Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, in office since 1999, has been steadily transforming the country’s higher education system. Supporters find the changes consistent with Chávez’s overall “Bolivarian Revolution” (Chavez’s term)— socialist and populist. Critics find the changes consistent with an overall assault on democracy and on academic autonomy and quality in particular.
The latest chapter in the saga involves criticism of a new formula for government funding of public higher education. The basis for funding will be enrollment size. Why would the rector of the historic national university strongly criticize this approach? Because Chávez has hugely enlarged the public sector through creation and expansion of new universities.
In 2003 he created the Universidad Bolivariana by decree, an institution that grew to a massive 180,000 students by 2006 with a stated target of a million by 2009. Even the 2006 enrollment figure makes the university one of the largest in Latin America. Anything approaching the projected figure would make it by far the largest. The university is not only tuition-free but also open admissions. A lack of tuition has been the norm in the country’s public sector and there have been occasional open admissions policies in other countries (e.g., Argentina) but the admissions policy for the Universidad Bolivariana goes further. It goes markedly further than Venezuela’s previous policy of relative high access and the standards of the region.
The Universidad Bolivariana is part of Chávez’s overall claim to use social programs to help the poor and transform society. Critics see in the Bolivariana yet another stroke of political control, whereas defenders appropriate the opposition’s language insofar as they claim to be fostering pluralism and democracy. But perhaps the most dramatic Chavez higher education impact is at the University of the Armed Forces. Expanded (2003-2007) from 3 to 19 campuses and from 3,200 to 224,000 students, the university emphasizes socialist revolutionary teaching.
Chávez's policies have split the left both inside and outside the country. In international affairs the regime, buttressed by oil revenues, is markedly anti-capitalist and anti-U.S. government. It has allied itself with countries such as Iran and Syria and (of course) with populist-leftist regional counterparts such as Bolivia and Ecuador. Oliver Stone’s recent “South of the Border” documentary is expansively promotional of Chávez’s leadership whereas democratic socialists have become disenchanted. Confrontation with Venezuela’s traditionally leftist national university reflects a domestic rift. Although some student led opposition speaks of a third path against both Chávez and the ossified elite that Chávez could popularly reject, such an option seems remote.
As one would expect, Chávez’s policies have alienated the country’s private sector. The regime speaks often of the “public interest” as opposed to “private interests.” Private schools at lower educational levels have felt themselves challenged and restricted. In higher education there is strong antagonism with private universities. The Santa Rita university has been accused of running illegal programs and was nationalized in 2010. Santa Rita declares the assault purely political. In other countries such conflicts have led to a denial of accreditation or to probation. However, most private universities manage to function with a degree of continuity and some amount of autonomy while the public sector has endured harsher interventions in the region, as in the case of Argentina under the military in the 1960s and 1970s.
Still, Venezuelan public “autonomous” universities have maintained a degree of continuity. One could only speculate on the reasons. The recent confrontation with the national university seems to be more about diminishing the influence of the autonomous universities rather than directly attacking them. These universities are reduced in importance by virtue of the massive growth in the regime-aligned new public universities. But the large benefits secured by traditional universities over the years remain mostly in tact. Similarly, if the private sector is not directly repressed, it loses relative weight. Just five years ago it accounted for over 40 percent of the nation’s total enrollment; now, owing to the massive new public growth, the share is around half that.
Confrontation between leftist-populist regimes and higher education has precedent in Latin America. Relations were tense and rocky in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 right up until the 1940s. Peronist confrontation with university interests arose in Argentina. Peru’s leftist military had a frosty relationship with higher education. Allende’s administration faced strong opposition in the early 1970s in Chile, though it also enjoyed strong support. Of course the most conspicuous example is Cuba as totalitarian control soon meant the takeover of higher education.
Chávez’s present term expires in 2112. Even if he leaves power, what transpires between now and then and what ensues after remain in doubt. Will the system be further transformed in the short term? Will transformations subsequently be undone or at least transformed again?