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.

César Alejandro Urbina Blanco

Guatireño, the grandchild of two Carmens. BSc in Chemistry from La Simon and PhD in Chemistry from The University of St Andrews currently working as a Research Scientist in Germany. Big science geek, proud winner and supporter of the Chemistry Olympiads and former Viola player from El Sistema. Always up for a good discussion unafraid of playing the devil's advocate, politics, religion, science or art, you name it I'm up for it. In one word: Cesapo.