Venezuela: More Universities, Less University Education

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

Venezuela’s higher education system, comprised of established public universities and a “revolutionary” parallel system established under former president Hugo Chavez, is going through a very severe crisis. The government-controlled “revolutionary” universities were never academically or economically viable, and the more traditional autonomous universities face a severe faculty exodus that has left some departments all but deserted. Those who have stayed find it hard to even pay for transit to lecture or attend classes.

How did we get here? The roots of the crisis afflicting Venezuelan universities precede the current turbulence affecting the country, and are intertwined in the national politics of the last two decades.

Chavismo’s Impact on Public Universities

When Chávez was elected Venezuelan president in 1998, several of the civilian leaders of his political movement were graduates from Venezuela’s public universities and some were even professors at those schools. Higher education had expanded dramatically in the twentieth century in Venezuela, as in other Latin American countries. Until the end of the century a degree from a public university Venezuela was considered a passport to upward social mobility.

But higher education also became regressive over the years. Although public higher education was nominally free of charge, for many poor young Venezuelans the opportunity cost of not working in order to attend a university had become too high by the end of the past century. Also, admission to the top public universities was based on high school preparation and entrance exams. From the early 1980’s on, a severe economic recession had gravely affected public services, including education at all levels. Academic standards at public secondary education dropped and the share of private high school graduates that gained entranced to public universities increased.

Although some well-off Venezuelans preferred to attend private universities and avoid the political turmoil at public colleges, many more registered at the still most prestigious schools in the country, such as the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), La Universidad de lo Andes (ULA), or the top basic sciences and engineering school, the Universidad Simón Bolivar (USB) – all public institutions.

Public universities themselves had made important efforts to tackle the unintended regressive character of the system since the 80s. Most offered important provisions to poorer students, including meal plans and transport, so they could attend classes. Some set up forms of affirmative action programs and offered remedial courses to public high school students so they would not drop out in their first year because to lack of academic preparation. And despite critic’s claims that the top schools had become ivory towers aloof from the concerns of everyday Venezuelans, public universities over the years made important scientific, medical, and humanistic contributions to the country.

Still, there is no denying that the public education system was losing strength as an upward social ladder and that many were being excluded. Chavismo, as a political movement, considered that public universities had become too elitist and wanted and transform the Venezuelan higher education system to make it more inclusive. But the top five national public universities enjoyed, as in other Latin American countries, a constitutionally granted autonomy that went well beyond academic freedom. They controlled budgets allocated to them by the central government, elected their own leadership, and police was not even allowed to enter campus without a special permission from those authorities.

Universities used their autonomy to resist Chávez’ reform efforts, many of which they rightfully regarded as ideologically tinted and impinging upon academic freedom. Chavismo was never a popular force inside public universities, even during the initial years of his government; when Chávez swept national elections after elections, his student and faculty supporters lost in almost every university internal elections. Chavismo gradually gained control of all public institutions, but public universities resisted and became hotbeds of opposition activism.

A Parallel System

After several frustrated attempts to electorally gain control of the main public universities, the government decided on a two way course: the creation of a new mammoth parallel university system it could control, and the stagnation of the budget allocated to established autonomous universities.

In 2003 Chávez officially created the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela (UBV), now the largest university in student body size in Venezuela. In the years that followed, more that 30 new universities would be opened. Some were simply the mergers of pre-existing public institutions, such as arts schools or military academies, now rebranded as fully-fledged universities. But several, such as the UBV were truly new schools that followed closely, or even exclusively, the ideological revolutionary agenda set by the government. By 2014 the government claimed that more than two million Venezuelans were registered as university students.

As this parallel system grew, autonomous universities languished. Even before the recent hyper-inflation and migration crisis that has significantly reduced students and faculty numbers, professor’s salaries had been frozen and student provision cut. Labs, libraries, and research facilities were left unfunded and many were forced to close.

But the parallel system created by the government was in no position to carry the academic torch left by the collapse of the old system. The universities created by the government not only lacked autonomy or academic freedom, they were hastily established and most did not have the basic infrastructure to even qualify as schools. Curricula were burdened with ideological courses, even in careers such as medicine or engineering. Faculty was overwhelmingly comprised of part-time adjuncts and most complained of the same low salaries as their counterparts in autonomous universities.

As the economic situation deteriorates in Venezuela, these schools are also suffering the budget constrains faced by stablished universities. Its graduates are now facing difficulties in having their degrees recognized in other Latin American countries.

Looking Ahead

Venezuela’s higher education system needs to be rescued and reestablished under inclusive and progressive principles if it is to serve for the reconstruction of the country. Support should be provided to students and faculty who resiliently remain in their universities throughout the crisis, and to those exiled faculty who were forced to leave but wish to return. Priority should be given to the autonomous public universities which still have the potential to become, once again, one of the most prestigious systems in Latin America.

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