Photo: Gustavo Bandres for El Tiempo

The first thing to hit me when I started teaching at Universidad Bicentenaria de Aragua was how lifeless the campus looked like compared to when I studied there. The green lawns and long white buildings remained, but the crowds of students weren’t there anymore.

Most of the prestigious universities in the country, like Universidad Central de Venezuela, Universidad de Los Andes and Universidad Simón Bolívar, are state-funded and their decay has been vastly covered (our own Astrid wrote an excellent piece about it). Interestingly, all but one of the universities she mentioned were public institutions.

Scattered across the country, trade schools, institutes of technology and small private colleges that make up over 60% of institutions of higher education have not been protected from the crisis because they don’t depend on the State. My alma mater is private and the current problem is obvious: With less students, there are less funds for salaries, resources and maintenance.

In UBA, this means irregular and less than stellar payments. Most classrooms don’t have working A/C and they could only provide two projectors. Most days, I prefer bringing my own equipment, including a laptop, despite the constant risk of being mugged.

With less students, there are less funds for salaries, resources and maintenance.

The number of journalism students has reduced, and the situation was worse in other schools, where you could fit all of their first trimester students in a single classroom.

And the students aren’t the only ones whose ranks are thinning out. All professors have either recently graduated (like myself), or have a couple of decades of experience, with a few coming back from retirement. In many cases, faculty members stretch themselves thin with four or five classes to make more money and compensate the shortage of teachers.

A bachelor’s degree went from 10 semesters to 15 trimesters, subjects where they couldn’t find anyone to teach were dropped, online classes were created and promoted as an alternative, either for the lack of transportation, crime or students emigrating. Last year, during protests, I would go to campus two times a week not knowing if I would teach a class of five or 45, or if I wouldn’t teach at all. Some of my students were detained —luckily not for long— and when I resigned, after teaching for three trimesters, my severance package was 50 cents (15 cents when they reached my bank account).

Of course, UBA is hardly the only institution affected. Even Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, the most important and resourceful private university in the country, has reported that the number of students has gone from 17,000 last year to 12,000 in 2018.

Subjects where they couldn’t find anyone to teach were dropped, online classes were created and promoted as an alternative.

Jaiber Núñez teaches Law at UCAB. When I interviewed him, he was teaching 25 hours every week, earning around $40 a month. For him, education is a vocation that’s increasingly harder to follow.

“Most students show gratitude, admiration even, for those who continue teaching,” Jaiber says. From those who graduated with him, around 70% has left the country and the remaining few are working in their area —few are teaching.

“There’s been a massive exodus of professors, in many cases due to generous offers from institutions in the United States, Europe and Latin America. At this Law School, we feel very proud when we see this interest, but truth is that little by little we’re more alone.”

UCAB runs a charity network abroad, mainly aimed at former alumni, to support several programs focused on research, communication and technology, fueling also their scholarship program. Other, far smaller institutions aren’t so lucky; vocational schools focused on instructing plumbers, electricians and accountants reached where larger universities didn’t, yet they may be gone soon, with few to mourn them.

Teaching in Venezuela can feel like making time before meltdown. Many make the effort to educate a new generation for very little and, though at the moment they struggle and do the best they can, the question is on everyone’s minds:

For how long?

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Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.

11 COMMENTS

    • In Venezuela there is no tradition of contributing to your alma mater. My mother once made a paltry donation to my and my siblings’ former primary/middle/high-school in Caracas. It was well received, then recognized and celebrated beyond belief. As I recall, the award she eventually received was worth more than the donation, so perhaps they were trying to make a point.

  1. The paradigm in higher education is shifting everywhere, though the crisis in Venezuela makes it more acute.

    More and more students are discovering that college and university are just too expensive. And while they might miss out on a lot of things that make college life “college life”, most are content to get their degree at their pace and move on with their life. Most students are not athletes or scholars of amazing ability, and cannot get financial help other than government grants and student loans. Quite honestly (if we are being honest) colleges in the United States have brought this paradigm shift upon themselves, as the price of a college education has risen 1120% over the last 30 years. (2014 numbers from Bloomberg) which far outpaces the “vile” increases in healthcare by double.

    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2012-08-23/college-tuitions-1-120-percent-increase

    It won’t be getting better soon, especially so in Venezuela, which won’t recover from this disaster for generations, depending on how soon Chavismo crashes down. I don’t see a change back to the old style campus system in Venezuela, as I believe that those who have the means will grab their laptop and get a degree from any number of accredited American or European schools online.

    I am reminded of Danny Devito’s speech in Other Peoples Money about buggy whips.

  2. @ElGuapo…yes, university is expensive, too expensive. But don’t forget that included at no extra cost your student will typically receive heavy doses of the Karl Marx school of thought from many of their professors…again at no extra charge. And I am talking about U.S. universities not Venezuelan universities

    • Nothing has changed in the 30+ years since I went. 3 of my 4 are in college or grad school*, and if anything, it is worse than ever.

      Example: I had a sociology professor who said on DAY #1, “This class will be taught from a Marxist/feminist perspective, so if you have a problem with that, I suggest you re-enroll in another class”. At least he had the balls to say it out front, and I knew right away that in order to pass said “Marxist/feminist” sociology class, I would have to keep my pie-hole shut.

      My son, on the other hand, found out the hard way when he decided to debate the issues of the day during one of his college classes. An assignment, that he copied (wholesale plagiarized, with his mother and I aware of all this) from his sister who took the same class from the same instructor 4 years prior got a C grade, while his sister (who kept her mouth shut) got an A+. He wrote a “provisional paper” that he handed in to the Dean of Students, who then had a meeting with my son and the instructor. The professor wanted to have my son expelled, but the lawyer friend who attended the meeting with my son belayed that decision and despite the histrionics of the professor, passed the class with a B. He has since changed colleges since, said professor made sure to get the word out about my son. Mr. and Mrs. Guapo are quite proud of him for showing the hypocrisy.

      So, I would say things are worse.

      *the last one is an aviator at Fort Rucker, Alabama… an Army flier like her Pop was!

  3. @ElGuapo…sadly, your experience is pretty typical and unfortunately the indoctrination process is now being introduced to students and a much earlier stage in their academic careers although generally on a more “subtle” basis. Children in grade school are receiving lessons that illustrate the reasons why capitalism is bad and that socialism is “good”. Makes me sick to think about it!

  4. I have a niece attending UCAB. One thing I see all the time is that many professors show up late for their classes or even don’t show up for their classes. I understand that salaries may not be what they should or that the transportation system sucks, but once you make the commitment to teach you should abide by it. Kids are learning from the adults that punctuality is not important. Once they graduate, they’ll act accordingly plus the fact they haven’t learned all they were supposed to. This country is doomed.

    • I disagree. If an employer isn’t paying a wage that is commensurate with the time/talent offered in exchange, the employee is under no obligation to the employer. (I am an employer). I have no employees under contract, yet they show up every day not because it is their duty, but because of the mutually beneficial agreement we came to at their hiring, and continue to abide by.

      My cabinets get made. and my homes get framed because it benefits both parties. My employees owe me nothing more than their time and talent in exchange for the agreed upon wage. Remove that wage and they have no duty to me.

  5. I’m waiting on my acto de grado so i can finally get my hands on my psychology degree, as UBA is particularly slow when it comes to graduations. Been waiting for a year now. Over the years they’be become more and more inefficient (they were pretty cumbersome already back in my first semester, before the library burned) and the quality of the instalations have been steadily declining over my stay. The one saving grace, for the most part, have been my teachers.

    Most (if not all) graduated from the first 5 UBA promos, years of exprience behind their backs, great pedagogy and even some with their own published research. A rarity on Venezuela. I admire and somewhat envy them for their dedication to psychology and their students, their passion to pass on the torch and the fact they could live off their carreers with one job and live off a salary, but most chose to keep studying and take different jobs and climb positions. An oportunity denied for our generation.

  6. Jose, great report. Only masochists/altruists would teach in Venezuela today. Salaries are a few $ PER MONTH; social benefits at retirement worthless; chance of being mugged/robbed of valuable personal cel phone/laptop/equipment on-campus great; transport for teachers/students to-and-from campus spotty/time-consuming/non-existent; thievery of on-campus AC/lighting fixtures/lab equipment/even desks frequent; non-functioning bathrooms due to lack of water the norm; electricity blackouts frequent in some institutions; and the beat (-down) goes on….

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