Venezuela’s Private Universities Struggle to Remain a Viable Alternative

Students at Universidad Católica Ándres Bello. ©Rodrigo Romero

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

A day after Maduro’s economic announcements of August 22, 2918, José Virtuoso S.J., Rector of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB), Venezuela’s most important private university, sent an email to all faculty, staff and students. Virtuoso told the university that the economic announcements would have a “severe impact” on the finances and operations of UCAB. In particular, according to Virtuoso, the salary increase announced by the president would force the university to revise its budget, approved just one month before. “The budget will have to be modified,” wrote the Rector “but being careful that this does not imperil the viability of the institution.”

Measures would have to be taken, said Virtuoso, and as private universities in Venezuela depend almost exclusively on student fees, these would have to be raised, “always taking into consideration that this does not imply an impossible increase for our students.” Virtuoso ended his email asking for “calm and trust in the institution,” and assuring that the university would use its entire savings and “incur in debt, within what is reasonable,” if that were necessary.

UCAB, a Jesuit administered university, opened doors in 1953. Other leading private colleges such as the Universidad Metropolitana in Caracas and the Universidad Rafael Urdaneta in Maracaibo, were founded in 1970 and 1973 respectively. But private higher education in Venezuela only really took off from the middle 80s on. “The combination of economic crisis, state reform efforts, and the turbulence within the public universities created an incentive structure for advocates of private education to expand their influence in the university system,” writes Elliot Storm, a higher education researcher focusing on Venezuela. Strom counted only one public university founded between 1983 and 1998, but 14 new private universities and 29 technological institutes that opened during that same same period.

During that period, private schools were able to gain support from the government’s neoliberal polices and present themselves as more efficient and less expensive alternative to public universities. They also became the schools of choice for parents and students warry of the political conflicts in public universities. Also, as part of those same neoliberal policies, budget for the public education system as a whole stagnated during the same period. As a result, many young Venezuelan’s had little option but to attend private higher education. Students at private universities now make for a quarter of the more than 2 million total college students the government claims are registered in Venezuela.

But now, as is also the case of their public counterparts, these private colleges are struggling under the current economic and political crisis. As the above quote from Virtuoso reveals, the issue of how to balance the budget in a context of hyperinflation is especially difficult for Venezuelan private universities. Unlike their US counterparts, these schools cannot count on large endowments and they fund their work almost exclusively with student fees. Private schools need ask students to pay more in order to pay faculty and administrative staff salaries. According to reports made to this blog, the UCAB does have external donors and funds outside Venezuela which allows it to pay a small quarterly extra bonus to full time faculty with PhDs or researchers directly involved in projects for the university, but that makes for a very small percentage of the university’s staff.

This September UCAB informed its students that the cost per credit, for a non-specified “first part of the academic year 2018-2019,” would increase to 230 new Sovereign Bolivars (or 23,000,000 of the old coin), from 100 Sovereign Bolivars. Regular students take 15 credits per semester, which means they will have to pay 3,450 Bolivars. Traditionally more expensive, the Universidad Metropolitana, the other important private university in Caracas, also recently asked its students to pay 567.3 of the new Bolivars, per credit.

On September 10 a group of students locked the entrances of the regional private university Universidad Gran Mariscal de Ayacucho (UGMA), in the city of Maturín. They were protesting against the steep rice in fees. According to the students, the university was asking them to pay a one-time “special quota” of 5,000 Bolivars at the start of the term.

As in the public university system, private universities are also suffering from alarming rates of student and faculty desertions. According to the rector of the Universidad Metropolitana, Benjamín Sharifker, claimed that his university had lost 40% of its full time faculty: “Some of these posts we have been able to replace with new professors, but most we have not replaced, and we have reduced the size [of full time faculty].” Students at private universities seem to be deserting in lower numbers than those of public universities where 60% of students had left by to 2017 according to a study published in February this year.

Still, in April this year, UCAB’s Secretary, Magaly Vásquez said that the university had received 50% fewer applications than two years ago, and in June she declared that there has been a 12% year to year decrease in the student body size of the school. In March, the Administration Vice-rector of UCAB, Gustavo García, said that “150 to 200 of our faculty, that’s 20%, leave the university every year.” UCAB has not provided more precise or recent numbers of faculty exodus but, in a sign of the times, it has resorted to its Twitter account to publish almost daily calls for faculty openings (see here).

In sum, private colleges are surviving Venezuela’s crisis better than public colleges. Smaller and more adaptable, they don’t depend on public spending for their budget. But as the middle class dwindles in Venezuela, their main economic base is rapidly shrinking. And in hyperinflation, they are finding it difficult to strike a balance between what they charge students and what they are able to pay their professors in order to keep them on board. In his opening words for the 2018-2019 academic year, UCAB rector told students and faculty the school is going through a time of “resistance and struggle.”