David against Goliath? Media representations of a policy of tuition fee removal in a highly marketised society

The application of tuition fees in marketised higher education (HE) has altered the perception of HE from a public good to that of a privately paid commodity. However, the funding of HE and its impact remain topics of substantial debate. In this article, we examine how a public policy aimed at removing tuition fees for economically disadvantage students (Gratuidad in Spanish) is discursively represented in written media. The context is the Chilean HE system, deeply rooted in a neoliberal society. Drawing upon Fairclough’s Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) of media commentary, our findings reveal in the early stages of the reform hegemonic neoliberal discourses attempting to uphold the social order. A robust rejection of the reform is evidenced by discursively positioning Gratuidad as a faulty, ill-thought-out and mistrusted policy, portrayed as an obstacle to the pursuit of more equality. Later, once the reform was extended and more inclusive, our analysis uncovers notions of change. Discourses promoting collectivism, resisting market values, and challenging the individualistic view of HE as a commoditised entity, lead us to conceptualise Gratuidad as a social revolution promising a better future of Chilean society. Our scholarly contribution features media representations of a policy strongly opposing to a government funded HE in such neoliberal society. However, the empirical analysis also indicates that policy initiatives aimed at restricting market-driven ideologies in HE, a rather unorthodox approach in highly market-oriented contexts, may be interpreted as a countermovement to disembedded markets that perpetuates the neoliberal dogma within HE.