Private Colleges Ain’t Exempt from the Crisis

Even though public universities tend to be the focus, private higher education has struggled and suffered under chavismo, as much as every realm of the private sector.

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?

José González Vargas

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.