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Piñera names Harald Beyer as Chile’s new education minister

Santiago, Chile – 03/01/2012 – as published by The Santiago Times.

While CEP poll confirms a record-low 23% approval rate for rightist president.

Last Thursday President Sebastián Piñera turned to technocrat Harald Beyer to help steer the Ministry of Education into safer waters, after Felipe Bulnes resigned for “personal reasons.”
Beyer is the third person to assume the role of Education Minister since Piñera took office in March 2010 and succeeds Felipe Bulnes, who in turn took over the post from Joaquín Lavín amid fierce student protests last July.

An economist by profession, Beyer has been a consultant on educational matters for both the Piñera government and the former government of Michelle Bachelet, and served as coordinator of the education committee in a rightist think-tank called the Tantauco Group. Until his recent appointment, Beyer was the deputy director for the Center of Public Studies (CEP), a public opinion poll company in Chile also allied with rightist political groups.

Despite criticism that Beyer lacks a background in politics, the challenges that the new minister has inherited are not altogether unfamiliar to him.

In 2006 Beyer sat on the Presidential Advisory Council, convened by then President Michelle Bachelet, in response to student protests known as the “Penguin Revolution.”

Beyer’s work in the council and his involvement with the Council Rectors of Chilean Universities in 2008 has seen him dubbed an “education expert.”

For many, however, Beyer’s appointment gives credence to Dep. Osvaldo Andrade’s comment that Piñera’s government is rapidly becoming “a government of businessmen for businessmen.”  The Socialist Party president’s remark followed Piñera’s other cabinet appointment last week of Luis Mayol as the country’s Agricultural Minister.

Many student leaders also expressed concern that Beyer is an academic without political experience who will be unable to meet their demands for an end to Chile’s class-based education system.

Beyer’s think-tank background was lauded by President Piñera, however, who commended the new minister’s “non-traditional political experience” in an interview with Chilean daily La Tercera on Dec. 30, 2011.

Last week’s cabinet changes follow fast on the heels of a CEP poll that puts Piñera’s popularity at 23 percent, a record low since the country returned to democracy just over two decades ago.

No doubt a large part of Piñera’s unpopularity is connected to what is perceived as his government’s failure to enact educational reform: providing more state-backed scholarship money for poor students (thus enriching the banking community) rather than setting a course for free, quality  education for university students and for eliminating profit-making universities.

Still, for the moment, the student protests that dominated Santiago’s streets and Chile’s media in the second half of 2011 seem to have evaporated in the heat of the summer vacation.

The Universidad de Chile student federation’s (FECH) newly elected student leader, Gabriel Boric, who replaced protest leader Camila Vallejo (now the FECH’s vice president), said the movement would resume in March and that protesters would be taking the summer to develop new tactics.

This gives Beyer just a few month’s breathing space to plan his own strategy for dealing with the students and the more than 70 percent of the country supporting their demands.

Beyer said last week that although (former minister) Bulnes left many “tasks pending,” he believed that both students groups and the government must focus on shared goals.

“We have differences with the students on how to ensure quality and equity,” Beyer told the press when he took office. “But all parties are working toward these goals and – given that – I think it’s possible to reach agreements.”

In an article written for “Qué Pasa” magazine and republished on his think tank’s website, Bloomberg reported, Beyer advocated a greater use of income-assessed student loans to finance university education. One of Beyer’s first tasks in Congress, therefore, will surely be to advance on this front.

So far, student response has been generous to the new minister, despite the fact that Beyer’s firm stance against the elimination of education for profit is bound to make him an unpopular opponent.

Gabriel Boric welcomed Harald Beyer as someone who “cares about education” and Camila Vallejo (now vice-president of the University of Chile student federation) said students “would not be swift to judge a job that is a matter of the greatest importance.”

Still, Noam Titelman, the leader of the Universidad Católica student federation (FEUC) was less conciliatory when he told reporters: “What matters is not changing faces, but changing government policies.”

Beyer was quick to extend an invitation to student leaders to open up dialogue. Last Friday he offered leaders a meeting in response to a letter the movement delivered to the new minister. The student groups will decide later this week whether to accept the offer.

Chile’s people will be watching Beyer’s next moves carefully to see if he can be the man to deliver the changes demanded by students or whether, like Lavín and Bulnes that went before him, he is set to become yet another victim of the student protest movement.