[Marxism] A college for the poor in Venezuela

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 5 12:03:34 MDT 2004

Chronicle of Higher Education, August 6, 2004

A College for the Poor or for the President?
Venezuela opens a university for low-income students, but critics say it 
is just an attempt to buy votes


Caracas, Venezuela
Every weekday morning, Arelis Moreno gets up around 4 a.m., leaves her 
two children in the care of her sister, and catches a bus that takes her 
from a neighborhood in the outskirts of Caracas -- a region of brick, 
concrete-roofed homes where water flows from taps only a few hours each 
week and the air smells of raw sewage -- to the campus of Bolivarian 
University of Venezuela.

The daughter of a maid and a disabled father, Ms. Moreno is a typical 
student at Venezuela's newest public university. She had always hoped to 
attend college, even though very few students in her neighborhood 
continued their education past high school. But low test scores 
prevented her from enrolling at other public universities.

Bolivarian University, by contrast, evaluates only applicants' goals and 
socioeconomic backgrounds, giving preference to those like Ms. Moreno 
who have been waiting to enter college the longest, on the principle 
that the state owes a greater debt to them.

Despite the sacrifices, Ms. Moreno considers herself fortunate to be 
studying at all.

"I tried entering university, but there were many obstacles, and I 
couldn't do it," she says, while waiting for an afternoon bus that will 
take her home.

The government of President Hugo Chávez, who was elected in 1998 on a 
promise to help the two-thirds of Venezuelans mired in poverty, created 
Bolivarian University last July to provide more higher-education 
opportunities for the poor. The country's other public universities 
admit students based heavily on standardized testing, at which the 
wealthy generally do better, but Bolivarian University, which now has 
10,000 students on five campuses across the country, gives preference to 
low-income students.

The university's curriculum encourages social activism. It offers three 
majors: social communication (another name for what is essentially 
journalism), environmental management, and management of local 
development. The university plans to add more majors, including law, 
medicine, and petroleum engineering, until it reaches a total of 12. 
Those majors were chosen, says Massimo Canestrari, Bolivarian's vice 
rector, to meet national needs, such as health care for the poor.

But the new university, which is named after Simón Bolívar, who led the 
revolutionary armies that liberated northern South America from Spain, 
and is housed in the former headquarters of the state petroleum company, 
immediately became a target for Mr. Chávez's critics. They say 
Bolivarian University provides more indoctrination than education and 
that it was designed to buy support for Mr. Chávez's government.

Opponents also argue that poor Venezuelans would be better served by 
improving public schools, thereby enabling more lower-income students to 
gain admission to established public universities.

Widespread frustration over the country's high poverty rate despite its 
great oil wealth -- more than half of Venezuelans live on $2 or less per 
day -- propelled Mr. Chávez and his "Bolivarian Revolution for the Poor" 
to a landslide election victory in 1998.

During his nearly six years in office, he has created several health and 
education programs for low-income Venezuelans, but has also clashed with 
business leaders, officials in the Catholic Church, and journalists. 
Recent years have seen a short-lived coup, a devastating 
petroleum-industry strike, and sometimes-violent demonstrations which 
have left dozens dead.

The future of Bolivarian University will probably hinge on an August 15 
vote to recall Mr. Chávez. If he is unseated, Mr. Chávez's opponents 
say, they will re-evaluate all of his social programs.

The debate over the new university and Mr. Chávez's policies overshadows 
what may be a deeper and more important concern. Academics, government 
officials, and others worry that Venezuela's 24 public universities, 
although they charge virtually no tuition, have become the preserve of 
the wealthy, while low- and middle-income students, with their low 
standardized-test scores, are forced to attend private universities, 
which charge tuition of roughly $800 a year.

According to the Ministry of Higher Education, less than 1 percent of 
public-university freshmen in 2001 came from the poorest 42 percent of 
families. Almost 30 percent of freshmen came from the richest 18 percent 
of families. (The ministry was only able to collect data on 
three-quarters of the freshmen, however.)

"Those who have more educational opportunities are those who go to 
private high schools, have good food, more resources, which generates a 
massive exclusion" of the poor from public universities, says Luis 
Augusto Acuña, a member of Mr. Chávez's Fifth Republic Movement, a 
political party, and president of the legislature's education committee. 
Public universities have become elitist, he says, "with an economic elite."

A Second Chance

Ms. Moreno, the Bolivarian University student, says she originally hoped 
to attend Venezuelan Central University, the main public institution in 
Caracas. But the 30-year-old environmental-management major scored only 
55 percent on the national university entrance exam, five points below 
what she needed to enter Venezuelan Central. Ms. Moreno could have taken 
the university's own entrance exam instead, but she felt that the fee, 
about $10, was too much to risk with no guarantee of success.

While other public universities admit students based on their 
high-school grades and scores on either the national test or their own 
entrance examination, Bolivarian University only required Ms. Moreno to 
complete a half-page form asking basic details, such as her age, family 
income, and educational background.

Ms. Moreno is now one of more than 3,000 students at Bolivarian 
University who receive a stipend equal to the nation's minimum wage of 
about $70 per month.

About three blocks away from Bolivarian is Venezuelan Central, known as 
UCV, which enrolls 47,000 students, nearly all of whom are rich or 
middle class. Students there agree that people from low-income families 
have a tougher time entering college, but suggest that the $5.2-million 
channeled into Bolivarian -- out of a total higher-education budget of 
$1.25-billion -- could have been better spent elsewhere.

Aurora Rey Sánchez, a 19-year-old freshman studying communication, 
complains that Venezuelan Central's buses are decrepit, its library 
lacks new books, and some journalism students have to use typewriters 
because there are too few computers.

"The Bolivarian University is necessary, but not right at this moment," 
she says. "That money could have been invested in the UCV."

Inside the school of engineering, opinions are less measured. The school 
has become a center of anti-government sentiment since several 
pro-government engineering students participated in a monthlong student 
takeover of the university in March 2001, demanding more say in how the 
institution is run.

Cesar Marino, a geophysical-engineering major, complains that Bolivarian 
hires professors "not on academic qualifications but rather on political 

Other students worry that Bolivarian graduates will receive preference 
for jobs with the state companies that dominate Venezuela's economy.

María Esculpi, the university's academic coordinator, charges that the 
state petroleum company has already discriminated against students who 
signed petitions calling for a referendum on Mr. Chávez's presidency.

Those who participated in the anti-Chávez petition drives, called "The 
Big Sign-Up," had "no right to internships, even if they were the top 
student," she says.

A spokeswoman for the petroleum company called the accusation of 
discrimination "absurd" and said that internship candidates are chosen 
according to academic qualifications.

Of five engineering students seated at a table in the university's break 
room one recent afternoon, four had attended private high schools. 
Still, they disagreed that the university was elitist.

"It is an elite," said Ligia Touron, a 22-year-old chemical-engineering 
major, "but an intellectual elite."

Last Resort

Government officials say they created Bolivarian University only after 
attempts to reform existing higher education failed. Of particular 
concern, they say, was the trend away from the national examination and 
toward reliance on university-based entrance exams, which they believe 
are even more biased against low-income students than the national tests 

A recent government study showed that 10 years ago, 75 percent of all 
students were admitted to public universities based on their 
national-exam scores. That figure dropped to 11 percent by 1998.

While high-income applicants generally do better on both kinds of tests, 
the study concluded that universities' admissions processes discriminate 
against poorer students because their tests cost more than the national 
examination, often do not consider an applicant's high-school grades, 
and require applicants to travel to the universities' campuses to take 
the exams.

Five years ago, in an effort to solve this growing problem, the National 
Council of Universities, a part of the Ministry of Higher Education, got 
all public universities to agree to increase the number of seats they 
fill based on national-exam scores from roughly 15 percent to 30 percent 
of the total. They also agreed to create scholarships for the poorest 
students. The number of poor students increased only slightly, however: 
The scholarships weren't large enough to cover students' expenses.

Mr. Chávez's opponents say that the root of the problem lies in the 
public schools, not in higher education. Most public high-school 
graduates are so poorly prepared that "they're not capable of doing well 
on either the national test or the universities' own tests," says 
Giuseppe Giannetto Pace, who recently stepped down as the rector of 
Venezuelan Central University.

Mr. Giannetto argues that the best way to help the poor is to increase 
investment in public high schools, some of which have never produced a 
graduate who entered a public university.

Many education experts agree with Mr. Giannetto, noting that Venezuela 
has historically spent a lower percentage of its education budget on 
elementary and secondary education than have other Latin American 
nations. More than half of all public-school students in Venezuela drop 
out before the end of the ninth grade.

"If a farmer has a sick tree, does he put fertilizer on the branches, 
the trunk, or the roots?" asks Leonardo Carvajal, who heads the Assembly 
of Education, an anti-Chávez activist organization, and who is a likely 
candidate for minister of education if Mr. Chávez loses power. Mr. 
Carvajal promises to close Bolivarian University if he becomes minister.

Héctor Navarro Diaz, the minister of higher education and a former 
administrator at Venezuelan Central, points out that the government has 
created a network of well-equipped elementary schools and several 
adult-education programs to teach literacy and help people complete 
their high-school education.

Despite pressure from the government, he says, universities refused to 
change their admissions standards. The constitutional requirement that 
low-income students "have a right to an education was not possible using 
these existing universities," Mr. Navarro says.

Education or Indoctrination?

Criticism of Bolivarian began last year when the government announced 
that the university would enroll 450,000 students during its first year, 
nearly equal to the 500,000-student enrollment in existing universities.

University officials have since scaled back their ambitions, and now 
estimate that by year's end 20,000 students will be enrolled on a 
half-dozen campuses scattered around the nation.

Skepticism among Mr. Chávez's opponents grew following a rally on the 
Bolivarian campus in May where students and others signed up for a new 
citizen militia intended to defend the revolution. Mr. Giannetto, 
Venezuelan Central's former rector, says his initial enthusiasm for the 
university has faded. "It looks as though they want to form 
revolutionary squadrons over there," he says.

Pro-Chávez signs decorate the university's lobby, making clear this is 
no ordinary campus. Many urge a "No" vote on the August 15 recall.

In her large office inherited from a petroleum executive, Maria Egilda 
Castellano, Bolivarian's rector, leans forward in her chair and speaks 
passionately of the university's goals.

"We want to form students for the nation we desire," she says. "A nation 
that is free, a nation that is self-sufficient, a nation which is in 
solidarity with the rest of the world's oppressed."

A Marxist student during the 1960s, Ms. Castellano was an organizer and 
activist in the Communist Youth party, while a sister and a brother 
fought the government as guerrillas -- an effort that cost her brother 
his life. She later earned her Ph.D. in education from Venezuelan 
Central and taught there for 32 years. Mr. Chávez appointed her vice 
minister of academic policies and then head of the university.

Most of the 550 professors hired so far are young college graduates who 
must continue their education, and who it is hoped will make Bolivarian 
their careers, says Mr. Canestrari, the vice rector. About one-third are 
part-time professors with doctorates and recognized research experience, 
he says, who will be mentors for the younger professors.

Mr. Canestrari says that being pro-Chávez is not a requirement for 
teaching at Bolivarian. But, he says, sharing the government's values 
is. "Bolivarian University supports all of the government's policies," 
he says.

Students say they are not indoctrinated. Instead, they describe 
untraditional teaching, in which professors treat students as equals and 
might let a student run the class for a day. In contrast, Venezuelan 
Central students say most professors stay behind their lecterns and 
interact little with students.

Like many students here, Ms. Moreno, the environmental-management major, 
says she hopes to work for "the collective good." Specifically, she 
would like to work in a national park "to improve the nation's quality 
of life."

Bolivarian administrators say their program is far more rigorous than 
that at other universities, where students may take 10 years to graduate.

"He who doesn't study is out of here," says Sergio García Abreu, the 
admissions director.

Students say that during the application process they were not asked if 
they supported the president, but Mr. Abreu acknowledges that politics 
do matter.

"You don't have to be a Chavista to study here," he says. "But we won't 
have anti-Chavistas."


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