Venezuela's public universities are claiming they will receive only a fraction of the state funding they require in 2012 under a new government budget. The 'autonomous' universities complain that they are being singled out because they do not fall under the control of President Hugo Chavez' leftist government.
Bernardo Méndez, administrative vice-rector at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), said the amount allocated to the institution for 2012, currently being finalised in the country's national assembly, is exactly the same as in 2011.12.01
But this "represents from the start a real reduction of 25% to 30% when you take into account inflation rates this year," he said in the university's November newsletter. In October 2011 the inflation rate in Venezuela was just under 28%.
Méndez said the budget deficit would affect every aspect of the university and would mean the university would begin its fiscal year in the red. "Under present conditions the budget is not enough even to pay all of what is due to workers."
UCV will receive VEF1.25 billion ($290 million), barely a third of the VEF3.6 billion its administration calculates is required to meet basic expenses in 2012.
Other autonomous universities will also see their budgets clawed back. Simón Bolivar University (USB) is slated to receive less than 40% of funding requested under the budget.
Dr Orlando Albornoz, a professor of sociology at UCV, is convinced that the government's minimal funding of the autonomous universities represents an ulterior political motive.
"The current administration is keen to control all institutions of this society. The so-called autonomous universities are outside that control and it's for that reason the [government] has applied a simple strategy: to design their own university system and restrict funds to those institutions outside their direct control."
Mariya Ivancheva, whose PhD research focused on Venezuelan higher education, sees it differently: "From what I know from interviews, universities spend a lot of money on faculty, far too many of whom have emeritus status, and also on lavish luxury expenses - receptions, cars etc. At the same time they spend far too little on sports and research facilities, services, research budgets, and salaries of non-academic workers."
Albornoz does agree that some university debt is due to the mishandling of funds by university authorities. "The university is a very mismanaged institution. The autonomous universities have managed to garner a number of privileges that work against a well-managed institution," he told University World News.
He also feels that autonomous universities have embraced their role as political rivals to the Chavez government rather than focusing on being academic institutions, and have thus "missed out on political negotiation".
Tertiary education in general - be it autonomous or directly run by government ministries -appears to be a low priority for the Venezuelan government in 2012.
Institutions of higher education can expect to receive a total of VEF14.7 billion for their operations, a below-inflation increase of 6.7% from 2011.
In contrast, the 2012 budget for social services is set to increase by 27%, while total government spending will rise from VEF204 billion in 2011 to nearly VEF300 billion in 2012 - up nearly 50%. Only 5% of these resources will be allocated to tertiary education, or approximately 0.9% if the country's gross domestic product.
Between 2007 and 2011 university salaries were frozen, despite national inflation of 20% to 30% per year. After three years without raises, Chavez finally boosted university salaries by 40% in April.
Dr Luis Fuenmayor Toro, an ex-rector of UCV, said despite basic living expenses in Venezuela being very high, a full professor with PhD and 15 years academic experience or more only receives about $20,000 a year, and an associate professor $10,000.
When professors gathered at the National University Council in October to discuss demands for better pay, UCV's secretary of academic affairs revealed that many teachers had recently resigned due to meagre wages. "In the humanities we have had more than 74 resignations of teachers, and in engineering 60."
Albornoz indicated that research is also suffering. "By limiting the budget so extremely the country is losing the opportunity to keep abreast of international academic activities."
The parsing of funds comes after a period of expansion in Venezuelan higher education. UNESCO recently praised Misión Sucre, a social programme devoted to providing higher education to the poor through an alternative government-run university system.
Due to Misión Sucre, enrolment in higher education in Venezuela has skyrocketed, increasing from less than 700,000 in 1998 to more than two million this year. According to the World Economic Forum, that places Venezuela as eighth worldwide in tertiary enrollment per capita.
However the forum warned: "The overall quality of the educational system is very weak."
Former rector Fuenmayor Toro agrees: "Universities are suffering because they do not have enough prepared professionals that can be incorporated into the academic staff."
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