Chile vows to fight on with education reform after court setback

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Chile’s center-left government pledged on Friday to continue with its plan to give free university tuition to the poorest students, despite a court ruling that aspects of its education reform bill were unconstitutional.

Chile's President Michelle Bachelet speaks at the start of a meeting at the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, New York, September 27, 2015. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

On Thursday evening, the South American country’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the bill, currently in Congress, was “discriminatory” because it only granted free tuition to students attending certain, mostly state-run, universities.

The ruling creates another headache for the government, which is already up against the clock to get a swathe of reforms passed before the summer recess.

Improving access to higher quality schooling has been the center plank of President Michelle Bachelet’s drive to lessen inequality in Chile, one of Latin America’s most developed economies.

The disputed bill, one of a number that form part of her wider education reform package, seeks to ensure that in 2016 around 50 percent of students will benefit from free tuition, worth a total of nearly $800 million.

But right-wing opposition lawmakers argue that granting the benefit only to students attending certain colleges and excluding many privately run universities was discriminatory, and the court agreed.

Bachelet said in response that the government would not be defeated on making the changes that it regards as essential to ensure that “nobody deserving should be excluded from attending university because they can’t pay for it”.

“I am personally going to take charge of identifying the best alternatives so that within the legal and budgetary restraints as many students as possible can receive free education,” she said.

Cabinet spokesman Marcelo Diaz said on Friday that the government “had alternatives” but did not elaborate.

Those could include extending the benefit to include students at more institutions, directly supporting some state colleges, or the use of scholarships.

Reporting by Rosalba O’Brien and Antonio de la Jara; Editing by Sandra Maler