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ARGENTINA: New law guarantees free access

A priority of Argentina's new government will be to introduce a law for higher education that guarantees free access to the state university system. This follows the election of Cristina Kirchner, who became the country's first elected female president on 10 December. But not all university rectors are happy about the prospect.

The government of Kirchner's predecessor and husband, Nestor Kirchner, had promised to introduce such a law but Congress never found legislative time for it, as it had to deal with other problems arising from the severe economic crisis of 2001 to 2002.

Kirchner has appointed a new Education Minister, Juan Carlos Tedesco, who was previously director of the international office of education at Unesco and a professor in the history of education at various Argentine universities, including the University of La Plata. Alberto Dibbern remains the secretary for university policy.

The new administration looks set to make higher education a priority and wants to replace the current controversial law governing the area, introduced by Carlos Menem's government in 1995. This allows public universities to charge fees. Some have encouraged students to make voluntary contributions while others charge for some postgraduate courses, especially distance ones. The new government would like to prohibit all fees by law, which could put it on a collision course with some rectors.

In a recent interview, Dibbern said: "It is central [that the new law] declares higher education as a public good and establishes free access for university courses. Moreover, it must guarantee the autonomy of universities and establish, within this framework, the function and composition of the various stakeholders of co-governance of the universities.

"It is fundamental that the law emerges from a consensus between all the players: the National Inter-University Advisory Council; the private rectors; the trade unions; the students; alumni; and industry."

Experts say it is not yet clear how the new law would guarantee free access to higher education. Private education is becoming more and more important to Argentina and today some 234,000 students attend private universities, some 20% of all students in the country. The number being educated privately has leapt by 47% during the past decade.

It is believed the new law will have specific clauses for private universities, allowing them to charge fees, but that it will have another section guaranteeing free access to public university education.

The new law is also likely to ensure the continuation of the National Commission for University Evaluation and Accreditation, while requiring it to be made up of more academics. Rectors want a specific clause that guarantees a funding mechanism for higher education, so as to avoid the annual row between universities and the government over money. And they want it to spell out a budget for research work.

Dr Daniel Martínez, rector of the National University of La Matanza and one of the academics who is helping to draft the new law, says: "You must not forget that there exists a great heterogeneity between the advisory councils of almost 40 national universities. It will be a huge job to reconcile the different positions, taking into account that each university is determined by the profile of the thinking of the people who govern it."
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