A post-Chávez higher education conciliation?

There is no question that Hugo Chávez has left a controversial mark on the pages of social and political history. For some he was a charismatic, bold visionary committed to social justice and the eradication of inequality. But for his critics, the late president was a harbinger of democratic decline and economic decay.

His influence on Venezuela’s higher education system was likewise divisive, marked by direct clashes with university administrators and student leaders. What the government intended as reforms for participatory, 'protagonist' democracy, universities took as a challenge to the traditional values of autonomy and academic freedom.

In reaction to Chávez’s reforms, universities have mounted serious opposition to the regime on both procedural and substantive grounds.

With an election to choose Chávez's successor expected in the near future, it is uncertain what new leadership will offer to Venezuela’s post-secondary system or how a united university movement might find common ground with the new regime.

Access and autonomy

Post-secondary education became a priority of the Chávez administration in 2003, when the government launched the Bolivarian Missions, a series of social outreach programmes designed to facilitate education access to previously excluded groups.

The educational mission’s key initiatives included literacy and university preparation programmes, as well as the creation of the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, designed in part to train a new class of civil servants in the ideals of 21st century socialism.

In terms of enrolment, these policies have been effective: from 1998-2009, Venezuela’s national enrollment in higher education grew by 170%.

Though much of the mission’s approach has been received well by the public, critics argue that the new institution functions as little more than a partisan arm of the state, challenging traditional values of university autonomy.

University elections

By 2006, serious tensions were growing between the government and the national autonomous universities. The government froze the institutions’ operating budgets, significantly limiting universities’ capacity to pay salaries, acquire teaching and learning resources, and maintain infrastructure.

Challenges to institutional autonomy came to a dramatic head in 2009 when the National Assembly passed the Organic Education Law (LOE), replacing the 1980 version in an attempt to broaden the electorate in university governance.

The new law extended the right to vote in university elections beyond professors, students and alumni to administrative personnel, incorporated workers and non-tenured professors.

An impassioned public conflict ensued, reaching a crisis in 2010 with the Supreme Court issuing several suspensions that prohibited universities from electing their own rectors and deans until they adhered to the LOE.

University opposition

These reforms were often greeted with popular support, but this era also saw universities return to their historical role as opponents of the government. Legislation was countered with collective protests from administrators, students and civil society organisations.

Although government pressure was strong, 2010 saw an unprecedented backlash from institutions, forcing Chávez to rescind a proposed update to the 1970 Universities Law, which would have further encroached on the traditional definition of university autonomy.

Fundamentally, this ongoing conflict is about the boundaries of the university community. Supporters of the Bolivarian process consider reforms as democratising the elitist ivory tower, while critics see imminent threats to institutional autonomy.

Key outcomes of the ongoing battle are the revitalisation of the student protest movement as well as the mobilisation of a frustrated professoriate.

Even Chávez's last weeks were plagued by barbs of this conflict: university administrators issued a call for Venezuelan doctors to assess his competency in Cuba, while students chained themselves to the Cuban embassy in Caracas demanding to know the truth about his health.

Going forward

Venezuela’s post-secondary system is in crisis. With a possible presidential election a few weeks away, universities will need to be strategic in making their priorities heard.

For the most part, stakeholders agree that the public university system is in need of serious modernisation. The current Universities Law is far too outdated to guide the development of the post-secondary system amid local and global pressures.

Chávez's successor must decide whether to continue the hard line of forcing change through judicial, legislative and budgetary mechanisms, or whether to adopt a more conciliatory approach.

At the same time, university and student leaders must carefully calibrate their response, finding some middle ground that preserves university values while promoting democratic, equitable higher education.

* Elliot Storm is a doctoral candidate in the department of political science at the University of Toronto. His dissertation examines state-university relations in contemporary Venezuela. Grace Karram Stephenson is a higher and international education specialist with the Comparative, International and Development Education Centre in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, at the University of Toronto, Canada.