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Opinion and Analysis: Bolivarian Project | Social Programs

Taking the University to the People: The Politics of Higher Education in Venezuela

For more than nine years, Venezuela’s Bolivarian University (UBV) has been leading the fight to democratize higher education and provide opportunities for aspiring students who for a range of economic and geographic reasons had been previously unable to receive a college degree.

With more than 400,000 current students, the new institution has sought to break with the exclusionary nature of the country’s traditional universities that held a virtual monopoly over college education until the election of Hugo Chavez as President in 1998. 

According to the UBV’s website, before the ascent of the Bolivarian Revolution to power with Chavez’s electoral victory, “higher education in Venezuela had become a privilege which only a minority of the population could access”, a consequence of “an unjust, classist system that provided knowledge to small groups for personal gain”.   

Transforming the exclusivity of this university structure became a key policy of the Chavez administration after a failed coup d’etat and a managementled oil lockout in 2002 attempted to remove the democratically elected leader from office.

In 2003, the government created a number of educational programs such as Mission Robinson, which gives students who left high school the opportunity to complete their studies, and the Bolivarian University of Venezuela which attempts to regionalize higher education by taking college classrooms to towns and villages around the nation.  

The Andean town of La  Azulita,  home  to  little over ten thousand inhabitants, is an example of this “municipalization” of free university education.

Since 2006, the UBV has been providing a number of career options for local residents of the small town in a diversity of fields including animal husbandry, education, law, nursing and industrial mechanics.  

Ada Gomez is a former student of the UBV and is now working as an administrator in the career development department of the institution’s Andres Bello facilities in La Azulita.

According to Gomez, who was born in the capital of Caracas, the government program has given her the chance to realize her dreams of finishing her studies and becoming a professional.

“When I arrived here to this municipality, I didn’t have a career.  I saw that the door was opening and I took advantage of the opportunity... Many people have had their life changed by this”, Gomez said.

While the creation of the UBV has helped to improve the lives of thousands of people like Gomez, its genesis has not been unaccompanied by a level of tumult emanating from the country’s conventional institutions.

In recent years, more established universities, such as the ULA in the city of Merida, have become political battlegrounds where radical anti-government student groups supported by conservative administrations have converted the educational centers into bastions of opposition activism.

Indeed, Merida is a fitting example of the degree to which the universities have become politicized. The former dean of the ULA, Lestor Rodriguez, was elected mayor in 2008 as a member of the rightwing opposition party, Copei.

Rodriguez, a former oil engineer trained in the United States, is currently making a bid in Merida state’s gubernatorial elections slated for this December 16.

Threatened by the rising enrollment and funding of institutions like the UBV, universities like the ULA have been fighting to maintain their hold over higher education in Venezuela, rejecting the government’s initiatives and criticizing the quality of the degrees being offered in the state programs. 

“They say that we’re mediocre and that we don’t have real professors, but that’s totally false.  Those who want to study are going to study no matter where they are, whether it be in a public or private institution or in one of the government’s missions”, Ada Gomez affirmed.

Yet as the antagonism between the old guard universities and the Chavez administration continues, some ULA students have decided to break with the exclusionary nature of the country’s traditional education. 

Julio Manzilla is president of the student organization, Humanist Consciousness, which has been working to share the knowledge and skills of the ULA with the communities of Merida through workshops and lectures.

“We’ve been carrying out this program for three years with the purpose of taking the university to the isolated communities where there doesn’t exist any kind of collaboration with the ULA. If we want the university to last, the people need to feel connected to it”, Manzilla said.

The project has been received enthusiastically by the residents of small mountain towns like La Azulita where the organization has worked together with government-sponsored programs such as the UBV.

“For me, this program of integrating the UBV with other educational institutions has been a success.  It has allowed us to work as a team and to share knowledge and experiences”, Gomez asserted. 

Humanist Consciousness does not profess to be a political organization nor does it claim direct affiliation with the national government, preferring to maintain an independent status for all students who wish to participate.

Nevertheless, the work being done by this group is taking place in a manner similar to government programs and is assisting in the establishment of a new educational paradigm in Venezuela.

“The interesting thing is that it’s the students who are promoting these types of activities”, said Edwing Panza who gives talks on sexual education to high school  students  as  part  of  Humanist Consciousness’ work.

“It’s the student organizations that are opening the university to the community”, Panza added.