Venezuela’s Higher Education Crisis Worsens

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde

This fall, alarms have been going off about the high number of students dropping out of universities around the country.  The economic crisis and the policies of the Venezuelan government have forced both university students and professors to either search for jobs elsewhere or simply leave the country.

Professors, claim authorities, are abandoning universities through academic leaves, sabbatical years, or simply using their vacations to try their luck abroad and failing to return to their posts once those vacations are over. Empty positions often go unfilled. Full professors (Profesores Titulares in the Venezuelan system) ask for early retirement and then leave the country to finish their careers abroad. Young assistant professors are unable to register for graduate courses or attend conferences outside the country (traditionally, in the Venezuelan system, professors were hired before taking postgraduate degrees, which they were expected to complete later as part of their academic training.)

The dramatic fall in the real wages of faculty has forced an estimated 1,600 professors to leave the five main public universities since 2012. Faculty, as other professional on fixed salaries, suffer disproportionally the consequences of inflation. The USB for example, a leading scientific research university founded in the 1970s, has lost more than 400 professors and administrative staff since 2015.

And there is also patchy evidence of student’s massive desertion from universities emerging from independent sources. A local newspaper El Nacional recently quoted numbers gathered by professors belonging to a teacher’s union of the Andean state of Táchira, and to Fundación Redes, a local education think-tank. According to them, close to 50% of university students have dropped out of the three public universities in Táchira in recent years.

In departments such as Pedagogy and Education, the desertion is close to 70%. President of the union, Javier Tarazona, says that “these are worrying desertion numbers in Tachira’s public institutions, more so when you look at the fields related to education.” He also says that the main cause for desertion is economic, as students are forced to drop out of their university careers and search for jobs, “and universities are closing professional tracks because students are not registering for them.” The rector of the Universidad Nacional Experimental Politécnica Antonio José de Sucre (UNEXPO), Rita Añez, says that 30% of the students of the university left at the beginning of this school year in September.

Some student leaders also back these numbers in other regions of the country. José Meaño, leader of an opposition student’s movement at Nueva Esparta campus of the public Universidad de Oriente (UDO) claims that the number of students dropping out of the university because they either leave the country, or have to search for work is “staggering.” He says that this school year “the first day of classes we had only 35% of registered students showing up, and we are estimating that at least at least 45 to 50% will never show up.”

Not only public universities are feeling the pressure. Gustavo Peña, academic vice-rector of the leading private university of the country, the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB), declared that 10 to 15% of students had dropped out at the beginning of the 2017 school term. Benjamín Scharifker, rector of another important private university in Caracas, the Universidad Metropolitana (UNIMET), also said that close to 10% of UNIMET’s professors have left the college in the last years. Scharifker gives no numbers of students dropping out of UNIMET, but says that there is a “massive” migration of recent graduates out of the country.

Apart from the economic situation forcing out students and professors, rectors of private universities claim that government obstacles are curtailing their capacity to operate normally.  A recent report by private and public universities, made public by the rectors of UNIMET and UCAB, claims that the Venezuelan State “has deliberately manipulated norms, policies and practices in order to suppress academic freedom and university autonomy.” UCAB rector, Francisco Virtuoso, said in the presentation of the report:

“It’s been ten years since the last time the Consejo Nacional de Universidades (CNU) allowed universities to revise and renew curricula, either at the undergraduate or graduate levels. There has been a constant meddling in the internal affairs of public universities, for example in the selection and admission of new students, and also in the selection of new professors. (…) University autonomy is in danger in Venezuela and this leads to a loss of quality in our universities.”

In the midst of this cacophony of denunciations, the Maduro government has been trumpeting its higher education policies. “Despite the economic war, we have not closed a single university, on the contrary, we are opening more,” President Maduro declared last week as he announced the establishment of yet another new public college: The Universidad Experimental de Caracas.

This institution will bring the total of new universities created since the year 2000 to more than 30. Add to that number the traditional public autonomous universities -including the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), Universidad de los Andes (ULA), La Universidad del Zulia (LUZ), and Universidad Simeon Bolivar (USB)- and indeed Venezuela can boast, at least on paper, of one of the most impressive and diverse public higher education systems in the region.

Recent Venezuelan high school graduates can chose to study, free of charge, careers that range from advanced pure sciences at USB or UCV, to a wide variety of performing and plastic arts at the Universidad Nacional Experimental de las Artes (UNEARTE), another school established by Chavismo. And according to government officials, an amazing number of students are doing so; 2,750,000.

But there are no reliable recent official figures to back these claims.  The last yearly report published by the Ministerio del Poder Popular para Educación Universitaria, Ciencia y Tecnología (MPPEUCT) the State agency in charge of overseeing the country’s university system dates from 2011. And several of the supposedly newly created universities are not really new institution at all, but mergers of smaller public schools existing well before the Revolution. A case in point is precisely the recently incorporated Universidad Experimental de Caracas announced by Maduro, in reality the core of the new school is the old Colegio Universitario de Caracas, merged with two smaller university institutes.

Furthermore, there are serious concerns about academic standards and academic freedom in the schools created by the government. The Chávez and then Maduro governments have been clear all along about their frustration with the traditional public autonomous universities, and what they regard as elitism and lack of capacity to expand according to an increasing student demand. Authorities and professors of the traditional universities instead argue that the creation of new “cardboard universities” is really an attempt by the government to exercise political control over higher education.

Most importantly, the rapidly expanding higher education system allowed the government to relocate the public education budget, from the unruly traditional public universities, to the new pro-government university system. For example, as we explained in a previous post, since salaries of professors of the same rank across all the public university system are equal by law, the increase of faculty size in newly created institutions necessarily reduces budget allocations for traditional universities. In the latter, faculty size is limited by stricter academic procedures and new posts have to be approved the government. By contrast, in the new pro-government institutions, temporary adjuncts are more freely appointed.

Indeed, the massive increase in the number of students has almost completely taken place in the new institutions. A recent article published by the Washington Post claims that by 2013 only 875,000, of those 2,750,000 students counted by the government, were studying in the 10 mayor autonomous traditional public universities.

Since at least 2013 university students and faculty have regularly taken to the streets to warn that the situation of Venezuela’s universities is far from what the government has been claiming. For more than three years public universities have been facing intermittent strikes, sometimes called for by students and sometimes by professors, to protest the sorry state of public university campuses.

In December 2015, a group of faculty from Venezuela and around the world signed and published a public letter addressed to the MPPEUCT in which they called attention to the dire situation of university education in Venezuela. In that letter, academics claimed that budget allocations had become insufficient to fund even the most basic teaching and research.

(Read our previous pieces on Venezuela’s higher education crisis here)