How Admissions Test Populism is Killing La Simón

By hijacking the university's admissions system, the Sistema Nacional de Ingreso sabotages the Universidad Simón Bolívar's longstanding mission of becoming an engine for social mobility.

La Simón

To understand why people are so angry at the government’s drive to end the University Admissions test and replace it with a centralized system, you could do worse than to have a chat with my friend Ramón.

Ramón grew up in Caricuao, a rough-and-tumble part of Caracas where you probably wouldn’t want to live right now. While the buildings in Caricuao are formally built, Ramón doesn’t consider it a middle class neighborhood. “Sure, barrios like Antímano and Petare are worse off,” he says, “but crime and poor living conditions long ago took over my community.”

The 2000s were hard times for his family, so they had little choice but to send him to the local public high school. He and his classmates often missed out on tuition, mainly because teachers would refuse to lecture the saboteadores de la clase. Ramón started a course to qualify as a computer technician, but a visit from community service students from Universidad Simón Bolívar changed his path.

Though much diminished, Universidad Simón Bolívar (USB) remains one of Venezuela’s leading universities. As a public higher education institution, it’s completely tuition-free. The students Ramón met came on behalf of the Programa de Igualdad de Oportunidades (PIO), a system founded by Professor Enrique Planchart which aimed to increase the number of public school students admitted to this top school.

This was the first Ramón had ever heard of USB, back in 2005. That year, the PIO visited over 60 schools in underserved communities as far as Higuerote and enrolled more than 1,000 students in pre-university courses. Pretty impressive for a school that is only able to take in 1,500 nuevos per year.

Ramón went to great lengths to prepare for the big admissions test, a process that made him keenly aware of the shortcomings of the education he’d received. He got in, worked his way through six intense years supported by a USB scholarship, and finally landed a job abroad at one of the biggest and most successful software companies in the world. He now devotes a portion of his salary to helping his family in Venezuela pay down old debts and move to better areas, where rent is prohibitive for most.

Social mobility has always been one of higher education’s loftiest goals, and one that public universities in Venezuela made an effort to achieve long before the Chávez era: my own grandparents were able to dramatically improve their living conditions by moving from their small towns to Caracas and graduating from Universidad Central de Venezuela.

The government doesn’t see it that way. They have waged a slow but effective war on quality public universities, calling them “elitist”, refusing them the resources they need to function and buying military aircraft instead, making their professors leave the country in search of more humane conditions, and creating parallel institutions that, despite enrolling impressive numbers of students, have been criticized for including indoctrination in their curricula and not quite meeting educational standards. Are institutions like these really going to improve social mobility? Yo te aviso, chirulí.

The move to replace university-administered admissions tests with a national “Sistema Nacional de Ingreso” has been especially damaging. This SNI amounts to a semi-secret procedure supposed to take into account the high school GPA, “socio-economic conditions”, and place of residence. Pedro Ovalles, who has been teaching pre-university courses at the PIO for four years, tells me this could hurt rather than help social mobility.

“Our goal is to have more students from public high schools not only get in, but also graduate successfully from Universidad Simón Bolívar, and it looks like the centrally imposed admissions system is getting in the way”. He points me to a Master’s thesis in statistics that studied the academic achievement of first-year students. Since 2007, the university has had to yield 30% of its places to the government’s national admissions system, and the thesis concludes that these students haven’t generally performed as well as the ones who got in through the regular admissions test.

Why isn’t this system working? Pedro believes many students who get into USB through the SNI simply aren’t prepared for the demanding curriculum and the extremely fast pace of study. Many are way behind in maths, and some haven’t had a class in the subject for years. Even figuring out if a student has taken a (theoretically mandatory) subject can turn out to be impossible, because school transcripts no longer specify that a given subject wasn’t taken, but rather fill in the grade with the student’s average in the other subjects. (Really!) If on top of that you add the fact that students can’t fail a class before taking six different examinations… well, you get the point.

Ramón has shown us that social mobility through higher education is possible in Venezuela. How do we make sure more people have the opportunities he’s had?

We already have quality, free universities that are making enormous efforts to stay afloat despite the crisis, and that have more than one program in place to open the gates for those who can’t afford a decent private school. The government should then make sure our public schools are adequately funded, that our teachers are decently paid, that our students make progress in the PISA test… in short, to bring our public schools system to be on par with our universities. But you know what? That’s just too much work for our Presidente Obrero. It’s way easier to show off with misleading enrolment rates that fool the voters and international organizations, but are leading millions of hopeful students to an educational dead end.