Merida, March 2, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com) - Venezuelan Vice President Ramón Carrizales this week proposed to the Venezuelan National Assembly a public debate over higher education admissions policies in the nation's state-funded universities as part of a "profound revision of the education that we are constructing."
The proposition capped off a month of public debate among student groups and officials about changes to the admissions process proposed on February 7th by Higher Education Minister Luis Acuño, who declared that "every effort we have to put forth to increase spaces in the universities must be done," and said the aim of the reforms is to end exclusion from Venezuela's universities.
Minister Acuño´s proposal would eliminate the standardized aptitude test for university aspirants, as well as all mechanisms of internal university selection.
The Minister proposes that university admission become open to all upon finishing high school, on a scale based on grade point average, and that placement be managed by a central registry based on a "Vocational Exploration Test" that will "diagnose" each high school graduate`s general profile, including life circumstances and academic strengths and weaknesses.
This would be bolstered by the government´s construction of over 25 new universities in order to "regionalize" and "municipalize" higher education, so that students can attend universities close to home and carry out studies related to the needs of their communities, with expanded government grants to take care of student expenses.
A group of 300 opposition students from the public Central University of Venezuela (UCV), transported on University buses and led by the president of the student federation, Ricardo Sánchez, marched against the minister's plan Wednesday, calling it a "violation of the constitution" because it reduces internal discretionary power of universities which, according to the constitution, are autonomous.
The students also claimed that the changes would allow the government to give preferential admission to political supporters of President Hugo Chávez, and called the vocational test a "stupidity".
The protestors were welcomed into the Higher Education Ministry to debate with Minister Acuño, who said, "we want every aspect of the opinion of the student sector to be discussed." Sánchez read a document in which the students rejected all of the proposed changes, demanded bigger budgets for the public universities, and claimed that students were not consulted in the formulation of reform proposals.
Following Sánchez´s speech, the students promptly abandoned the debate before it had finished, and Sánchez boasted to the press "we achieved the paralysis of the National University Council, converting street presence into the only mechanism that will make the national government understand the students' requirements."
Addressing the protestors' demands, Minister Acuño commented that "even if we increase the [autonomous university] budgets by 100% and maintain the admissions system the way it is now, I assure you that [no new spots would be created to] enter the University," and invited the students back for further debate.
"I do not understand how a group of university students could oppose there being more studying opportunities for high school graduates who want to enter into higher education," Acuño stated to the press. He also criticized that the students chose to protest on the anniversary of the "Caracazo," a government massacre of civilians in 1989 from the lower classes who were protesting government free market economic policies, an event hailed by President Chávez as the starting point of the Bolivarian Revolution.
In early February, another group of students from the Bolivarian Federation of Students (FBE) turned in to the Higher Education Ministry a series of proposals for the improvement of the admissions system. FBE President Carlos Sierra asserted that "the first and only requisite to enter in the University should be the desire to study and there cannot be any type of exclusion."
In addition to listening to student opinions, the Higher Education Ministry has met over the past few months with an array of university officials across the nation, and hosted workshops on admissions policy reform that are known as "street parliament" and are open to the public.
Authorities from two major public universities, the University of Zulia (LUZ) and the University of the Andes (ULA), expressed their support for the proposed changes after meeting with the Higher Education Ministry on February 17th. These institutions offered to create, respectively, 12,000 and 25,000 new spaces for incoming students if the new system is implemented, according to the Director of Student Affairs, Bernardo Ancidey.
But the final decision on admissions policy lies in the National University Council (CNU), an entity consigned to the Higher Education Ministry. This has been a point of dissent among advocates of a new admissions process, who also tend to sympathize with the administration of President Chávez.
ULA Professor Lilido Ramírez, an activist for a more inclusive university system, told Venezuelanalysis.com in a telephone interview that he fully supports the elimination of the exclusive selection process that has maintained "faculties free of poor people," but asserted that the decision should be made by "the People" in local communities, including those outside of the university community, not government officials appointed by the executive.
Ramírez asserts that the current system of internal selection is unconstitutional, because it is the government's responsibility to guarantee free education for all citizens through the undergraduate level as a "human right and fundamental social duty," according to Article 102 of Venezuela's constitution, which was ratified by popular referendum in 1999. Article 103, in turn, mandates that the only factors which shall determine access to higher education shall be the student's "aptitude, vocation, and aspirations," Ramírez points out.
Ramírez further criticizes Minister Acuño's suggestion that high school graduates be admitted on a scale based on grade point average if space is limited in the University. While this might repair the imbalance between admits from public and private high schools, "it is still a form of exclusion" against those whose life situations did not permit them to graduate at the top of their classes, the professor analyzed.
The Association of Bolivarian Rectors (ARBOL), a network of faculty and students from the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV) created by the Chávez administration, also takes a supportively critical stance. "We are disposed to defend everything that walks the path of equality, everything that strengthens the capacity of the government to guarantee the rights of the People," ARBOL member Yadira Córdova proclaimed.
"But the question we should ask ourselves is inclusion for what?" Professor María Elvira Gómez of the Francisco de Miranda National Experimental University postulated, "to guarantee that a greater number of high school graduates enter the university and receive a formation that reproduces the neoliberal and capitalist system?"
Since President Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, the government has increased student higher education grants, expanded and opened new universities nation-wide, and created free pre-university programs through federal "missions".
However, the largest public universities such as the UCV and the ULA (which are free of charge and provide housing and monthly grants to students), remain bastions of the economic elite. For example, in the ULA, only 4% of students admitted are from the lowest income sectors of the population, while up to 65% of students in some faculties are from the upper and upper-middle class, according to university statistics.
Meanwhile, records from the National Institute of Statistics show that the percentage of the Venezuelan population with a university degree increased from 21% to 22% in 2007, but unemployment among this group hovers at around 11.5%. At the same time, unemployment among those who did not study beyond the ninth grade is between 4% and 6%, below the national unemployment rate of 7.5% in the second half of last year.