Universities punished for defending democratic values
Venezuela has been in the headlines for quite some time, given a succession of several rather extreme events. Within a few years, more than six million migrants – out of a population of 30 million people – have exited the country. The percentage of the population who were living in poverty, estimated by international institutions, was no less than 85% in 2018.
Hyperinflation has become routine for a good number of years. The government is considered illegitimate by almost all liberal democracies around the world, including most Latin American countries. Gross domestic product estimates point to one of the steepest economic declines on record.
The list could go on. The combined effect of developments like these have landed the country on the short list of fragile or failed states held by organisations such as the World Bank, the Fund for Peace and the OECD.
Such a damaging combination of economic and social decline, as well as political strife, has had a severe, albeit far less publicised, impact on institutions of higher education.
Crisis in Venezuelan higher education
Systematic information on all aspects of Venezuelan society is hard to come by. The government has stopped publishing basic economic and social indicators for more than a decade. But looking at some proxies may help document such impact.
A fully credible estimate, several years old, was able to establish that more than half of the scientific researchers active in Venezuela, the vast majority employed at universities, had left for other countries.
Another independent report asserts that the proportion of faculty members at public universities who have emigrated abroad or moved to private universities had reached 40% by 2018. Although more recent estimates are not available, the situation has likely worsened, since the average monthly salary of a university professor at a public university was US$15 per month in 2020.
According to a rare official government document dated 2022, enrolments in public institutions of higher education – including universities and short-programme technical institutes – had registered a 25% decline by 2018, compared with its peak in 2008, in spite of the fact that inclusion in higher education is a top policy priority.
Indicators like those mentioned above speak of nothing less than the collapse of public higher education in Venezuela.
The main traditional public universities – Universidad Central de Venezuela, Universidad del Zulia, Universidad Simón Bolívar, Universidad de Los Andes and others – have for years been the targets of large reductions in budget allocations with funding diverted towards a batch of massive new universities created by the successive Chavez administrations, with enrolments of more than 100,000 students.
Under the umbrella of the government initiative known as Misión Sucre, these new institutions were built with little regard for academic standards but were generously funded, while resources were denied to the crown jewels of higher education in the country, home to the overwhelming share of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) research.
Overall enrolments grew rapidly between 2005 and 2012, only to decline afterwards as the new universities revealed their weaknesses as vehicles for the labour market, and public universities reduced their academic offerings as a result of lack of funds and a massive brain drain.
In addition to the loss of a critical mass of faculty mentioned above, the outcome of the crisis has brought the ruin of universities’ physical infrastructure and acute deterioration of teaching and research activities.
There were never more than a few Venezuelan universities included in the Times Higher Education university ranking, but the single one remaining in the latest exercise, Universidad de Los Andes, has lost about 400 places in the last four years.
That same university was recently the subject of an article in The New Yorker, “Ageing and abandoned in Venezuela’s failed state”, showing photos of emaciated senior professors whose salaries and pensions were insufficient for them to eat decently.
The political roots of the crisis
From afar, it can be hard to understand how such unparalleled destruction of highly valuable academic assets could take place. On the ground, in Venezuela, the explanation is clear.
Early in the first administration of Hugo Chavez, who was inaugurated as president of Venezuela after a national election in December 1998, universities gained prominence as sources of resistance to the gradual onset of authoritarian rule.
In 2007, Chavez convened a national referendum for the reform of the constitution, most notably aimed at designating Venezuela as a socialist state. The government lost the referendum and students were at the forefront of the campaign to defeat the reform. Later, they would lead national street demonstrations against the administration of Chavez’ successor Nicolas Maduro in 2014 and 2017.
At the same time, faculty, even if not united in opposing the regime, leaned clearly against the plans of the government and systematically elected university authorities not favoured by the government authorities and committed to preserving academic freedom and political independence.
All along, the regime’s response was to consider universities primarily as part of the opposition and then proceed to defund them. This stand-off continues today.
Venezuelan universities have thus paid a very heavy price for their defence of institutional autonomy, academic freedom and democracy.
Reasons for hope
Yet, against all odds, public universities are still open, although they have not been able to keep their historic levels of graduates and research output and have had to close quite a few programmes at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Most of them have remained politically independent, that is, academically and in terms of self-governance and administration. The overall goal of the regime, taking over the reins of the main institutions, has proved elusive to this day.
Meanwhile, expatriate researchers, some of them working at top level research laboratories around the world, have connected with their colleagues back home and provided support for remote advanced training and research.
Last, but not least, several private universities have preserved their academic and financial viability through strong support from private sponsors, without renouncing their autonomy.
As in the case of leading institutions such as the Catholic University Andrés Bello or the Metropolitan University in Caracas, they have proactively adapted to the challenging environment.
They have achieved this by finding ways to retain academic talent, recruiting and financially supporting ever larger numbers of students in need of assistance, diversifying international alliances and enhancing their engagement with their communities through innovative programmes for K-12 schools, non-traditional students and young entrepreneurs.
They have also, to some extent, filled the vacuum of public statistics by becoming a key source of systematic information about the state of the country through social, economic and political surveys.
In sum, the sharp economic decline and democratic backsliding in Venezuela have had a very negative effect on higher education, which seriously compromises the country’s capabilities when it comes to facing development challenges.
This is happening at a time when advanced human capital is considered more important than ever before to secure economic growth, innovation, resilience in the face of emergencies – such as the recent pandemic – and equal opportunity for the next generations.
While a vibrant discussion takes place around the world about the future of higher education in the digital age after the challenges represented by the pandemic, barely anybody at the major public universities in Venezuela has the time or the resources to get engaged – further amplifying the gap that separates them from universities in other countries.
Recovery will not be quick or easy. There is no sign, unfortunately, that it has even started, or that the current Maduro administration has any plan other than staying the current damaging course.
Juan Carlos Navarro is an international expert in higher education, a former professor at several Venezuelan universities and a former member of the National Council of Education in Venezuela. E-mail: [email protected]. This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.