HE in crisis – What role for the global academic community?

Daniel Ortega’s government, with the support of Nicaragua’s National Assembly, closed seven private universities and seven international universities between December 2021 and January 2022.

Other organisations, such as associations and foundations created to support universities, were also closed. The origins of this recent rupture between government and universities can be tracked back to at least 2018 and the ripple effects continue.

So where did this all begin? On 18 April 2018, police and supporters of Ortega brutally repressed mass protests against a reform of the social security system that reduced the value of pensions.

As a counter response, larger protests around the country took place, turning into what became known as the April Uprising. Thousands of students took over public and private universities to protest against the regime and led massive demonstrations across the country.

Many of the protesters barricaded themselves in the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua (UPOLI) (private), the National University of Engineering (UNI), the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) Managua and the UNAN-León (all public universities). The UPOLI protest was the longest one and lasted from 19 April until 9 June 2019.

After the government forcibly retook control of the universities, those who participated in the takeovers were expelled. Estimates as of 30 January 2022 suggest that at least 144 students were expelled, including 110 from the different campuses of UNAN.

Dozens of academics and administrative workers were dismissed for supporting the protests. Others who were not expelled suffered harassment and threats from academic authorities, the police and paramilitary groups, and students stayed away due to the ongoing aggressive stance. Most of the expelled students also had their academic records erased.

The private Paulo Freire University (UPF) created the Programme for the Continuation of Higher Studies (PROCES) which allowed students who had been unjustly expelled from public universities to continue their studies there.

Closure of universities

The closure of private and international universities was justified by alleged violations of the Anti-Money Laundering, Financing of Terrorism and Financing of the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, with universities specifically accused of not having reported their financial statements for 2020, not giving access to agreements with their donors and not providing clear information about their financing sources.

In some cases, the government claimed that the “board of directors was acephalous [leaderless]”. Some foreign associations were charged with not filing financial reports to the government for more than 10 years, not reporting the composition of the board of directors in terms of their country of origin and not reporting donations from abroad.

Some were also accused of not having on file copies of the identity documents of their directors, their legal representatives in Nicaragua and their funders. Some of those international institutions had already suspended their operations years before the accusations.

Representatives from the universities pointed out that their documentation was in order, but said the Ministry of the Interior had refused to receive the corresponding documents, a ploy that was also used with other cancelled associations.

These closures were interpreted as an effort to take control of Nicaragua’s universities and as retaliation against those who had played an active role in the April 2018 protests (such as UPOLI and UPF) or as an effort to take control of organisations owned by enemies of the government.

For example, the Universidad Católica Agropecuaria del Trópico Seco (UCATSE) was linked to the Diocese of Estelí (north), one of the most vocal critics of the Ortega government, and Universidad Hispanoamericana (UHISPAM) and other cancelled associations were linked to Leonardo Torres, a former unconditional ally of the regime who fell out of favour.

The impact of these closures is significant, both because of the number of institutions and the number of students affected, which is estimated at 18,000.

The government-controlled National Council of Universities (CNU) guaranteed academic continuity for the students from these universities.

To fulfil this promise, the government used the assets of the six cancelled private universities to create three new public universities – Ricardo Morales Avilés National Multidisciplinary University, National Polytechnic University or UNP and Francisco Luis Espinoza Pineda National University. The rectors and deans of these universities were appointed by the government.

Attempts to shut ‘bastion’ of opposition

The Central American University (UCA) (a private, Catholic institution) was the alma mater of Daniel Ortega, his children and members of his government.

However, when it was created under the government of Anastasio Somoza, the UCA became a stronghold of opposition to Somoza and has since taken up that role again when Ortega’s government turned more anti-democratic. Today, it is considered the cradle of the protests and “a bastion for students who protested against the regime of Daniel Ortega”.

It was one of the main meeting sites for the students who organised marches, protests and sit-ins. It has also been a target of violent attacks, including one with mortars on 27 May 2018 and the rector has received numerous death threats.

A Sandinista deputy threatened to cancel the UCA, claiming it was not up to date with its financial statements and calling the university a “centre of terrorism” responsible for “promoting violence and disinformation”.

The university responded by offering the authorities all the information they required.

The National Union of Students (UNEN), considered a political arm of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) (the party in government), asked Ortega to exclude the UCA from the resources (6% of the national budget) which, in terms of the Constitution, must be distributed among universities.

The UCA’s closure did not happen, but the government’s harassment continued, including the closure of the Central American Historical Institute. There were also frequent audits of the National Council of Universities, the progressive reduction of resources taken from the 6%, and, finally, the exclusion of the council from access to money from the 6% fund, thus diminishing its ability to grant scholarships to students in need.

Control over public universities

In addition to students being expelled and their records deleted, faculty and staff suspected of being part of the protests were fired and other measures were implemented with the aim of gaining control over public universities, including restrictions from campus and limitations on the right of assembly by prohibiting assembly in large groups.

The FSLN placed militants in positions such as rector and dean, and the UNEN maintains a monopoly on student representation, yet there is tension between UNEN members and students from organisations opposing the Ortega government.

UNEN is a powerful organisation and, for many, it controls public universities on behalf of the FSLN. According to the Autonomy Law, UNEN’s national president is a member of the General University Assembly and the National Council of Universities, and each university’s UNEN president is a member of the university council that represents them.

UNEN has a say on who gets government scholarships (a power they use to control any dissent) and, according to many, it signalled which students should be expelled for their participation in the protests.

One of the reasons for the student protests of 2018 was dissatisfaction with UNEN’s leadership, which they criticised for not having supported the anti-government demonstrations. The demonstrators demanded, among other things, the restructuring of UNEN’s leadership.

The end of autonomy

On 29 March 2022, the National Assembly approved a reform to the General Education Law and the Law on the Autonomy of Higher Education Institutions.

The reform expanded the role and power of the National Council of Universities and modified its composition by including the three newly created public universities and reducing the participation of private universities from three to one with that one designated by the National Council of Universities. The UCA was excluded.

It also mandated that higher education institutions submit for the approval of the National Council of Universities profiles and curricula of their undergraduate and postgraduate academic programmes. It also approved the rules and regulations regarding the academic, administrative and financial life of the institutes and the academic and research centres of its member universities.

The National Council of Universities now has the power to revoke any authorisation to open a new university, to demand that universities provide information and documents so they can monitor their performance and even to intervene in their operations.

These measures have been condemned by human rights organisations, the press and spokespeople for some of the cancelled universities.

Recently, the National Council of Universities issued a memo to all universities ordering them to report on the migratory movements of their staff, drawing on the new Autonomy Law.

On 22 August, the government handed over to the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN) the building that it expropriated from the Organization of American States.

While no additional universities have been closed, many other social organisations have. In addition, the campaign against the Catholic Church has turned more aggressive.

At the end of August it was reported that the Nicaraguan Observatory of Academic Freedom and Educational Quality (Observatorio Nicaragüense de la Libertad Académica y la Calidad Educativa) had been created by young Nicaraguans in exile with the aim of denouncing and documenting the politicisation of public universities and its impact on universities.

The portal will also help students, faculty and staff who have been affected by the measures taken against universities.

The Observatory’s website provides data on the number of students who have been expelled or affected by funding issues, killed within the context of the conflict and incarcerated, as well as the number of universities which have been closed and expropriated.

Reaction of the international community

The Organization of American States did not recognise the November 2021 elections in which Ortega was re-elected for a fourth presidential term. In retaliation, Ortega expelled the organisation from Nicaragua and withdrew his diplomats from the organisation.

Organisations linked to the Organization of American States had previously spoken out about the situation of universities and other civil organisations in Nicaragua. In February 2022, REDESCA (an autonomous office of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) condemned the cancellation of the status of 26 universities and associations for academic and social purposes.

A group of more than 250 students and academics from around the world condemned the onslaught against universities in Nicaragua.

Scholars at Risk issued a statement expressing its “deep concern” about these measures and the Latin American Academy of Sciences (ACAL) declared that such actions “threaten the autonomy of higher education institutions and academic freedom in several universities”.


How does all this affect international higher education? In January 2022, the Nicaraguan government banned rectors and directors of public universities from leaving the country.

Days prior to this, the United States Department of State had cancelled the visas of 116 Ortega government officials, including university administrators. This just complicates an already challenging environment for higher education internationalisation in Nicaragua.

Since 2018 there has been an increase in the number of Nicaraguans crossing the border and seeking asylum in Costa Rica and other countries and a growing number are students.

On top of some of the bureaucratic hoops in the process of degree recognition, some of these students, particularly those who participated in the protests, face the suppression of their academic records.

At the University of Costa Rica alone, the number of Nicaraguan students increased from 62 in 2018 to 118 in 2021. The university has provided different types of help, including scholarships and the ability for students to pay tuition as nationals.

The UPF, now based in Costa Rica, continues its PROCES programme and is also offering scholarships to Nicaraguan students.

The challenge for the international academic community is how to address the effects of this crisis. How can they help students and academics in exile? How can they help those who are still in the country? How should they interact with universities created out of the assets of cancelled private universities?

Although the attention of the international media has turned to other regions, for Latin American universities this is an issue that cannot be overlooked.

Iván Francisco Pacheco is an independent consultant and research fellow of the Center for International Higher Education of Boston College, United States. He is also editor of Revista ESAL. E-mail: