Higher Education in Venezuela: Skirting University Autonomy through the Creation of a Parallel System

Online poster commemorating tenth anniversary of the Bolivarian University of Venezuela.

(This is the second part of our updated series on higher education in Venezuela. For our previous series on the topic read here and here.)

The 15th anniversary of the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV), the most prominent of the universities created by the Bolivarian Revolution, is being celebrated this week. Government media says that the university has become a model of “liberating, transformative, and socially relevant education” that is open to all.

Free public higher education was guaranteed under the 1961 Constitution, and the pre-revolution democracy greatly expanded existing public institutions ( such as the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), University of the Andes (LUZ), and The University of Zulia (LUZ)), and created many new public universities (Simón Bolívar University (USB) and University of Oriente (UDO)). But when Hugo Chávez came to power, he felt the existing university system was regressive and unaccountable to the state. As the government was not successful in taking back control of existing universities during the first years of Chávez’s government, it set out to expand the system with the creation of new, more easily controlled institutions (for detailed account of this process read our previous post.)

It was not the first time a Venezuelan government had created new universities to try to circumvent the autonomy of the public system. The USB, having been established by President Raul Leoni in 1967, was officially inaugurated in 1970 by President Rafael Caldera who was frustrated by left-wing political activism on the UCV campus. USB is now the top ranking public institution in the country. Caldera also created a new system of non-autonomous polytechnic higher education institutions which, together with the USB, would offer a technical based education to counter the “ideological” bent of the other public universities. But this previous attempt pales in scale when compared with the rapid expansion of the university system undertaken since 1999. Indeed, the current expansion has amounted to the creation of a complete parallel system.

Parts of this accelerated expansion relied heavily on existing institutions and infrastructure. One example is the National Experimental University of the Arts (UNEARTE). Far from being Chávez’s “creation,” as recently proclaimed by Maduro, when the president announced its establishment 10 years ago he was really announcing a merger of already existing art schools, several of which already granted university degrees. These schools lost their independence and became parts of the “new” university. No new facilities were needed for UNEARTE, since the infrastructure of the existing art schools sufficed. Even the main administrative building of the university was once the Ateneo de Caracas, a joint public/private run cultural center predating the Bolivarian Revolution and criticized by chavismo as an expression of “elitist” culture. No mention of this previous history of UNEARTE is made in its web page; instead the reader learns that the university was created in 2008 to “fill a void” in Venezuela’s higher education.

Some existing schools were also transformed and greatly expanded, such the University of the Armed Forces (UNEFA) originally created in 1973 by President Caldera as a higher education institution exclusively for Armed Forces’ officials. In 1999, in one of President Chávez first decrees, the institution was renamed and established as a university open also to civilian students seeking engineering degrees. But the university remains firmly within its military tradition: its president is an active General of the armed forces and most of its authorities are also active or retired armed forces officers.

However, several new institutions were actually created–the best example being the UBV, now Venezuela’s biggest public university with 17 campuses around the country. The UBV stemmed from one of the Chávez government earliest social policy initiatives: the Misión Sucre. THe latter sought to grant university education to people excluded from the established public system, through a series of semi-itinerant programs with no fixed facilities. These programs gradually became more formal until they lead to the creation of the UBV in 2003, although Misión Sucre still exists as a title granting program.

In a move similar to the case of UNEARTE, the old headquarters of the Venezuelan oil company PDVSA were refurbished as the main Caracas campus of the UBV. For Chavismo, these buildings housed the old “oligarchic” PDVSA, and turning them into the UBV main campus was meant to be symbolic of their re-appropriation by the people. Furthermore, they stand right across the street from the University City of the UCV, making for a poignant symbol of the two parallel public university systems.

In total, since 2000, twenty-nine institutions have either been newly established or resulted from the consolidation and expansion of previous colleges. This did in fact result in an impressive expansion of the student body and university posts for teachers. According to reports by the Popular Power Ministry for University Education (MPPEU), the numbers of university students stood at 2,210,477 by 2014. This would mean an increase of more than 200% student enrolment since 1999, when Venezuela had 810,581 university students. Even now in the middle of a severe economic crisis, new institutions are being created, the latest is the Martin Luther King University established by president Maduro on April 3 in the city of Barquisimeto.

But these new institutions are suffering the same problems as the older established public universities. Regulated by collective agreements, faculty salaries of all public universities in the country, old and new, are the same and have been practically frozen since even before the hyperinflationary crisis.

Furthermore, the expansion of the system does not mean that the country needs more full time university teachers, or that faculty of the traditional public universities can simply add to their salaries by teaching in a rapidly expanding system. Most of the teaching positions created in the new revolutionary universities are for poorly paid adjunct professors teaching a few hours a week. As a result, grievances of faculty at these institutions are very similar to those of the older public system: low salaries, poor working conditions, and lack of basic services such as health care.

Added to these, are complaints of strict ideological control and lack academic freedoms. The newly created institutions are not “autonomous universities” but rather fall under the legal category of “experimental universities,” which means faculty and authorities appointments can be strictly controlled by the MPPEU, and that even the content of courses are subject to government scrutiny. The Bolivarian University is openly pro-government and students and faculty are expected to show government support. The university web page, and its official Twitter account (@ubv), prominently display images and phrases of Chávez and Maduro.

The parallel system is also suffering the same infrastructure problems as the autonomous system. Student dining facilities in campuses are often closed. Faculty and students complain that crime is making teaching impossible. And student buses have at times ceased to operate altogether.

The Bolivarian Revolution promised new inclusive universities to counter what it viewed as a regressive established system of higher education. It did dramatically increase the number of university students studying in institutions it could control. But it did so at the cost of creating a gigantic, poorly-institutionalized, parallel higher education system, facing all of the same problems the older system, plus several new ones.