians that meet the requirements.
The directors of the State University System has expressed their disagreement with the continuity of the program.
According to several sources, the national budget is given to Icetex for scholarships and student loans mostly benefiting private universities that receive vast amounts of money that could help finance Colombia’s high-quality public universities.
“The person who doesn’t jump wants privatization,” protesters chanted.
So far, the government has not announced changes to Icetex.
The financial crisis of Colombia’s public universities is a historic one that analysts and protesters link to Law 30, approved in 1992. Law 30 determined the budget for universities will be adjusted to inflation without taking into account the increase in the number of students, which has increased almost tripled.
During the national march, students played the drums, sang, danced but also formed long lines to shake hands with riot police and organized groups to clean graffiti left by other protesters. Indigenous communities also participated in the mobilizations.
“All students in public schools want a quality education and education has to be a right, not a privilege,” a high school student told local media during the march.