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Chile: Tunnels of Inequality

By CEID Admin, on 9 June 2017

STUDENT BLOG #3 | Inequalities, Poverty and Education Stream | June 9, 2017

By María Paz Alarcón

Why does inequality matter? Inequality of what? These are the usual questions I hear when speaking and discussing about inequality. When looking at a particular country’s data on inequality, we usually look at its GINI coefficient or the proportion of income accumulated by the highest and lowest percentiles located in the highest or lowest part of the distribution. When looking at inequalities in education, the eye is set on opportunities such as access, results among students from different countries, types of schools and households. These are often disaggregated by several characteristics, such as gender or ethnicity. All these indicators are indeed useful and necessary to improve educational opportunities, but I believe is time to have a deep look at the processes in which inequalities are embedded and how they impact peoples lives. As a Chilean, I have been a witness of a place where you can breathe inequality and segregation. Chileans might not have read international reports or know about inequality indicators, but when they travel through their cities, attend education and health services, and listen to how people speak differently, they note important differences. This recall other countries with strong inequality and segregation indicators, such as South Africa.

This segregation in education is linked with socioeconomic groups, which are concentrated in certain types of schools and areas. Segregation is strong in Chile. Through primary and secondary education these educational paths can be illustrated as separated tunnels with thick walls in which each group walk: the different realities don’t clash or meet that much. Only in Higher Education, and then only in certain Universities, some students from different backgrounds start to see each other, interact in classrooms and discover new realities. Data on higher education enrolment tell us that students from the lowest income backgrounds are significantly less-represented in higher education in Chile, but this gap has decreased in the last decades. Indicators on diversity do show improvements. But what I have observed and what I question is, do these students really see each other? What is happening with integration, process and interactions? Segregation and inequalities travel into higher education institutions and continue in different physical spaces. The topics of conversation, gestures, activities, places which student visit and their home realities are very dissimilar. When asked the question of which school they attended and which district they live in… will student be able to get along, understand each other, and truly see each other? The tunnel’s walls become transparent but might remain thick. In certain institutions, universities or careers, the phenomenon of “us-and-them” is strongly experienced by some, with, a sense of “I don’t belong here”. How much importance are we giving to these experiences in understanding forms of inequalities? How can discussion and social cohesion build up from here?

Inequalities re acknowledge to have a negative impact on economic growth, educational opportunities and a sense of community.  But much of this discussion sees inequalities as forms of inputs and outputs. The feelings, burdens, sense of voice, participation and belonging that people experience through educational processes, traveling between input and output, should be highlighted.  These experiences are things that people value. It is important for people to feel they belong, that they have voice, that they can relate and build community. I would like to make an invitation for us to start considering these effects on processes and experiences, as key to bring new perspectives on development and to eliminate barriers creating divisions. I hope that we can start to glimpse less parallel thick-wall tunnels, to then establish paths that cross and connect. In this way individuals can effectively see and understand each other.

As an MA student currently working in The Centre for Education and International Development (CEID) at UCL, I have been influenced by the work CEID has developed on social justice and equality, one of their five thematic areas, bringing debate on these complex issues and their intersections with other key themes. I’m looking forward to discussing perspectives on inequalities with the other participants at the CEID launch on Thursday 15th June 2017.

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María Paz Alarcón has worked in Chile contributing in the improvement of educational opportunities for disadvantaged groups by tutoring, developing educational projects and coordinating University affirmative-action initiatives. She is currently a student on the MA in Education, Gender and International Development at the UCL Institute of Education.

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