Chávez leaves a legacy of poorly funded universities

As Nicólas Maduro takes the reins as Venezuelan interim president following the death of his strongman predecessor Hugo Chávez, educators and university administrators are hoping for a chance to repair tattered relations with their government.

“It could be an opportunity; we're waiting for them to listen to us,” said Rafael Escalona, academic vice-rector at Caracas’ Simón Bolívar University, or USB.

Educators have long lambasted the government for setting university budgets that never grow, crippling these institutions’ ability to improve infrastructure, conduct research and offer competitive wages.

In the past six years, the country’s public higher education budget has increased only once – a 12% average rise granted for fiscal year 2012 – but inflation has soared over 22% annually, among the world's highest rates.

Last September, administrative vice-rectors from 11 universities including the Central University of Venezuela, the University of Los Andes and the USB – Venezuela's top three universities according to QS world university rankings – signed a declaration stating that the university community was in “one of the worst financial budget crises of the last 45 years”.

And despite the 2012 increase, the USB says it is still receiving only a small portion of what it actually needs – estimating that the Ministry of Higher Education only approved 39.5% of the VEF454.9 million (US$72.3 million) it requested for the current 2012-13 academic year.

The institution has only stayed afloat through supplemental stopgap funding provided by the Ministry of Higher Education, paid sporadically through additional credits.

The UCB's precarious financial situation is endemic to the entire public sector, explained the university’s Administrative Vice-rector William Colmenares.

Further complicating matters, he said, is that the incoming supplemental credits are “completely discretional”, with educators unsure about the funding they will receive and when – if ever – it will arrive.

Furthermore, Colmenares pointed out, the majority of the additional funding allocated in 2012 had been diverted to cover wage increases, leaving no federal funding for infrastructure improvements or research.

And academics are still paid poorly.

The Federation of University Teachers Associations of Venezuela is currently demanding a 100% salary increase. Full-time public university professors currently earn slightly more than the minimum wage ($325 a month), and tenured professors just over twice that amount.

According to the University of Central Venezuela professors’ association, 700 academics resigned from the university between 2009 and 2012, stirring fears about shortages of quality teachers.

While the Chávez administration has created 13 new universities and increased student enrolment through its Bolivarian Missions social programmes, it also needs to improve conditions for professors to ensure quality education, said Mariano Herrera, director of the Centre for Educational and Cultural Research, a Venezuelan NGO.

This expansion has weakened the overall standard of Venezuela’s higher education: “Taking resources from other levels, where there are existing problems, affects not only the higher social classes, but also the disadvantaged ones,” said Herrera.

With Chávez dead, even if his handpicked successor Nicólas Maduro wins the upcoming April election, there is hope change may follow.

“Maduro is not Chávez,” said former University of Venezuela rector Luis Fuenmayor, the country’s higher education planning director until 2004.

He stressed that Maduro lacked the broad support of his predecessor: “The [new] government is weaker than the former, which could push it to negotiate with different sectors to shore up support and become more pluralistic in the long run,” he said.

But when and if these negotiations take place remains to be seen, he added.