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Federations Magazine Article
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Do Revolution and Higher Education Mix?

Do Revolution and Higher Education Mix? BY Maria Cristina Parra-Sandoval

Venezuela’s first constitution in 1811 stated that
the country was a federal state. However, most
observers agree that the common denominator for
all of Venezuela’s constitutions since then has been
a principle of federation in form but not in practice.
The result has been a weak federal structure.
The most important strength of the system has been the regular
election of governors and mayors in each of the 23 states of
the country. Some competences have been partially ceded by
the federal government, especially those related to health services,
water and energy provision, as well as basic and secondary
education. Post-secondary education has always been the
responsibility of the federal government. Some have called this
centralized federalism, because the power of the central government
has been stronger than the idea of federalism.
After 40 years of democratic rule, in 1998 the new government
of President Hugo Chavez
was elected with the aim of refounding
the republic. The first
step was to approve a new national
Constitution in 1999 that had, as a
key feature, movement toward a
social and inclusive participatory
democracy instead of the representative
democracy that the 1961 Constitution had established.
However, the decentralization and transfer of services to
states and municipalities that was promised by President Hugo
Chavez has not happened. Most observers agree that Venezuela,
as a nation, is going back to a more centralized and authoritarian
Post-secondary education has been one of the untouched
issues as the federal government continues to be the primary
public entity responsible for this level of education. Funding,
student enrolment and admission decisions, and the creation
of institutions and new academic programs were under the
control of the federal Ministry of Education until 2002, and then
under the federal Ministry of Higher Education, created in that
same year. The Ministry now also has taken over the budget distribution
among the universities, which had been done by the
National Council of Universities.
Expansion and Diversification
Two major trends have characterized Venezuela’s post-secondary
education experience in recent decades. First, the system has
expanded from seven institutions in 1958 to the 169 it has today.
This growth peaked in the seventies, when enrolments grew by
more than 20 percent per year for the first half of the decade.
Second, expansion came with diversification after 1971, with the
creation of many non-university institutions (community
colleges and technological institutes), offering
3-year careers and faster entry into the labour market.
As a result, the Venezuela post-secondary system is
now a binary one, comprising 49 universities and 120
post-secondary non-university institutions.
Of the 49 universities, six are official universities that
are autonomous, meaning that they have academic,
organizational, administrative and financial autonomy, even
though they depend on the federal government for funds. There
are also 43 experimental universities that only have academic
autonomy and are directly run by the central government.
More students – 58 per cent – enrol in universities than nonuniversities
in Venezuela. More than half of the universities in
Venezuela are private institutions that, although they account
for one-fifth of all university enrolments, generally have a low
profile and social impact. By the same token, more than half of
the 120 non-university institutions are also private, representing
70 per cent of enrolments in the non-university sector.
Heavy Dependence on Federal Funding
The federal government funds all public post-secondary institutions
in support of both teaching and research. The Constitution
prohibits their charging tuition fees for undergraduates. They are
allowed to establish fees for postgraduate programs that, in most
cases, are very low in comparison with those for that same level
in private institutions.
The federal formula for distributing funds to institutions to
support both teaching and research is based not on quality
indicators, but on enrolments, student/faculty ratios, administrative
staff numbers, and growing obligations to fund early
retirement. Also, federal funds are the primary source of student
financial aid through scholarships. One exception is in the
state of Zulia. There the governor, Manuel Rosales, who ran
unsuccessfully against President Hugo Chavez in the Dec. 2006
elections, has implemented a program consisting of student
financial aid to study at private universities.
A large proportion of funding for post-secondary education
in Venezuela, as with many other public functions, is provided
through revenues from oil production. One result of this dependence
on oil and the increase in oil prices over time is that
spending on post-secondary education in Venezuela is relatively
high – 2.4 per cent of gdp. As well, oil revenues were
crucial in providing funds for scholarships and loans, an area in
which the states of Venezuela have done little or nothing.
The federal government is also the primary provider of
research funds concentrated in the areas it considers critical for
national development.
Other matters controlled by the central government include
the admissions process, regulated through the Academic
Aptitude Test that measures such abilities as numeric, reading,
and comprehension, the results of which determine the distribution
of students among the institutions and careers. This test
had been criticized by many observers for promoting exclusion,
and in response the test was recently eliminated by the federal
The Revolution Comes to the University
The government has just announced its policies for post-secondary
education for the next few years. According to the new
plan, each state will have a specialized university which will be
oriented towards an area of knowledge: health sciences, basic
sciences, economics, arts, languages and tourism, oil, disaster
prevention, and human security. Many of the strategies already
implemented will be continued.
Thus, the federal government is deepening its control on all
matters related to post-secondary education. Many observers
consider this a step backwards, inasmuch as the country was
being driven to a more decentralized model before the current
revolutionary period began.
At this time, there seems to be little room for negotiation
between the centralized federal government and the states that
have lost most of whatever autonomy they might previously
have had. Therefore, it appears that in post-secondary education,
as in almost any other government function in Venezuela
today, the federal government will pursue those policies that
impose the ideological content of President Chavez’s “socialism
for the 21st century”. Post-secondary education in
Venezuela is proving to be a convenient mechanism to succeed
in that goal.