Student Debt Burnt by Fried Potatoes

No story I've heard about student loans matches the one about the guy called 'Fried Potatoes.' You know, the direct action aficionado who erased half a billion dollars in student debt - as an art project!

It's a much more colourful version of Occupy's debt freedom project. Remember? When they bought people's student debt at the commercial price (5 or 10% of face value) and cheaply freed some lucky Americans from their heavy student loan debts? 

That was a great idea but, for sheer drama, it was topped by Francisco Tapia, Chile's new hero. (Tapia is a visual artist who goes by the name of Papas Fritas.)

Papas Fritas, which translates as Fried Potatoes, found some very special papers in the vault of Chile's notorious Universidad del Mar. Even though this 'university' had been closed for fraud by government regulators it had been allowed to keep squeezing its former victims for student debt payments.

That is, until Senor Fritas removed $500 million worth of original tuition loan documents - and burned them. (As an art project, these ashes are now on public display in a camper van, accompanied by video.)

Calling all visual artists, hmmm? 

Seriously, destruction of these documents and files won't technically erase the student debt. But Chilean lawyers say it will now be extremely difficult to prove the debt exists. Only by formally testifying in court and acknowledging the debt would students now be forced to pay, according to Chilean lawyer Mauricio Daza. Must be disappointing for the players behind this profiteering campus.  

Chile's student loan bonfire has been the most radical action in a 3-year campaign by students demanding free and improved public education. And change seems on the way at last.

A total of 4 former student leaders have just been elected to parliament under a new president, Michelle Bachelet. Aware of where her suport came from, Bachelet has outlined a multi-billion-dollar package of educational reforms. Incidentally, one of the new parliamentarians is Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo, who I blogged about last year.

As with the 'potatoes' project, Chile's May election was an upbeat ending for an extraordinary protest movement caused by the profit-driven collapse of public education.

Believe me, no matter how dramatic Quebec student protests over fees seemed to the "rest of Canada," they were nothing compared with the education war in Chile.

There, hundreds of universities and high schools were seized and occupied by teenage students demanding reforms. Students missed nearly a year of school in the process. 

So under the new government, Chile must clean up the mess caused when its former military dictators (Milt Friedman was their guru) gutted public education in favour of privatization that was very low on standards.

By all accounts, privatization a la Friedman was pretty much like "Want cash? Go rent a hall, issue pricey student loans and charge top dollar for your so-called education. The kids need degrees to get a job, so this is fish in a barrel."

So Chile is moving on from an experiment that has left massive student loan debt in its wake. How strange and sad that, at the same time, England is rushing to repeat Chile's mistakes.

England has embarked on the 'free-market' experiments Chile suffered from. It's doing this under a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government that (rather predictably) broke promises made to students before the last election.

The result has been rapid destruction of an education system that was once the best in the English-speaking world. Tripled university fees and removal of standards has caused a business stampede to create 'colleges' that aren't worth any more than a paper degree.

England's experiment has put students and taxpayers on the hook for massive student loan debt. After just a few years, this debt exposure has spiked unbelievably high. This will make a great excuse for the government to keep hacking critical services. 

In short, England's made-in-Chile plan is creating 'paper' universities supported by student loans. The results will haunt students and taxpayers alike.

Unless, that is, English grads find their own way to fry potatoes.

They - and their families and all others who value education - could start by following Chile in the opposite direction, just by electing a government worthy of the name.  

 © Jeannine Mitchell, 2014