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SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Thousands of students marched in Chilean cities on Tuesday to demand improvements to the nation's higher education system, as lawmakers prepared to debate planned reforms.

The demonstration was the first of the southern hemisphere academic year, and there were isolated skirmishes with police in the downtown area of Chilean capital Santiago.

Student protesters argue that attempts by centre-left President Michelle Bachelet to improve quality and access to higher education have been insufficient. Reforms by her government to date do not provide enough Chileans with free university education, they say. They also complain that the government did not seek their advice when drafting legislation.

"I don't know if the government is playing stupid. You can't legislate without listening to the social movements," Daniel Andrade, head of the University of Chile student union, told journalists.

The action demonstrates the difficulties Chile's next round of leaders will have in maintaining popular support in a nation where confidence in politicians is low.

In November, Chile holds presidential elections. The current frontrunner, conservative Sebastian Pinera, has indicated that he will roll back recent educational reforms if elected, preferring a system of scholarships to free tertiary education for poorer students.

That will likely put him on a collision course with the student movement.

Pinera served as president from 2006 to 2010 but saw his approval ratings plummet after a series of massive student-led demonstrations against Chile's highly privatised education system.

The education committee in Congress' lower chamber is due to vote later Tuesday on a bill that would lower costs for some students and limit profit-making in education. However, its chances of becoming law in Chile's divided parliament are tenuous.

(Reporting by Gram Slattery and Fabian Cambero, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Cynthia Osterman)

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