La Simón: Facts, Problems and Half a Solution

What if we got over our elitism complexes and took a long, hard look at what a University can do for a deeply unequal society?


First thing’s first: la Universidad Simón Bolívar’s (USB) basic problem is financial. La plata. Like all Venezuelan universities, La Simón’s government-assigned budget has become a cruel joke. It’s nowhere near what you need to run a proper university, much less a great one. Worse, the University is not allowed to finance itself through the private sector and even if a company would like to make a contribution, all funding has to go to the central government which then distributes it back to the universities.

USB doesn’t have enough money to equip teaching laboratories or cover services such as food, transport, the library or even just routine maintenance of facilities. It has even less money for, y’know, actual science: research, conferences, patent filing, etc. Until these basic issues are addressed, the rest of the debate is kind of moot.

Without losing sight of that, I want to focus on the USB’s other problem: the overrepresentation of the middle class.

As a self-described “university for excellence”, USB has taken pride in educating the best students in the country. Academic elitism is its raison d’etre…and that’s absolutely fine!

Academic elitism is the foundation of the best universities in the world. Bringing the best and brightest minds together to be educated and inspired  is what top universities are for.

La Simón was never designed to be a place where everybody can succeed. Calculus or advanced art history are not for everyone, and we should stop thinking of it that way.

We need people building ideas, working with their hands and contributing to the development of our country. They require – and deserve! – good education, but they don’t necessarily have to spend five years in La Simón or at any other University for this.

In Venezuela, where access to free, good quality high school education is scarce, a university for the best students ends up being overwhelmingly middle class. Because money sure can’t buy you intelligence, but it can buy you the preparation that will make you perform better on a test. It can also ensure you have the time, space, peace of mind, and the basic economic security you need to dedicate yourself fully to studying something that’s really, really hard.

It is, of course, not La Simón’s fault that not all students are equally well prepared for its admission test, or for the rigors of academic life at an elite university – insert captain obvious joke here. Nevertheless, it’s just plain wrong and selfish to think there is nothing we can do, and that we should settle for an admissions system that is clearly biased (See the Fun Facts Infographic) towards students from private schools.

Improving the quality of public high schools, even with an efficient plan, will take years. Possibly generations.

I’m patient, but I’m not that patient. What can we do on a more compressed time scale?

La Simón is working with limited resources. Its Programa de Igualdad de Oportunidades (PIO) – an eight-hour-per-week training program for public and semi-private high school pupils designed to prepare them for the admissions test- is a step in the right direction. It’s by no means enough to compensate for decades of subpar high school educational standards. The admissions rate of PIO students is 6.6%. In contrast, the joint admissions rate for incoming students from public and semi-private schools is 6.0%. PIO does not significantly increase the success rate of the participants, especially considering that the admissions rates for students coming from semi-private schools alone is 13.5% and that of private school graduates is 20.5%.

The average USB student needs 6.5 years to finish a five year degree, and the current admissions system is accepting incoming freshmen with average admissions test scores of 12.50/30 in Math, 1.05/5 in Chemistry, and 0.33/5 in Physics. Evidently, the majority of incoming students are not well prepared, even though 93% come from private schools.

One possible solution would be adding two preparatory years of university similar to the French system of Classes Préparatoires aux Grandes Écoles, in which students are preselected with quotas depending of their socioeconomic background and prepared by the university before taking a test in which they have to demonstrate their real abilities.

If done properly, the extra two preparatory years wouldn’t significantly increase the time students spend in university and would improve their initial preparation, ensuring a higher chance of success during their undergraduate studies.

USB has already experimented with such a system, through a small program called Curso de Iniciación Universitaria (CIU). CIU takes students who weren’t successful in the admissions test and trains them for a whole year on a daily basis, treating them just like regular USB students and submitting them to the exact same rigorous academic standards. 

To ensure inclusivity, CIU works with quotas. 80% of students come from public and semi-private schools and 20% from private schools. Around 66% of the students who start CIU successfully complete the program. CIU proves that students from public schools can achieve academic success after proper training, and students who complete the CIU program are more likely to stay in university longer than their peers who entered through the regular admissions system.

If we really want to go for Academic Elitism, let’s embrace it and make the selection criteria even tougher…as long as we start by giving every student the same opportunities by making them go through a preparation program.

Then we must tackle another issue: we need to solve the resource-gap. We need to create a scholarship/credit system in which underprivileged students are given a monthly stipend they can use to support themselves. A current USB scholarship is onlyBsF 2,000 a month (2.6 $): that’s one sheet of white paper!

If we want to promote social mobility we need to take money out of the equation that determines whether or not a student can go to university.

We can create a pay-back mechanism similar to the current German system. In Germany, students are rewarded for their performance in university by reducing the percentage of the loan they have to pay according to their final grades. This helps ensure sustainability by making graduates contribute financially to the program and promoting excellence at the same time.

Finally, we should build student dorms located within a short distance of the university in order to avoid discouraging students from attending due to its limited access by public transport. The isolation of the beautiful valley of Sartenejas might have prevented students in the past from getting strange ideas like tirar piedras and quemar cauchos – the backbone of the curriculum at La Central (sorry, I had to make a joke about UCV, old habits!)- but a daily commute in current traffic condition leaves very little time for studying and presents a significant challenge for students who are not lucky enough to live close to the university.  

Studying at USB should remain a privilege but only determined by individual ambition and abilities, not the wallet of your parents, the place where you live, or the inability of the government to provide a solid primary education. I believe such an admissions system is possible, and, while it may not figure as a priority in our current economic crisis, we should aim to implement it. There will always be distortions, they are no excuse for hacernos los locos mirando pal techo, hoping “at most” that things improve while getting defensive and angry against the possibility of change.

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  1. You had me like a tennis ball here, “I agree with this…no, not with that. Good point, there. I don´t quite see this issue the same way”. At least your whole argument is supported by possible solutions which I must say is a very refreshing change from the whole “Esto es una mierda, que ladilla bla bla bla” type of rants one will typically read.

  2. I am appalled at the navel gazing carried out by people from Venezuelan universities. “What happens before is not our business”. If you heard that here in Europe you would hear people wondering about what kind of problems you have.

    I studied at a public school in a poor sector (mum was teacher there), at a public one in an average sector before public schools completely collapsed and finally at private school.

    I went to university at the UCV and had many friends at the USB. I then went to Heidelberg University, one of the top universities in Germany. I studied there with success.

    It is the business of all sectors of a society, but it is particularly so of a group of people who get so very excited about getting called (or calling themselves) “elite”.

    And it is not about the preparatory classes just at the end of the secondary studies but it is about having a very active, constant discussion about what is going on with the incredibly crappy level of studies and general education in the so disregarded PRIMARY SCHOOLS!

    It seems those discussions in Venezuela are only carried out by people working in “pedagogía”. All the others find it too lowly for them to spend some time contributing with the discussion about what to do with the incredibly bad primary schools we have.

    In their selfishness the so-called Venezuelan elite (and the same goes for the pseudo-revolutionaries of Chavismo) does not realise the biggest impact to improve real levels at university level is to care for the very beginning.

    Perhaps it’s that at the end of the day, they don’t want real competition. Imagine if suddenly all those kids in Calabozo or Acarigua had math and physic levels that are half of what average kids in German or South Korean rural areas have…they would actually in the long run force Luis Rafael Urdaneta Bertelli from Eastern Caracas to study harder in order to get to the USB.

    • I think you are right. The inequity goes back to primary school. It goes back even further. There is a lot of literature out there on the key importance of early childhood education in alleviating inequality. Amazing to think, but reading circle and access to some basic learning toys for a bunch of drooling toddlers really helps to even the playing field later on.

      What really kills me is the lack of access to good public libraries. They can be used as very effective hubs of learning. A lot of kids are just starved for books at an early age. Books for children are ridiculously expensive in Venezuela, I guess because they are imported. It drives me crazy thinking of all the billions that have been stolen and squandered on ridiculous ideological fantasy plans and the really simple, basic stuff which can vastly improve the chances for social mobility is just nowhere to be seen.

      People can be not middle class and do really well, but they (and their parents) have to be more extraordinary and creative and just have excellent luck for that to happen, whereas a well to do person basically just has to show up and not be too invested in alcohol and drugs around exam time to succeed. That is not fair. That is wasting huge pools of human talent that cannot develop itself because of chance and economic reasons.

      But to blame early education entirely while true, also gets elite institutions off the hook and they should not be allowed off the hook, because there is still extraordinary talent that can be rescued at the college level. I like the suggestions for doing so given in this post.

      I’d then go a step further and ask this: are any universities in Venezuela operating at an elite level internationally, and if not, should that worry us, or is it enough to say that great talent can go overseas to complete an education, as many Venezuelans do? I think almost every year when some university ranking report comes out, Andres Oppenheimer bemoans in his column the absence of any Latin American universities (with the exception perhaps of UNAM) from the so called elite ranks. Venezuelans certainly do well in elite universities overseas, but do they have access to similar education at home? And does this matter?

    • Canuck,

      I do NOT want to let universities off the hook. What I am trying to say is they don’t seem to care about primary school. I mean: how lack of empathy, of EI these self-called elite people can have when all they seem to care is their – very real – financial problem? Thanks God not all are like that. A couple of my friends from USB and UCV do know as long as the university people are not interested in getting involved with the whole lot of education from the start – support teachers in their struggle etc-, nothing good is going to come.

      I also agree with you about the public libraries. Unfortunately, this battle is even harder to fight now that people think you really need a bloody Caimanita to learn (and I am into software development)

      • I understand Kepler. I was referring to others who use that as an excuse that post secondary schools can just wash their hands of responsibility. But your comment is absolutely correct.

      • Canucklehead and Kepler, I really think you guys raised a very interesting point here we have to improve public education from the start. Even from before kids start school.

        One of the things that surprised me the most and I love about Germany was one TV show, der sendung mit der maus, a kids TV program (and a must for any science geek) that shows them how things work, from how to make a pencil to pop corn. It’s simply awesome. No wonder these people have so many Engineers. If we spent half of the money we do on propaganda producing such shows things would be so different in Venezuela.

  3. And this post was going so well in the first few paragraphs.. I thought, better late than never, Cesar finally got it !!

    But no.. here we go again with this utter nonsense:

    “It is, of course, not La Simón’s fault that not all students are equally well prepared for its admission test, or for the rigors of academic life at an elite university – insert captain obvious joke here. Nevertheless, it’s just plain wrong and selfish to think there is nothing we can do, and that we should settle for an admissions system that is clearly biased (See the Fun Facts Infographic) towards students from private schools.”

    This is, in itself, a clear and perfect inherent contraction. Almost an oxymoron. As the rest of this post, which ends up with similar aberrations as the last one on USB.

    You are writing in 1 single paragraph that we are not to blame La Simon, but that oops no, they are wrong, they are Biased, their system is wrong, so the ARE to blame.

    Care to sort that out for us?

    You still do not seem to comprehend that, like people, all schools are not created equal. You have Ivy League Colleges, Masters and PHD’s at Harvard, La Sorbonne or Stanford, then you have average excellent private Colleges, like the one I attended in the USA, then you have good colleges, then you have the rest, then you have no college at all, but excellent private school, or average, or below average, or high-school drop-outs. Or people who don’t even get to high-school. Everywhere on Planet Earth. Europe, North America, Chile or South Africa and Australia, plus Costa Rica or Mexico.

    Venezuela is no exception, although like everything else, the education system is a veritable mess, because the freaking Chavista Dictatorship is a mess, a because the ad/copey MUD we had for 40 years was also pretty bad.

    You talk about Bias. With a clear connotation for deliberate discrimination of the less-fortunate social classes. Sifrinismo Elitista, pue’. Again. That’s absurd. All the USB wants, like every freaking Top University on the planet is the best of the best students, to make them even better. They will be the Elite Professionals worldwide. Sorry, but that’s how this planet works, under a healthy Republican, or Capitalistic, or even pseudo-socialist advanced system. You have good lawyers and excellent lawyers, or people who need lawyers because they can hardly read or write. You have top Engineers and Astronauts and Nasa scientists, and you have the rest of us, who can hardly add 2+2 (at least I never could) .

    The kind of “equality” system you keep insisting on is intrinsically contradictory and utterly absurd. Blame Chavismo, blame the unprepared masses that still support it, but do not blame the best of the best. Go to UCV, or work with the rest of us to topple the regime and build more good schools, of all levels, and for every stratus of society.

    Pana, la vida no es justa. Variety is the spice of life. Get over the non-sense, and whatever deeply embedded social, and I quote, “complexes” you obviously still have. And please, above all, thank La Simon’s discriminatory and biased system, or you would not be living the good life in Germany.

    • Its seems to me that in democracies that have taken a hands off attitude, on both personal and institutional levels, to inequality, you get the dominance of those institutions that allow the best chance for social mobility (i.e. the military, drug cartels), and you get the rise of people like Hugo Chavez or dare I say it, Donald Trump.

  4. I would like to make an emphasis on a point you barely skimmed. The fact that students take, on average 6.5 years (but up to 10) to graduate. So why even the most privileged kids fail to graduate in 5? The answer to that question is motivation. There are a ton of student who lack the curiosity or interest to study what they study and because they were more capable to score on a test, they took the spot of someone who perhaps was more motivated.

    I think this issue is really important. It has an effect on the finance side of the university in which certain students burden the system, and it also hinders society as you end up spending a lot of effort teaching wave theory and optics or topology to a kid that really wants to do marketing.

    I think the admission process you aim not only for elite students, preparation-wise. But also make sure that they are committed.

    • One possibility should be that once you go over a certain period you have to pay.
      Another thing would be what Francisco suggested for petrol: send people the bill of what it costs…even if you put “0.0 for you”.

    • And you nailed it only using a couple paragraphs. I came from a public school, got into the CIU and graduated in 6 years. I don’t consider myself a mediocre student but I have to admit I lacked motivation in certain moments of my career. Is the USB to blame? Hell, no.

    • Rodrigo, this fact about the USB really surprise me. I am a graduate of the UCV (Biology 1984, yes se me cayo la cédula!). I belong to the first generations of students that had the option to go to SB. Many of my friends did and one of the big differences between the UCV and the SB students was the average year to graduate. My friends in the SB graduated in 5 years, I graduate in 6 years. Now I want to clarify something. I belong to the lucky generation that never lost a day of class in the UCV due to riots…yes there we some but never affected our academic life, well if you were willing to work hard. Also in Biology at the UCV was imposible to graduate in 5 years because you need to do your thesis. What happened to the initial more efficient system of the SB?. Are the students today less motivated than in the 1980″s or they are not as well prepared? I am a firm believer that to solve the problem with the education system in Venezuela and other parts of the world, we need to start in elementary and high school. We need to improve the quality of the teachers at public and private schools! I come from a low middle class family, my parents did not have even high school education, but some how they knew that education was my ticket out. The worked hard to pay my private school education, no in a elite school…but a better place that my public school options. I did my part and always worked very hard and took every opportunity that I had. However, I know that if I was a student in my private high school today I know that my education would be worse, my teacher will be less prepared. So even with my high motivation, it would be harder to get were I am today. The sad reality is that the education problem in Venezuela will be very hard to solve…but is not impossible…let’s focus on all levels of education, but we really need to start with the kids everywhere…

    • There’s an elephant in the room: a significant number of kids who go to USB (at least in our generation, Rodrigo) had little intention to actually work as engineers later on. This is especially true of the most privileged kids. They already had their path laid ahead of them from day one: they would take over the family’s business, start their own (non-engineering) company, or like you said get a job in marketing or finance. A mandatory CIU should include a vocational component to take care of these cases and redirect such kids towards more honest career paths.

  5. “It is, of course, not La Simón’s fault that not all students are equally well prepared for its admission test.”

    Sorry, but that’s not true. When you prioritize limited resources to be spent on higher education for the middle/upper class, you are automatically taking away resources that could be spent on the primary and secondary education of the poor. So, yes, it’s La Simon’s fault.

    In addition, I find it curious how you already start your text by saying that there’s simply no ‘plata’ left, and then again you say that resources are ‘limited’ in the middle of the text, yet all your solutions involve even more public spending! From where will you get that money? We can’t sound like those politicians that promise heaven and earth to the people just to be elected and not deliver anything.You can’t claim that everyone is entitled to receive great free education if you don’t have the money to back what you propose. You also can’t give a French solution without a French GDP my friend. Otherwise, that’s the good old populism that abound in this region and responsible for so much of our misfortunes. More of the same…

  6. Furthermore, what you are saying here, again, in essence, is that the entire Transportation Sector is flawed because Ferraris are too expensive. Or that the Health Care system is unfair and a mess because Johns Hopkins medical facilities are not available for free at every street corner.

    Criticizing USB instead of the rest of dozens of other Universities in Vzla, not to mention thousands of pathetic escuelas in the lower school system is ridiculous. And a waste of time, indeed. Compared to much loftier and productive tasks at hand.

    That’s just not where the massive problem with Education in Venezuela is.

  7. The real solution is to privatize higher education.

    Positive externalities of investing in primary and secondary education in middle and low income countries are much much higher than investing those same resources on higher education. That’s not a venezuelan thing, it’s a worldwide natural phenomenom that’s been thoroughly studied by economists for a long time.

    (I reccomend this and this if you are interested in that subject)

    It just doesn’t make sense, according to the consensus on this matter among economists, that a country as poor as Venezuela would subsidize higher education when it could just use that money on primary/secondary education, where social returns are obviously higher.

    It’s ok for an institution like La Simón to be elitist. That’s it’s nature. What’s not ok is to be publicly funded when the nation has much more urgent needs.

  8. What can do the USB about this “social imbalance”?

    How about developing, presenting projects that explain how to improve the abysmally low quality of primary and secondary education, both public and private? Because coming from a private school doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be the sharpest knife on the table.

    While it’s true that the universities can’t turn a blind eye to the problem of the lousy education levels that stop lower-resources students from having the skill and preparation to face the career studies, they can’t be blamed entirely for that, because as a system where several components work together one after another to produce a result, you can’t focus the work on a part that performs its duty when a defective supply is given to it by a previous component.

  9. Hola César,

    I broadly agree with most of your arguments. I do have, however, one remark regarding the French system: in the praxis, the CPGEs are far, far from being crucibles of social justice. According to a 2012 study*, the upper middle class’ children (broad translation of “enfants des cadres supérieurs”) represented only 16% of the studied cohort, but they made out a whooping 55% percent of those enrolled at CPGEs. At the end of the CPGEs, admissions to the elite Grande Ecoles further reinforce the preexisting inequalities, thus leading to a rather skewed social origin distribution at the Granges Ecoles themselves, which is probably not too far from what we know from La Simon.


    • Dear Juan Andres,

      You are right, the preparatory schools in the French systems are designed only to prepare students for the really difficult entry test of the university and are in no way designed to help students from the lower classes. But you have to agree 55% is still much better than 93%!

      • After 14 years from Maternelle-BAC at Colegio Francia (section Francaise), Caracas, I’ll tell you that is partially incorrect, to be kind.

        The French system in highschool, Lycees Francais, are particularly tough and demanding from the start. But they welcome everyone. Especially in France. In Vzla they have a Venezuela section, a French one, and when friends of mine like Pierre D. were not good enough, they would jump to the Venezuelan section for an easier diploma.

        Yes, the tough Baccalaureate exams on Classe Terminale are very demanding at that age for 17-18 students. Many of them have to repeat the entire year, sometime twice, to even pass the damn test. Especially Classes, B, C and D.

        Why? To get kids ready to apply and be approved for the best Colleges in the world. Where it gets even tougher the first couple of years. Or maybe not, because they already come in with very high standards and advanced knowledge of every “matiere”, from several fluid languages, to Philosophy, to advanced Math, to freaking physics not to mention Economics.

        Now what’s wrong with that??

        • This, in particular, is absolutely False:

          “the preparatory schools in the French systems are designed only to prepare students for the really difficult entry test of the university and are in no way designed to help students from the lower classes.”

          Get a grip on reality.

        • Sorry Lee Kuan Yew but colegio Francia is not a preparatory school for Grandes Écoles so you sort of missed the point. Universities and Grandes Écoles are two different things.

          Since you are familiar with the French system you know that If you want to go to University in France all you have to do is show your high school diploma and you are granted access.

          • You have “rattrapage”, “passable”, “mention bien” ou “tres bien” etc, in each class, A, B, C or D, if memory serves. Makes a big difference and it should.

            Like I suggested, you should employ your intelligence, talents, time and great education toward other things than how expensive or unfair are the Ferraris in education. I suggest you begin with the beginning where the biggest real problems are, example: Castro-Chavismo indoctrination on below-mediocre public prep-schools, for instance. Then move up to high schools.. That would help a lot more.

  10. I tried to follow up with your response but I fail to get a couple things: the link between public and private schools student that apply to La Simón seems clear, but then: what’s the % of each group compared to total applicants? Are the majority of them coming from private/semi-private schools? That would be definitive to support your claim of economic elitism. You still disregard the fact that, today, the public education system is very weak. Granted, according to your fun facts, everyone in La Simón are brutos, but clearly, not in the same way. What made you a succesful researcher working in Germany? it wasn’t the money you lacked. It was YOUR motivation to achieve it.

    Your post was going ok until you started to propose a lot of things that would cost A LOT, even when you said at the beginning there was no money left. Where’s that money coming from? Obviously this government isn’t funding that. Alternative options like PIO or CIU are indeed more affordable and they, in fact, are giving good results.

    • Dear Alexis,

      Let me see if I can be a bit more clear, if you look at the graph for the success rate, you will see the percentage of students who pass the test according to the type institution were they studied. Again, without going into labels this graphs tells you that if you went to private school your chances of making it are almost 6 times higher than if you came from a public school.

      Careful when you read my friend, I never called anyone bruto, there is a huge difference between being able to perform in a test and being smart enough to become an engineer, you of all people should know that!.

      Finally, PIO is money poorly spent. At the end of the day also kids from private schools go to prep classes for the test. This program is failing to deliver enough results and it should be scrapped. You spent already 7 years in total in USB, tell me how the system I’m proposing (without the scholarships and residence halls) will cost USB more money?

  11. The “issue” with Sports is the overrepresation of fit people. [sarcasm]
    “the overrepresentation of the middle class” is not an issue, it is a fact of any high demanding University in Venezuela or elsewhere.
    The equal opportunity and effort has to happen way before. From when the person is born through high school. The first 3 years are of life are key.
    Being poor and thrive is hard so I would expect the majority of people making it into a high demanding university comes at least from a standard, healthy, nurturing family with little money issues. It is just a fact of life.
    You can look at this from another angle and break down the statistics by Health instead of Social Class and you would find out that healthier people would be overrepresented there too!. Do it again by Nurturing Parents, etc
    In my opinion the bigger issue with the USB is the Brain Drain.
    Lots of USB graduates leave to work abroad for higher paying jobs and higher living standards.
    zero contribution back for Venezuela let alone USB.
    I studied there and I am very grateful for the opportunity. Have lots of friends that came from low income families and are currently abroad too.
    Currently I live in the US. Guilty as charged, but is a natural phenomenon that people leave their towns for where the job calls. Usually wealthy, vibrant big cities/countries and that happens here in the US, Venezuela and elsewhere.
    If anything, Venezuela has been very generous and very socialistic already before Chavizmo !
    Unfortunately you find that out once you live in other countries.
    I would even say that Venezuela has been too soft as in “Pendeja” no wonder why USB has no money and also why the malandros took over and destroyed our Social Democracy.
    There is no point inVenezuela having the USB if most of the graduates end up working for Transnational Corporations abroad.

    • Here’s a question: what are the institutional factors and decisions around allocation of resources that result in the high representation of non middle class Venezuelans in elite baseball?

      • If I may add to your question Canucklehead, try the same for musicians in professional orchestras in Venezuela.

      • From what I read, Sports is mostly about raw capability (ie genes). For this case my guess is that since non middle class is the majority in Venezuela, chances are that you are going to find those freak of nature among the majority. Another contributing factor could be cultural. Perhaps the poor place more emphasis on Sports than School.
        NPR did an excellent piece about the Kenyan Runners.

        TLDR, it is Genes and a little bit of Culture.

          • @ Cesar. Because you become middle class with your head not your physical abilities. Hence, chances are that despite the odds of being a minority, the more intellectual capable are going to come from Middle Class.
            By the way, being middle class is not just being Intellectually more capable but also the system of values they embrace. Discipline, hard work will make you middle class and also more likely to do well in school.
            Again, you can Classify people by physical fitness and the best Baseball players are going to come from *SURPRISE!* the Fittest Families !! despite being a minority.

        • I grew up with an Olympic athlete. It takes huge amounts to training, attention and resources to get to that level. Huge. More than a Harvard trained lawyer I’d bet. Both are freaks,but not freaks of nature as you suggest.

          • It depends on the sport. There are sports where practice matter more than genes, but in others is the opposite. At the top level, like in the Olympics is not enough to be born with extra ordinary abilities but also practice to the extreme.
            IMO, there is nothing the USB can do about the middle class being overrepresented. My father was poor and became an Engineer back in the 60’s thanks to the Free Universidad del Zulia. I saw the same upward mobility patten among other family members and again at USB.
            I happen to think Venezuela has been a country of opportunities but the government can do so much, the rest is upon each individual.

        • Dude, a few things.

          a) We are not talking about the admission system to the middle class, we are talking about the admission system the the university.

          b) Being middle class doesn’t make you by default superior in any other way than resources. Resources can alter your development and eventually seal you destiny and in Venezuela are a key factor on the equation that determines if you can go to university or not. To think that just because you are middle class you are smarter than someone else, is a demonstration of the opposite.

          c) If your father is an athlete chances are you grew up doing sports with him. that won’t make you a professional athlete by default, but means you have probably more preparation than someone else at a particular sport. In a world ruled by what you believe Maria Gabriela Chavez or Rosines should be the next president of Venezuela just because daddy was already president do you see how invalid your argument is?

          • a) You wrote: “I want to focus on the USB’s other problem: the overrepresentation of the middle class.” I am talking about that topic.
            I think you are misplacing it as an USB “problem”. It is a life issue in Venezuela and many other places. There is an upper mobility index somewhere on the web by Country. That would be more relevant than an University admission.

            b) Middle Class means more resources among other benefits when compared to Poor Class.

            c) I am sorry but you are confusing Statistics / Probability with Logic.
            The Chavez sisters would more likely be involved directly in politics in comparison to the average Venezuelan. That does not mean that they SHOULD or ARE more capable at it because of its father.

  12. I was solidly against the points in your previous article, but now I tip my hat to you. These ideas are exactly what is needed to solve the USB problem, and probably the Venezuelan university crisis.

    I would propose one modification to the mandatory CIU: make it a mixed system. Keep the socio-economic quotas, but offer additional spots to people who can pay full price. That way the most privileged kids can still hope to attend the USB even if they don’t make the initial cut. I would also extend the same system to services like the comedores: it doesn’t make sense to subsidize meals to every single student when we know many could easily pay market prices for their food. Something like this would alleviate some of the financial load and help make the university more egalitarian.

  13. I don’t know. For me, the problem is still financial.

    The country invests a heck more on tertiary education than the rest. In la Simon, for example, we have the Ciclo Basico. Our first year of university is dedicated to help us get in level with the actual academic level of the university. Our ‘filtro’ it’s just learning stuff we should know from school.

    The university cannot also address it’s inequality issue if it depends on the State’s money to function. Being public does not mean free. The fact is that a lot of people use la Simon to have a great education but also have it for free (which includes getting a beca). I know this from a lot of friends. I did it myself (not the beca stuff) because my parents could not afford having my sister and I both study in private universities. But the thing is that even when discussing a raise in the ‘comedor’ most people still voted for the least increase. We always talk about how general subsidies (like gasoline) never help the ones who needed more. But when we talk about education we always omit these things.

    Fuerthermore, a lot of Universities around the world are shortening the amount of time it takes to earn a degree. Even in la metro they have the 4+1. I think la Simon can get rid of its ciclo basico if the country gets its act together and improve primary and secondary education. I think the real solution is reinvesting in these areas; work with public universities to start generating income from other means and eliminate ciclo basico. I also think there should be a tier system within the university in terms of the cost. That way we can focus the little amount of money we have to the ones that really need it.

    I know many of the things I am mentioning are long term solutions. But I don’t see how the university can get better without solving its money problems.

    As for the transport issue… the University should have more buses available but you know ‘money problems and stuff’. I really can’t see any of the issues you raised being solved without addressing the financial issues of the university.

    And regarding this…
    “If we want to promote social mobility we need to take money out of the equation that determines whether or not a student can go to university.”
    I think its the other way around. Money should be in the center of an equation that must increase the efficiency in which the university handles and allocates its resources. It’s the only way they could find any solution that can help out those who you pointed out need help the most.

    Thanks for the post!

    • I don’t have the numbers but it would be a safe bet that most of the Graduates USB Alumni get jobs fast and make tons of money. I know my peers do.
      The USB could charge upfront (non-profit)at cost and for the majority that can not afford it issue a low interest long term Loans.
      Totally free is not sustainable.
      Here in the US there are scholarship programs but most people get an education using Student Loans.

    • You raise some pretty good points here.

      My problem in general with the arguments from Cesar is that he seems to be blaming USB for problems that should really be solved by the Venezuelan State. There’s only so much USB can to to help people from Guarenas get there. Caracas should have a subway system capable of reaching USB by now (I’ve been hearing about this for 10+ years). Also, USB can only promise to help some students prepare for the test and even give some of them an additional year (4+1+1) to prepare them for a USB education.

  14. Muy interesante tu planteamiento. Pero también veo que está escrito desde la perspectiva de un caraqueño; la realidad de Caracas, ya sea vista desde el barrio o desde la urbanización, difiere bastante de la realidad de los habitantes del resto del país. Recomiendo ir al interior pues así se nos abre un poco el panorama y podemos hacer aseveraciones más convincentes. Sería más enriquecedor incluir a aquellos jóvenes que vienen del interior del país, de liceos públicos o de colegios privados. Allí la ecuación se vuelve más compleja

  15. Fascinating article and discussion , one could write a book developing all the ideas which have been tossed about , we do have some clever people in this blog !!

    I have some general points relating to the discussion:

    1. Advancement in life is never a question of raw natural intellectual vigour , it has a lot to do with character , sociallly induced habits , expectations , self control , self confidence etc. This has been proven again and gain in various studies, people in the middle class prevalently but not exclusively try hard to give their children more opportunities for growth and the acquisition of useful work and study habits than is the general case of people from the less fortunate classes . The advantage is not just raw intelligence but the chances that certain social environments offers for it to be used or developed optimally . Its only natural that people from the middle class do better than others .

    2. There are lots of people in the disavantaged classes which are middle class in mentality , in character , in ambition , in self discipline but to whom the financial barriers offer little chance of making it to an university campus , they need to be helped with the caveat , its not just anyone. its not everybody , not all can be assummed to posses the wherewithal to grow intelltually and personally to a high level of personal achievement . Always because the resources of society and the state are not limitless you have to select , filter and choose . You go for the bigger bang for the buck.

    3. We need elites because most people even if decent and normally intelligent dont always have what it takes to reach the higher rungs of achievement , what must bother us is that our elites are too small , we need enough good students to fill not one USB but 10 USB’s . The problem is to create programs where people who lack the financial means but have every thing else ,are given a chance to rise to the level they would have achieved had they been raised in a more stimulating environment. Again this doenst mean everyone , but a select group of the best from those in lower rungs of society .

    Elitism is just anotherway of invoking the ideals of meritocracy which means recognizing that equality is a sentimental superstition !! The notion is known in the US as equality of opportunity !! to those that deserve it .

  16. Having read a previous article, namely “gerrymandering-the-judicial-branch”, I suppose someone could argue that formal education is indeed the enemy of progress in Venezuela.
    Cabello and Flores spring to mind too.
    I suspect Venezuela has to be selective in the shorterm as to who should receive an education otherwise it’s back to the beginning again.

  17. “To ensure inclusivity, CIU works with quotas. 80% of students come from public and semi-private schools and 20% from private schools. Around 66% of the students who start CIU successfully complete the program. CIU proves that students from public schools can achieve academic success after proper training, and students who complete the CIU program are more likely to stay in university longer than their peers who entered through the regular admissions system.”

    César, I find this conclusion to be a bit problematic. Although it is true that 80% of CIU students come from public and semi-private schools, when you look at the group of students that complete it successfully (that 66% you have mentioned), you will see that actually the distribution then is much less skewed, with 57% coming from public schools and 43% coming from private schools (at least according to the 2009 report) – a much smaller gap despite the huge difference when admitted (the 80:20). I would interpret this as an indication that the deficiencies in public education are so big that not even an additional year of intense preparation is able to overcome them – this is actually a quite discouraging sign.

    • These numbers alone are a bit hard to interpret, we know the ratio of invited students but we have no data regarding the distribution of the students who actually start the program (I couldn’t find it). It is clear that in PIO students from private schools have a better success rate than those from private schools, and I agree with you, one year is probably not enough to overcome the deficiencies in public education, hence I propose we do two years.

      If simultaneously we start fixing primary and secondary education we might be able to get ride of quotas and preparatory years in the future but as of now, if we want to make university more inclusive I don’t see any other feasible solution. Just giving students from public schools a place to study has proved to be a failure. Students that entered through OPSU even if in the majority came from private schools had a lower GPA and higher probabilities to leave USB than students entering through PIO and the admission test.

      Maybe I’m too much of an optimist but I see those numbers and I think: we are in the right track and we should try to improve PIO! Of all the admission methods PIO is the one that incorporates successfully more students from public schools, hence the more inclusive.

  18. And, well, just to play a bit the devil’s advocate here, I have been reading recently Moisés Naím’s book on the CAP II reforms (Paper Tigers and Minotaurs) and the following paragraph really jumped at me:

    “Moreover, even if the experience in many countries shows that the social rate of return is much higher in primary schools than in universities, Venezuela still allocated the the largest share of GDP to higher education (an average of 2.5 to 3 percent) in the Latin American region. All other countries except Costa Rica (with 1.9 percent) devoted less than 1 percent in the 1980s. In 1987, the government spent ten times more on each student enrolled in higher education institutions than what it spent on children attending elementary school (Bs. 31’000 versus Bs. 3’100). This skewed proportion is a reflection of the political impact of university students visibly and vocally protesting budget cuts, their professors’ ability to write persuasive editorials in local newspapers defending their budgets, and a weak or irresponsible state.”

    Of course, Naím wrote this referring to the situation in 1989, but has it really changed substantially? As Marc mentioned above, every dollar spent on USB (or UCV, or LUZ or UBV or whatever) is a dollar NOT spent on elementary education. Maybe the problem of USB, at least in terms of the over-representation of the middle class, is not really due to a lack of funding, but rather because of too much of it? 😉

    • That’s a very interesting point Gaston, and I think you are onto something.

      As Kepler and Canucklehead mentioned before the key to solve the big issue in the long run is fixing primary and secondary education. Sadly, reliable data in current Venezuela is always hard to get but I think the amount of money spent per student in universities is still significantly higher than on elementary schools. There is one thing that we need to keep in mind though, keeping research facilities and running university laboratories will always be more expensive than keeping a decent library for highschoolers (not that we currently have any of those things).

      Salaries of primary and secondary school teachers in Venezuela have been marginalized for decades, to the point that becoming a high school teacher is in many cases the option parents push their mediocre children who are unable to find a place to study any other subject.

      If we want quality education, we need quality teachers and the only way to get them is with an offer they can’t refuse. You might be very passionate about teaching but if you can’t make a decent living out of it, you will most likely choose to do something else. This is something private schools learned a long time ago, most elite private schools have actual experts teaching chemistry math and physics to their students, they managed to convince them with money.

      Now, I also believe that knowing something and being able to teach are two completely different things my favorite school teacher was a psychopedagogist and I honestly think that she has a lot of responsibility for my academic career. Venezuela has some great pedagogic institutions such as El Instituto Pedagógico de Caracas but we simply don’t have enough prepared teachers to supply the demand and in many cases people teaching on high school institutions don’t have the qualifications they need in order to succeed at their jobs.

      I agree with you, we need to revise the way the central government allocate resources to education, but I think your head will roll if you suggest another budget cut to USB right now :P.

  19. Great post and rewarding comments!
    But what about the WHOLE system of public universities “created” by this populist government? What are they forming from the lower classes? Talking only of the USB and leaving the rest out is unfair, not all the blame can go to the “elitist” university.
    One of the comments implied that if you really care for the higher education you have to start during pregnancy (prenatal care), feeding (proteins), paternal and maternal figures, driving, social mingling, etc. The problem is extremely complex and universal for our country; it’s a social necessity to improve ALL the conditions for EVERYONE starting yesterday!!

  20. My two kids graduated from USB, electronic Engineer and Chemical Engineer, both in 5 years, and went overseas and got a MBA. Sadly they never went back to Venezuela as they sought a better future in USA and Europe as most of the ones that comment in this blog did.

    • Massive Brain-Drain is indeed a huge, underestimated problem. Most of the 1.5 or 1.8 Million of Venezuelans who left the country in the past couple of decades are educated professionals. About 1 million, I guesstimate. The best and brightest. (Not that Venezuela produces too many of those high-level students anyway, relative to the 30 Million population). And like your kids and most readers of these blogs, they will probably never return. The damage to the country is enormous, Incalculable and virtually irreversible. It will take generations to get back to the overall mediocre Intellectual and Professional capacity the country had in the 90’s. (Compared to countries like Chile or Argentina or even Colombia, etc) In the end a the well-being and efficiency of a country is the result of the talent and education of its Professionals.

      So the future sure ain’t bright, at all, especially when you also consider the massive Populist and Castro-Chavista indoctrination that has been in place from primary schools, middle schools and even Universities. It will take time to get rid of that pest too, socialist crap and moral deficiencies. That’s how Cuba did it: Get rid of the best and brightest and young, to be left with an old, brain-washed population they can control for decades.

    • A practical example would be: when the Ricardo Hausmann’s of a country get the hell out, to avoid getting killed for a cellphone or just pursuing a brighter, less corrupt future, the country is left with Giordanis and Jose Guerras to make big Economic decisions that affect the entire country.

      Or, when the best professionals from PDVSA leave, well, you have PDVSA today. When you put a Harvard educated Leopoldo Lopez in jail, the country is left with Capriles.

  21. Disclosure: I attended USB for two quarters before leaving for greener pastures abroad on a merit scholarship many moons ago. I teach and do research at a state-assisted, research-intensive university in the USA ranked in the top 25 public universities in the USA (probably about 5% in the world), but I would hardly call it an elite university.

    OK, let me pop everybody’s balloon here. USB is not an elite university. It is a selective university in Venezuela that trains people who would likely succeed in any institution of higher education (for the very reasons that Cesar has outlined in this and earlier posts, which are the same reasons that students from Harvard et al. are generally successful). USB does not particularly produce distinguished scholars, nor does it have particularly productive set of scholars teaching there (regardless of the reasons). If you look up any ranking of world universities, no Venezuelan university makes it into the upper 500 (sorry you proud UCEVISTAS for also popping your balloons). We don’t even make the top 20 in Latin America. So, let’s stop calling USB an elite university. It is a solid university that does a decent job of training undergraduate students.

    I do find any public university that has an acceptance rate of 5% of public school students disturbing (at least from the taxpayers’ point of view). I don’t have figures in fron to me, but I bet not a single public US university would fall in that category. Maybe the USB should become a private or semi private institution. It would actually be a fair move, and would not change any of the dynamics of admissions (provided that merit scholarships are made available to qualified students who can’t afford to pay tuition and fees). Collecting tuition and fees and becoming more autonomous might actually put USB on the path to academic excellence. A billion dollar endowment (as a starter), and some Nobel prizes would not hurt either. 😉

    • Dear hgdam,

      I believe we are all calling USB an elite university in the Venezuelan context, we are well aware of our shortcomings and I’m not going to get all blinded with pride here, but USB students excel at international competitions, going head to head against students from top universities in the world, just google the achievements from USB at HNMun or F-SAE and you will see, the university is delivering in the areas it can, forming excellent professionals that have nothing to envy knowledge-wise to any other student from the top 100 universities in the world.

      I did my PhD in The University of St Andrews, Top 1 in Scotland, 68 worldwide and I can assure I never felt there was some theoretical concept I was missing from my education, sure, we didn’t have the fancy new toys students here get to play with but the old machines work with the same principles and it was easy to adapt. I am not alone here, most of my friends went also abroad to pursue further education and they recall almost the same experience.

      In terms of world rankings if you follow the 2015 QS Top universities, USB is currently in the 701+ worldwide (that’s pretty much the bottom of the list I’ll give you that) and 34 in Latin America, in that same ranking we were 551 in 2012, so yes, we are not top 500, but we might be closer than you think. Given our current circumstances I think we do a pretty good job.

      It is hard to produce Nobel prizes when you hardly have any money to do research, yet the university is delivering high quality publications with the little resources it has USB ranks 32 in Latin America on papers per faculty.

      I know you disagree, but I think we do earn to be called an elite university.

      • Yes, I don’t disagree with most of what you say. USB is good at training undergraduates. As I said, these students would do well almost anywhere in the world to begin with because they have all the advantages of a privileged socio economic background. I am sure the same students would, generally, be as well trained at UCV, UCAB, U Metropolitana, etc. In essence, the admission process takes care of the issue. USB accepts students who have a strong chance of succeeding in a technical or scientific career. As you say, perhaps you could call USB an elite university for Venezuela. I can’t recall where U Merida stands, but it might be ranked as high as USB, and clearly does not have the same admission standards.

        I think the first thing to realize is that we are far, far, far away from being a player among world universities. Many Asian universities created in the last 30 years are now doing fantastically well. Maybe they are a model to emulate?

        More importantly, if USB is really small potatoes on a global scale, is it justifiable that it essentially serve as a training ground for the most privileged section of Venezuelan society at taxpayer’s expense?

        In any case, I thank you for writing these articles. They are eye opening and move the discussion to a higher level.


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