VENEZUELA: Chavez scraps university entrance exam

A decision by the socialist government of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to scrap the national university examination has raised questions about its effect on academic standards and how precisely to widen access for poorer students.

By abolishing the Academic Aptitude Examination, the government has in effect moved from a selection process to one based on entrance. Instead of low-scoring students missing out on a university place, the new system may require them to undertake a remedial course before they enrol in a university programme.

Experts estimate that public universities based up to 30% of their admission decisions on results from the national examination. But private institutions and many public university faculties ignored the score and gave their own exams.

Government critics conceded the old system reinforced the privilege enjoyed by wealthy urbanites over poor students.

“If you’re upper class, you know about all the exams and can pay for them,” said Leonardo Carvajal, an education researcher who coordinates a local non-government organisation, the Education Assembly. “But if you’re a poor youth from the provinces, you don’t know and you don’t have the money.”

Government and the opposition-dominated public autonomous universities agree with scrapping the old examination for a different system that offered remedial courses and widened university access.

Of about 300,000 Venezuelans who graduate from high school each year, some 100,000 fail to obtain a public university place, estimates Carvajal.

Points of contention included the timeline and financial investment needed, said Alejandro Teruel, a spokesman for the Simon Bolivar University, an autonomous public institution.

“Public universities would like more flexibility, so they can still select students based on their own criteria,” Teruel said. “By giving more weight to some criteria over others – including community volunteerism and sports – you can avoid homogenisation and maintain competitiveness. This is tied to autonomy.”

Another key issue was in the number of student places each university could add, said Julia Montoya who heads the government office in charge of higher education entrance.

“I think they can receive more students than they’ve estimated,” Montoya said.

Although critics claimed that some of the government’s other initiatives to widen access have been at the cost of educational quality, Montoya said inclusion did not have to mean lowering the achievement bar. Nor would widening access require a costly university-building frenzy.

“Blended learning programs will allow us to receive more students,” she said. “We have to break the paradigm that universities consist of walls.”