VENEZUELA: Academic freedom under threat

This Open Letter is a personal response to the 27 new laws issued in Venezuela in the last few weeks, two of which seek to control higher education. The legislation has been issued in anticipation of the installation of a new national assembly in a frenetic process that suggests a political urgency that defies common sense.

The aim of this letter is to contribute to the discussion about the future of Venezuela and particularly of its higher education system, to make the international academic community aware of what is going on and to get them to put pressure on the Venezuelan authorities to preserve academic freedom. It is also a letter to the ruling powers in Venezuela to help them understand that by damaging higher education they are denying the country opportunities for development and prosperity.

The new laws which concern higher education are the revision of the Ley Orgánica de Ciencia y Tecnología, (LOCTI) and the introduction of the Ley de Educación Universitaria (LEU). The latter was approved unanimously by the National Assembly, but sent back to the National Assembly by President Hugo Chávez in early January following threats by the opposition to organise widespread protests against it. [On 11 January, the law was officially withdrawn.]

This is just short-term tactics, though, and in the long term the government is likely to push it through as part of its war of attrition against the institutions of the 'ancien regime'.

Alongside these laws, legislation was published which aims to control the media. The real aim of the legislation, however, is to consolidate power in the hands of the army. This is not new in Venezuelan history. A century ago Cipriano Castro Ruiz, another army leader, another caudillo, was in power. The army continues to be the arbiter of Venezuelan society, a society which is always on the lookout for a saviour or messiah figure.

According to the new law, students will have the right to an equal vote in the election of university authorities, be able to evaluate professors and participate in self-evaluation, freely express opinions, access university administrative records, and receive a range of services including housing, transportation, meals, healthcare and monthly stipends, among other rights.

The law also establishes a series of university councils that are to be elected on each campus through a one-person, one-vote democratic system that includes students, professors, administrators and other members of the university community. This includes a University Public Defenders Council and an Ombudsman Council to audit and oversee university budgeting and administration.

Similarly, each campus will elect a legislative body of representatives called the University Transformation Assembly that will work with the National Council for University Transformation to manage changes to the public university system's administrative structure and programmes in line with the new law and the constitution.

I believe this legislation cannot work. It will create confusion and unnecessary noise while allowing the state to take over the whole higher education system. It will isolate us from the international higher education system and it will mean universities are thrown into a permanent struggle for power. Academic life will be sidelined and the quality of higher education will suffer.

Moreover, paying students a monthly stipend will make them state employees, a kind of civilian army. Venezuelan universities will not disappear, in as much as they are resilient institutions, but technically speaking they will no longer exist as true academic institutions, questioning received ideas and looking for truth.

The government has also recently replaced the Programa de Promoción al Investigador (PPI), a successful programme which acted as the launch-pad for a research career, modelled on Mexico's Sistema Nacional de Investigador (SNI).

From January the PPI programme was superseded by the Programa de Estímulo a la Investigación (PEI). This operates, to quote the official description, "under the principles of social inclusion, sustainability and social justice and intends to stimulate and to foment the generation of scientific, technological and innovative knowledge whose main aim is to serve the social needs of the Venezuelan population and contribute to the consolidation of national sovereignty".

Those who have already passed through the PPI - some 7,000 people in the last year - are not mentioned. Apparently they will have to requalify. It is likely, however, that many will be considered unfit for the PEI since it has strict ideological constraints.

Personally, I find the stipulation that academic research should comply with the need to "contribute to the consolidation of national sovereignty" very hard to square with true academic values. There is no doubt that academic research should, to a degree, comply with national needs, but it should also seek to be internationally relevant, to contribute to 'global sovereignty'.

If the government dictates the academic agenda the outcome of research will only be useful to the ruling elite and the research agenda will be restricted to what they believe are the country's main social problems. This means that academic creativity will disappear. All scientific research will be linked to applied sciences; pure scientific research will disappear. Only group research and project work will be supported. Individual research will not be funded.

This will be devastating for social sciences. Only those who support the revolution will get funding. All of this is being done in the name of democracy, the public interest and development, but it is the government and the government alone that will set the agenda.

It is the only funding source in Venezuela. The private sector is being threatened and will slowly disappear if the government manages to impose its socialist agenda. It is unable to be a partner in science and technology research. There will be little opportunity for international funding since the government sees enemies everywhere and suspects non-government organisations of being imperialist organisations.

Such homogenisation will crush political and ideological dissent and will mean the death of critical thinking, ushering in a new era of fundamentalism and orthodoxy.

This is not to say that Venezuela's higher education system was in good shape before the current government came to power. Indeed, Chavez is more the consequence of a long period of decline. He may be profiting from this decay, but he did not initiate it. What is true, however, is that the policies of this government have made things worse, as can be seen in Venezuela's poor performance in world university rankings. For example, no Venezuelan university is among the top 1,000 universities.

The best universities in Venezuela are heavily bureaucratic institutions based on teaching by rote learning. These autonomous universities have been attacked by the government which has sought to create a parallel higher education system and expand access without any rational criteria to underpin this expansion except the desire for political and ideological control.

The strategy of the revolutionary government has been to open its own higher education institutions and to minimise the role of the autonomous ones. In the past decade, the revolutionary government has opened 12 new universities and plans to have one university in each of the 330 municipalities of the country. It is a creative way of controlling higher education.

Venezuelan higher education is in a cul de sac. The government is trying to control it all, both ideologically and politically. Academics are attempting to defend a more diverse system, but they are weak. The government has all the power.

If strict control is applied, diversity will disappear. This does not mean I am defending the system that existed before 1998, which failed to democratise access. However, there needs to be a balance between mass access and quality, the role of the public and the private sectors, good teaching and excellent research, national social responsibility and service to the international academic community.

Venezuelan universities can only defend themselves in the end on the basis of ideas. This is their strength. The only confrontation in which universities have a chance of winning is in the battle of ideas and knowledge. The danger comes when this knowledge, these ideas, are curtailed by external or internal forces.

The current regime is openly anti-intellectual and does not understand academic life. Researchers thrive on having the time for serendipitous discovery and this cannot be written down in a doctrinaire manual, much less controlled by an army sergeant shouting orders. In the army people are supposed to give orders and be obeyed; in academia we are supposed to think and have no expectation whatsoever that we will be obeyed. Rather, we expect criticism and to be contradicted. An army person is always right; we in academia enjoy being wrong.

This Open Letter is a call to the international community to help us preserve the integrity of our universities. By supporting academic freedom in Venezuela, you can give us strength and hope. After all, armies much mightier than those in power in my country have come and gone while the world of ideas has remained because it is the route to the advancement of mankind.

* Dr Orlando Albornoz is a professor of sociology at the Universidad Central de Venezuela. This is a shortened version of his open letter.