Santiago, May 9 - Tens of thousands of students marched in this Chilean capital and other cities in the country Thursday to renew demands for free, quality public education in their first demonstrations since Michelle Bachelet returned to the presidency in March.

Organised by the main organisations representing university and high school students, the mobilisation was aimed at re-invigorating a movement that captured global attention in 2011.

Bachelet, who previously governed Chile from 2006 to 2010, promised during the 2013 campaign to significantly overhaul an educational system that funnels state subsidies to private institutions even as public schools in poor areas struggle.

She also pledged to move in the direction of eliminating school fees, though at a measured pace.

The students, however, remain sceptical and want to hear more details of the centre-left administration's programme.

We know the government will not respond to us in a concrete way and that it will not attack the fundamental problem in education, which is its market logic, Lorenza Soto, spokesperson for the ACES association of secondary students, told Efe.

Education, she said, should be a social right.

Students leaders have come away from meetings with Education Minister Nicolas Eyzaguirre complaining of a lack of clarity in the government's position on what they see as the key issues: making education free and eliminating for-profit schools.

Naschla Aburman, president of the Universidad Catolica Student Federation, said the student organisations intend to be part of the process of designing the reforms.

Police estimated the size of Thursday's march in Santiago at around 40,000 people, while organisers gave a figure of 100,000.

Students also mobilised in the cities of Iquique, Calama, Copiapo, Valparaiso, Temuco, Valdivia, Osorno and Punta Arenas.

The demonstration in Valparaiso, where Chile's Congress meets, included student leaders-turned-lawmakers Camila Vallejo, Karol Cariola and Giorgio Jackson.

In 2011, Chilean college and high school students took to the streets in large numbers more than 40 times to press the right-wing government of President Sebastian Pinera to improve education.

The scale and persistence of the protests turned the leaders into national and -- in the case of the charismatic Vallejo -- international figures.

Students want the elimination of school fees, an end to for-profit universities -- technically illegal but able to operate thanks to loopholes -- and a reduction in the high cost of college, which forces many to take on crushing debt.

Chile's current educational regime is a legacy of the 1973-1990 dictatorship of the late Augusto Pinochet, who slashed government support for public schools and encouraged privatisation.



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