Using the University Law to Attack Venezuela

Orlando Albornoz and Ricardo Flores use the rescinding of the Ley de Educacíon Universiteria (LEU) by Hugo Chávez as an excuse to launch yet another attack on Venezuela's president, claiming that the man whose first major undertaking after being elected was to have the people rewrite the constitution is undemocratic.

Orlando Albornoz and Ricardo Flores use the rescinding of the Ley de Educacíon Universiteria (LEU) by Hugo Chávez as an excuse to launch yet another attack on Venezuela’s president, claiming that the man whose first major undertaking after being elected was to have the people rewrite the constitution is undemocratic.

Under the law, students would have an equal vote in the election of university authorities; would be able to evaluate professors and participate in self-evaluation; would enjoy the right to freely express opinions; could access university administrative records; and would receive a range of services, including housing, transportation, meals, healthcare and monthly stipends.

The law would also establish a series of university councils that would be elected on each campus through a one-person, one-vote democratic system. Those entitled to vote would include students, professors, administrators, wage workers and other members of the university community.

LEU would replace the current university council, which is elected under a system that weighs higher authorities’ votes more heavily and gives virtually no power to students or workers. The new law would also require universities to disclose all income and expenditures, making a public audit system in higher education the norm. 

The bill was vetoed by Chávez not because of fear of protests – they would be minuscule compared to the Chávista counter-demonstrations – but because Chávez sought some amendments and PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela) members were calling on Chávez to do that.

The reactionary sectors (or counter-revolutionary sectors) are always claiming that educational reforms are going to do away with autonomy when in fact university autonomy was confirmed by the 2009 Organic Law of Education, which refers to intellectual liberty, theoretico-practical activity, and scientific, humanistic and technological research.

However, autonomy is restricted by the Constitution and the law, as well as by the national development strategies outlined in Venezuela’s national development plans and particularly by the principles of participatory and protagonistic democracy. 

So what arguments can Albornoz summon up to describe as ‘undemocratic’ this attempt at extending the principle of ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ into the university sector?

According to Albornoz, the legislation “cannot work” and will allow “the state to take over the whole higher education system”. Moreover, for Albornoz, giving students a monthly stipend (contrast the hikes in student fees in the UK) is not designed to enable all to participate in what Chávez has described as Venezuela’s giant school, but an attempt to make them “state employees, a kind of civilian army”.

He goes on to claim that the government that is in reality creating ‘mass intellectualism’ in Venezuela is “openly anti-intellectual”. When Chávez took office in 1998, there were just 600,000 undergraduate students. Now there are more than two million, making Venezuela second to Cuba among Latin American countries with respect to percentages attending university.

Postgraduate programmes have increased from 176 in 1989-98 to 351 in 1999-09. Venezuela is currently listed by the Unesco Institute of Statistics as among the countries that have most substantially expanded higher education gross enrolment in the Latin America and Caribbean region since the late 1990s, and it currently claims the eighth position worldwide following Cuba, South Korea, Finland, Greece, Slovenia, the US and Denmark.

In fact, about half of Venezuela’s total population of approximately 28 million people have participated in some form of compulsory or non-formal free state-provided education. By 2007, 15.3 million Venezuelans (55% of the total population) were in some form of compulsory formal or voluntary non-formal public education. 

Flores uses Chávez’s response when the law met with opposition – “this law has a lot of strengths and a lot of weaknesses…it deserves to be widely discussed” – to make a further slur on the president’s credentials.

For Flores, this did not represent a measured and honest response to some people’s misgivings (Chávez also added that as president he is “ready, when necessary, to rectify and call for debate and reflection”), but further ‘evidence’ that Chávez is a dictator. 

Flores quotes the Secretary General of the Federation of University Centres who describes Chávez’s decision as “just another strategy to manipulate public opinion and show the world and the people of Venezuela his democratic façade”.

The new law is designed as a counter-measure to Venezuela’s long-standing history of political repression on university campuses during the years of US-backed dictatorship, and represents a deepening of true participatory democracy as opposed to the serious shortcomings of representative liberal democracy as historically practised in Venezuela and the global North.

In the UK, we have a right-wing cabal of millionaires; in the US, a Democratic president driven by right-wing republicanism and other corporate interests. Representative democracy poses no threat to working people in Venezuela, the UK, the US and elsewhere – on the contrary; but it does pose a great threat to ruling elites everywhere, hence the need for a constant and sustained attack on Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution.

Critics of the revolution express the latent anxiety of those who fear real democracy, who don’t trust the notion of social equity through popular action.

It appears that they are at a loss to know how to respond to an education system in which respect is accorded to learning; where learning is embedded within an ecology of knowledge as opposed to a monoculture of knowledge (by his own admission, Albornoz notes that “the best universities in Venezuela are heavily bureaucratic institutions based on teaching by rote learning”); in which the goal of education is not to produce human capital, but a critical citizenry, and not to create an entrepreneurial-competitive global elite, but social justice on a global scale. 

When education is designed to serve the entire society and is not narrowly conceived as the enhancement of social mobility within the larger capitalist social order, it cannot be articulated only or mainly in positivistic, quantifiable standards.

Granted, the 2,000 newly created aldeas universitarias housed in educational institutions, prisons, military garrisons and libraries throughout all of the 335 municipalities in Venezuela might not count for much in terms of international standards of academic prestige.

However, when a central criterion of successful education rests upon the notion of improving the living conditions of the Venezuelan people, this might not be a standard that will help Venezuela’s universities compete in the top 1,000 of world academic institutions, but it is a standard that world-class universities would do well to follow.

If we regard the Cuban Literacy Campaign as the greatest educational achievement of the past 100 years, then the achievement of an illiteracy-free Venezuela would surely count as a runner-up.

But do these standards matter to the critics of the revolution?

While I am sure our critics would not like to return to the days of the late fourth republic when universities and colleges were places that allocated according to socio-geographical criteria, such as place of residence (in which case applicants from los barrios pobres would be automatically excluded) or when the law faculties would demand strict dress codes (which would exclude from studying law those who could not afford the right clothes), it is clear that they find the goal of socialism for the 21st century a hard pill to swallow.

Clearly, by advancing the economic, social and cultural role of education as a part of local, national and regional endogenous development for the purpose of creating a 21st century socialism dedicated to both participatory and direct democracy, Venezuela is undertaking an ethical and moral re-foundation of the nation. 

The functional dimension of public power has expanded from the intergenerational responsibility of the judiciary, legislative and executive power to the electorate by means of community and student councils (consejos comunales). And moving towards economic equality requires not only long-term structural transformation, but a re-scaling of power from the bourgeoisie and private managerial elite to those toiling in the barrios. 

Contrast the Bolivarian initiative with a recent state appeals court ruling in New York State that the state was obliged to provide no more than a middle-school-level education, and to prepare students for nothing more than the lowest-level jobs.

Contrast developments in Venezuela with the partnering of neo-liberal education initiatives with social conservatives in the for-profit charter school movement in the United States. 

Contrast Venezuela to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers unions in the United States, who overwhelmingly accept neo-liberalism’s definition of democracy and view the world of learning and knowledge production through the eyes of US capitalism. 

This re-imagining of the fifth republic as a social and inclusive participatory democracy stipulates moving from the exclusionary practices under the clientelist ancien regime. The old practices are giving way to a new landscape of consejos comunales (community councils) far removed from the days of the “caracazo”. 

* Dr Mike Cole is research professor in education and equality and director of the Centre for Education for Social Justice at Bishop Grosseteste University College Lincoln, UK. Dr Peter McLaren is professor of urban education in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. Thanks to Thomas Muhr for statistical information.