A few days ago, I visited a high school in a poor urban area in Western Santiago and met with the junior and senior classes to discuss the student movement of 2011 in Chile. “What were the mobilized youth demanding?” I asked the students in the San Alberto Hurtado School. “Did they succeed?” The questions were relevant enough to keep the students engaged. They voiced their opinions and argued for a while, beating the somnolence induced by the heat and the preceding lunch. As I left, my thoughts went to Pink Floyd: these kids, many of whom had joined the protest the previous year, did not want to become just another brick in the edifice of a market economy. They wouldn’t have any trouble joining the labour market upon graduation—this was a trade school, after all, where kids were trained in culinary arts and in telecommunications—or after college, for those who would continue into higher education. But they were no longer content to be just a manual or intellectual labourer in the machinery of a capitalist economy.

Why were high school and higher education students protesting in the streets for so long and in such great numbers? After all, the street rallies often involved 100,000 people, week after week, and the strikes went on for so long that thousands of high school students failed to advance and had to repeat grades, and universities had to extend the term well into the summer to prevent their students from losing a whole semester. What could possibly have caused such an indignant reaction? The juniors and seniors of the San Alberto Hurtado School said the students had demanded an educational system of quality for all, not just the affluent, and wanted higher education to be free of tuition fees. They said that the students didn’t like the municipal control of public schools installed during the years of the Pinochet regime, and proposed instead to restore the role of the central government (the national Ministry of Education) in the governance and administration of public schools. The kids also brought up the issue of “democratization,” or the demand for student participation in school governance, especially critical at the higher education level. They also demanded that public universities had to be appropriately funded so that they could carry out their social mission. But was all this enough to fuel a social movement of such scale?

When it was my turn to weigh in, attempting an explanation of the forces propelling the demonstrations, I reminded the assembly that behind these complaints were two glaring wounds in the Chilean social compact: extreme inequality across social strata, and an educational system that couldn’t be counted upon to provide opportunities for a better life to those disadvantaged by inequality. While economists are in disagreement about the degree of intergenerational social mobility in Chile, the feeling of the people, especially among the youth marching in the streets last year, is that inequality in Chile is not only great, but has been persistent over time, and that our poor-quality, unregulated, underfunded, market-driven educational system is to blame.

Another very important battle cry of the movement evoked during my session at San Alberto Hurtado School was, “No more profit!” In Chile, private K-12 schools, as well as non-university tertiary institutions, can organize themselves as business corporations. In the case of universities, although the law requires that they be non-profit charities, most, in fact, shirk the law and generate economic surpluses that find their way to the founders of the university and their successors through shell companies. Protesters strongly denounced such arrangements—both the legal and the illegal profiteering—as profoundly misguided, and were clear in their belief that “education can never be a business.”

In the media, representatives of the striking university students had also articulated their concerns about the subjugation of education to the demands of the economy. The need for universities to seek most of their funding through tuition fees as well as consulting, training, research and development services provided to paying customers was decried as a distortion of the mission of the university, from serving the good of the whole to serving the requirements of those who could pay. The design of curricula based on the demands of labour markets and the transformation of education into job training were similarly offered as examples of what was wrong with higher education in Chile.

While not apparent among the kids I was visiting this time, analysts pointed out that the protests signaled a malaise that extended across the nation and went beyond education to a deep frustration with the characteristics our society has adopted since the neoliberal reforms of the early 1980s. The outcomes are clear: individualistic pursuit of wealth; trust displaced by contracts; blatant materialism and consumerism (even among those who can hardly afford it, leading to stifling debt); spatial segregation of the poor into ghetto-like districts in all major cities while the rich and the upper-middle-class enclose themselves in gated communities; privatized education, pensions, health care. All of this points to an every-man-for-himself society where solidarity, the quest for the common good, and shared responsibility for the well-being of everyone are completely absent.

This discontent explains the protests’ singular strength of numbers; the determination of purpose among the students in the face of police repression and the looming prospect of losing the academic year; ample social support of the cause across age groups and social conditions; and wide scope of the demands of the student movement (extending to items such as a constitutional convention and the nationalization of mining resources).

This dimension of the phenomenon was, by the way, what turned the student movement into international news. Chile, its educational woes, and the marching students would not have been of interest were it not for the fact that Chile is the marquee country for successful neoliberal reforms, a full member of the OECD touted by the World Bank and other development agencies as an exemplar of a well-managed economy and sound social policy. It is also a stable democracy with one of the most reliable rule of law environments in the region. For all whose political hearts are located to the left of the current political economy orthodoxy, a stumble in Chile’s seemingly unstoppable trajectory to development by way of neoliberalism is exciting news. In the context of similar mass expressions of rejection of the tenets and outcomes of this orthodoxy, like the indignados in Madrid, or Occupy Wall Street in New York, Chileans could be seen as joining in a world-wide denunciation of global capitalism.

But the expansion of the movement to embrace the different manifestations of this diffuse discontent became its undoing. As the movement gained social support and became a political and communications juggernaut various items in the left’s wish list—at best, only marginally related to education—were added to the agenda. This ultimately eroded the legitimacy of the overall movement to the detriment of its education-related goals. As the movement became a catalyst for all grievances, from education to the environment, the gain in size came at the expense of a loss in focus and in the ability to present a coherent message to society and an actionable set of demands to the government.

The blurring of the education-focused purpose of the movement, joined with other factors to undermine the movement. A collective mode of decision-making bogged down leadership with intractable and opaque internal disputes and made it look radical and unreasonable. The government adopted a clever delaying strategy, betting on natural attrition and the dissolving effect of the end of the academic year, and the change of leadership of most student unions at year’s end(which displaced Camila Vallejo, the enormously charismatic president of the student federation at the University of Chile) to erode momentum. And they were right; all of these factors conspired to wind down the movement and bring it to an end, although scattered, weaker manifestations of it have emerged during 2012 as well.

Now, back to the assembly room in the San Alberto Hurtado School. I had asked them what their opinion was with respect to the degree of success of the student movement. Did it achieve anything? Was it worth the tremendous effort? The students in the assembly room were divided. Some pointed to the increase in student aid, and the easing of the financial conditions for repayment of college loans. I brought up the government’s bill to create a higher education agency responsible for protection of students’ rights and the enforcement of the non-profit status of private universities. There was also the initiative to revamp and strengthen accreditation as a means to quality assurance in schools and in higher education, and a new program by the government to invest in the improvement of schools of education in universities.

There was much beyond policy measures that was gained by the installation of education and its problems center stage in the political and policy agendas, in the agenda of the media, and in the consciousness of educators, school administrators, faculty, the teachers’ union, and society at large. Typically, the health of an educational system is a matter of great importance to all, but of little urgency for most. Last year’s protests over education highlighted its importance and at the same time turned it into an urgent problem.

Unlike the students in Roger Waters’ song, Chilean students need an education. They need good quality universities and colleges, whether they were born amidst privilege or in abject poverty. Perhaps the single-most important outcome of last year’s protests is that now they are aware of this need, they understand why this is a need, and they are prepared to demand it as a right.

Andrés Bernasconi is a professor of higher education at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Previously he was Provost at Universidad Andrés Bello, also in Chile.