Moral Low Ground

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Igor I. Solar: Chilean Students Struggle Against Greed and Deception

Students of Universidad del Mar march in Viña del Mar protesting against fraud and corruption in U. del Mar. (Photo: QuintoPoder)

Students of Universidad del Mar march in Viña del Mar protesting against fraud and corruption in U. del Mar. (Photo: QuintoPoder)

The lasting protests of Chilean students claiming quality, not-for-profit education have nearly paralyzed Chile’s education system. This article describes one example justifying the battle of youths against corporate greed and government neglect.

“Universidad del Mar” (UDM), a private university based in the city of Viña del Mar, was founded in 1989. With an aggressive expansion plan, within a few years it extended operations to 15 branches in cities along the country. Complete with an inspiring motto in Latin “Ad Augusta Per Angusta” (Through difficulties to greatness), and the offer of ostentatious facilities, UDM managed to attract over 20,000 students (and their families) who were willing to get heavily indebted in order to pay for hefty tuition fees. Within a few years UDM became the third largest Chilean university in number of students enrolled.

The university had received accreditation by Chile’s National Accreditation Commission (CNA), and most of the teaching staff held post-graduate degrees; however, proficiency evaluation at national level demonstrated that 94 percent of the students from Universidad del Mar graded at the “insufficient” level. Moreover, a national ranking of universities published in 2011 ranked UDM 51 among 53 Chilean universities. Additionally, in 2012, the National Consumer Service (SERNAC) received against UDM the highest number of complaints (41/1000 students) of all universities, of which UDM attended to 7.1 percent, while ignoring 88.5 percent. Over time, students became aware that everything was a shameless fraud. The tuition rates were high. The quality of education was dismal.

On April 2012, Raul Urrutia was appointed by UDM owners as the new president. Fifty days later he resigned his post after finding out that the owners prioritized payments to their own real estate companies while maintaining a huge debt on salaries and pension contributions for academics and other university staff. It was also discovered that the university’s accreditation had been obtained through payments of hefty bribes to a UDM “consultant” who was also a member of the National Accreditation Commission.

The academic image of UDM crumbled. Investigations revealed that the university was a face for about 85 related companies, many of them in the real estate business, most of which belonged to the principal investors and controllers of UDM. The owners of UDM were also owners of the many buildings used by the university, which UDM rented at outrageously inflated values.

Other businesses, also owned by the UDM managers, included a large number of service providers ranging from property management, to maintenance, furniture sales, information technology, travel agencies, and so on. Money collected from the students, including public funds in the form of student subsidies (Indirect State Contribution), were being transferred to the pockets of UDM controllers through the related companies by paying for rentals and services at costs several times above market value.

Some high ranking UDM academics lacked the required credentials for the post they occupied. One such case was Tania González. Tania was a high school biology teacher who, through personal contacts at UDM, became the Head of the university’s Department of Health, supervising and teaching in the academic programs of Nutrition, Nursing, Physical Therapy, Speech Therapy, Paramedic and Midwifery Nursing. Ms. González had managed to obtain fake identity documents and a counterfeit University Diploma from Chile’s top university that certified her as a Medical Surgeon.

Once the irregularities and deceptions of UDM were discovered, most of the UDM principals, including the owners, the “UDM-CNA consultant” and the spurious Medical Surgeon, Head of the university’s Health Department, ended up in jail or under house arrest.

Chairs and benches block the access to the University building taken over by the students protesting corruption and profit-driven operation of Universidad del Mar. (Photo: Igor Solar)

Chairs and benches block the access to the university building taken over by the students protesting corruption and profit-driven operation of Universidad del Mar. (Photo: Igor I. Solar)

Obviously, the fraudulent UDM lost its deceitful accreditation. On December 2012, its legal status was revoked, the corporation was declared bankrupt, and a date was set for its termination. On January 2013, the students took over the university Headquarters (UDM-HQ) in Viña del Mar and since then they have maintained control of the facilities. Their demands are justified; however, there is little chance that they may be able to achieve a solution. They feel they are deceived victims of corporate greed and the lack of control and supervision of the government authorities over an educational system that for decades has allowed and often promoted the creation of illegitimate educational institutions, and the operation of those with a profit-driven mentality.

Although the occupation of the UDM-HQ continues, the initial commitment of the student leaders and supporters is slowly waning. Apparently, their resolve is gradually subsiding, now victims of disillusionment and despair. Their protests and the struggle for possible solutions seem to be coming to an end.

Igor SolarIgor I. Solar is a marine biologist and author from Valparaíso, Chile. He is a regular contributor at Digital Journal.

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