SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Thousands of students marched in Chilean cities on Thursday to denounce what they say is profit-making in higher education, in the first major protest under the month-old administration of conservative President Sebastian Pinera.
The marches, attended by students and professors, follow a recent decision by the country's constitutional court to overturn a law that prohibited for-profit companies from controlling universities.
Profit-making from higher education is illegal in Chile. But critics have long claimed that some companies that operate universities have found ways to exploit loopholes in the law, allowing them to turn a profit without re-investing the money in reduced tuition or improved education.
"We would prefer to be in the classroom...but unfortunately, we can't do it with dignity because there continues to be profiteering (in education) in Chile," said Sandra Beltrami, a spokeswoman for the students.
Banging drums, toting banners and sometimes throwing rocks and blocking traffic, students marched through downtown Santiago, occasionally sparking small confrontations with police, who used tear gas to disperse the protesters.
The protest was the first under Pinera, a conservative billionaire and ex-president whose first term between 2010 and 2014 was marred by massive student protests seeking an education overhaul.
Earlier this week, Pinera sent a bill to Chile's Congress to increase public financing for technical colleges and promised that access to free higher education was "here to stay," a move seen as intended to defuse tensions with students.
(Reporting by Dave Sherwood and Antonio De la Jara, writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)