Venezuela’s University Education Minister Discusses Controversial University Law

There is currently a nationwide debate over the content of the University Law, which Chavez sent back to the National Assembly. The debate includes what universities should be, their role in society, and how to transform the universities into participatory democratic institutions. In this interview, the minister for university education outlines some of her perspectives.

By Zuleika Matamores- Aporrea.org, Marlene Yadira Cordova

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University Education Minister Marlene Yadira Cordova (Aporrea).
University Education Minister Marlene Yadira Cordova (Aporrea).
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There is currently a nationwide debate over the content of the University Law, which Chavez sent back to the National Assembly. The debate includes what universities should be, their role in society, and how to transform the universities into participatory democratic institutions. In this interview, the minister for university education outlines some of her perspectives.

University transformation is a theme that is currently present in national debate. How is it defined from the perspective of the revolutionary process?

Cordova: In the first place, transformation of a process, of an object or of a subject, implies changes in the essential elements that make up that thing. When we make superficial changes or changes in appearance, we aren’t transforming, we would probably be reforming. To change the essential elements implies a discussion about the university model. What sort of university is necessary for the process of transformation that is happening in Venezuela, that today [2 February] celebrates 12 years? A process of transformation that is outlined in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, but that in practice goes far beyond what is established in the constitution?

If we make a triangle between the relationship of universities with society and with knowledge, we might say that in this space where these three important processes and aspects of human life coincide, is where precisely where transformation is located.

How does one define the relationship of university with society, with the needs of the people? What is the contribution of universities in resolving in a structural way, problems that affect health and the environment? What involvement do the universities have in the issue of climate change, that isn’t just a circumstance now but has really become one of the biggest dangers facing humanity and that has important structural causes that can’t be resolved just with individualistic visions?

Where does one put university in the face of the large inequalities that affect many oppressed people in the world? Where does one put university in terms of the role of knowledge and the ethical dimension of knowledge and popular knowledge? What sort of relation does university have with the people and their different forms of organisation? Are universities part of popular power or do they relate with it or take on its demands? Where does the university belong in terms of the needs of transformation of the state? From this state that we inherited from the Fourth Republic [the governments before Chavez] and that, as all of us are aware, hasn’t been sufficiently transformed in order to be able to respond to the challenges that are supposed to advance within a constitutional framework.

We can say that the transformation should seek to redefine and re-found the relationship that universities have with society and with knowledge- a transformation that aims to situate itself based on what the construction of the future means for the next generations. This for me defines, in some way, the way we are trying to promote university transformation.

Who and what instruments do we count on to be able to advance university transformation?

Cordova: The main instrument is debate and collective construction, it’s basically methodological. Our participative democracy has showed us the path and has given us sufficient lessons in terms of the role that the people play and what their wisdom means in the processes of construction of the unknown.

The second instrument is the legal one, is the University Education Law. I always say that we can’t mythicise the law, because while alone it doesn’t spark transformation, it is undoubtedly important to have legal instruments that facilitate and speed up decision making.

I would say a third instrument, which isn’t really an instrument but an aspect of methodology, is the collective appropriation of the meaning of this transformation. It’s not enough to say that we are going to transform, are going to have a law, if the people in their various organisational expressions don’t make this need, this possibility to participate in the construction of the new university, their own. And there is the other element; who transforms? Well, I would say that the university population and the non university population as well, because we are all the people.

Now, the people have different expectations, visions, and levels of consciousness. So, we have a sector that takes on the interests of the exploiting classes, and we have another that takes on their own class interests. We have to debate with everyone.

The position of President Hugo Chavez is that we have to debate with everyone, because our big task is to provide people who don’t have clear class consciousness with arguments. We have to construct universities that are with the people, that really advance and construct the country that we all need, the country we have been dreaming of for a long time. It means debating, constructing and achieving this appropriation with the university and non-university population as well.

I’m also talking about people who are located in the institutions, as there is a big institutional debate that is going on within the universities and its various departments, student centres, and research institutes. A big common debate within state organisations, that are formulators of public policy and that also have expectations around what universities should be, is around what the profile should be of a professional in order to be able to advance the policies of the Venezuelan state.

The state has a lot to say to, teach, and ask of the universities in terms of sovereignty and technological independence.

Another aspect of the debate is the people in their authentic, natural expressions. That is, where popular power is being constructed, where the communal councils, land committees, housing movements, health committees are, who also feel, live, and construct a way of doing, living and co-existing daily, and who have their eyes on the university. Or maybe they don’t, which is the best expression of the absence of universities in the life of the people.

When the people don’t have an idea of what a university is, how it could be, where it should head towards in their collective imagination, and you ask them, and they reply ‘well the university is the university', one thinks, well, here obviously there is a large absence of the meaning of university, because the university has been very absent from collective life.

Regarding this point you’ve just touched on, for example in many places university transformation is debated among the non university population, as you define it, but how is the university constituent linked with university transformation?

Cordova: I talk about a transformation process, because the constituent has certain socio-political elements that define it as such, but also it has legal characteristics that have to be covered to recognise it as a constituent. So, we might say that the general process is of university transformation.

Now, in relation to method, when I was talking about two aspects, I talked about institutional and socio-political aspects. The people who are in different places, as workers, students, but who don’t participate in any established, structured, or constituted organisation;  students of education media, housewives, indigenous, teachers; all of them are constituent and have a history role to play in relation to the conceptualisation of the university, in its construction, defence. That, for me, is fundamental and I think that is definitely the route that this debate should take.

We’ll be very respectful regarding the institutional debate, because institutions also form part of society and the debate that needs to be had within them won’t just produce contributions around what university transformation will be, but also will be about internal issues of these institutions.

In so far as a collective appropriation is generated, there will also be impacts on internal functioning, as we would be looking at what we are as state institutions. We’re asking the universities to transform in a certain way and we, in the state institutions have to think about what way we are riding this process of transformation in the country. I think there are the two main aspects- the constituent and the constituted.

You hear one question a lot, in different places, and that is, how will students, workers, and administrative staff participate in this co-governed university?

Cordova:  I believe in what we are doing, which is constitutional. The constitution establishes the right to vote for all citizens in all electoral processes. The Organic Education Law (LOE) puts that into practice in the area of education, and we would like a special law within the LOE where we propose the right to vote for all members of the university community.

I’ve been insisting that we have to go beyond the vote, because what we really have to do is build participative and protagonistic democracy within the universities. We would be achieving something if we could guarantee the right to vote to everyone in the universities, but there still wouldn’t be participative democracy.

We have to remember that we come from representative democracy where everyone over eighteen years had the right to vote and voted every five years or every four years when the process of decentralisation began. And what happened after? We didn’t have any impact in the leadership that was guided by public policy. So the proposal that we are promoting from the ministry [of education] is that voting should be contextualised within the framework of what it means to construct and/or deepen participative and protagonistic democracy within the universities.

It’s not enough to vote, what’s important is participation and the guarantee of different forms of organisation that allow and create the conditions for expressing of opinion on university policy on areas such as academic policy, budget, infrastructure, and everything that makes up university life. Those who are part of university life should become active in their own processes. So the different mechanisms established in the constitution need to be activated.

The Organic Education Law establishes equality in general and equality of votes, so, what could happen in May when the authorities of the Central University of Venezuela are chosen, for example, and the student sectors, through their participation and integration in everything related to students, promoted an equal vote, before the University Education Law is passed?

Cordova: They have the framework to do, because the Organic Education law has already established it, and it’s a framework law, everything to do with education is subject to it. The law we’re waiting for [the University Education Law] will specify the application of this in the university terrain. Never the less, we’re guided by the LOE. The law protects us, the constitution protects us, but of course political strength that could concretise all this, is lacking.

There are already some cases before the Supreme Court about this, and as such if the students wanted to do it, they’d have every right.

Lately I listened to a student spokesperson from the UCV who, unfortunately, wasn’t defending this position, but another that I think was probably the last thing I wanted to hear in this forum, and it’s really very unfortunate. That’s what I was saying about the issue of class consciousness, that it’s very difficult.

Within the framework of university transformation, how do you think criteria for constructing a budget work?

Cordova: We think the main criteria should be established in the new law, then later the mechanisms and rules can be defined and be more specific. The new law should consider the new university models that have been emerging and also how the universities have committed to inclusion and transformation, how they are connecting themselves to socio-economic and integral development projects in the country.

At the time of coming up with the budget, these things need to be taken into consideration, because the budget should be assigned to the pertinent and priority activities in our country.

I think the debate will gradually deepen and improve, but it does need to include the issue of budgeting, and above all, accountability. That’s something that’s gradually happening, but the mechanisms are insufficient to be able to really know what resources the university has and is using, both the resources that it receives through the national budget, and those it  receives as its own income.

Further, accountability isn’t just an administrative thing. There is also socio-political accountability that has to do with what’s called social responsibility.  Why did society create universities, for A,B,C or D? Is this university really complying with that reason? This is an ethical accountability that should be pointed out in the framework of this transformation.

How is it projected that the experimental universities can become autonomous?

Cordova: I’m of the position that of course that will be part of the debate, in that there can’t be a difference between autonomous universities and experimental ones. We have to get over this reductionism that’s sometimes deceitful, among ourselves, where we think that autonomy is just about a university being able to pick its authorities or not. Because, in the end, autonomy becomes exclusive property of the latest authorities. That is, the reduction with the concept of autonomy is so brutal that it ends up being against the very concept.

Autonomy is more than this. All universities are autonomy, all of them have the freedom of professorship, of thought, the right to manage all the currents of thought, to manage the internal budget, to organise itself. All universities have diverse internal organisation because their autonomy allows for it- whether they are experimental or not. What changes is which of them can choose their authorities and which not. So it’s necessary to work out when a university is the right situation to be able to choose its authorities.

What I think is that all universities should develop internal participative democracy, and whether they choose their authorities or not is a very important difference. The Bolivarian University [Mission Sucre] has taken its first steps, has being creating one of the first councils of Popular Student Power, which should form part of the Academic Councils in each of its regional campuses. That is, [the students] directly participate in decision making.  There are a lot of mechanisms that we can go about creating that guarantee direct participation and that don’t reduce it to just the election of authorities.

The debate about university transformation is open. What call would you make on the student, worker, and university community sectors, and even the people that are outside the universities but who undoubtedly are involved with it from the perspective of transformation within this revolutionary process?

Cordova: In the first place, to participate, to express their opinion, and above all, to organise and mobilise around what construction of this necessary university means. That they take on the universities as their own, so that it stops being a closed and faraway place. That the university debate be part of all of society and that it all feels that university belongs to it and that the future of universities and of the relationship between universities and the people and with knowledge and with all of society, is a product of this debate that I dare to say will be historical.

Translation by Tamara Pearson for Venezuealanalysis.com

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