Photo: AFP retrieved

Every college-educated Venezuelan knows two things: 1) Higher education in Venezuela used to be one of the best in Latin America, and 2) It came cheap.  Public universities are free, yet they used to offer one of the best educations of the region. Currently, Venezuelan higher education is steadily declining in quality. Many try to prevent the utter collapse, lack of funding and ridiculous wages that threaten these institutions. The situation is dire, and it’s assuredly induced by the government to gain control of higher education. What will happen after chavismo? How will universities, especially public ones, recover?

What will happen after chavismo? How will universities, especially public ones, recover?

This question haunts me. I’m a Venezuelan-educated scientist. I got my licenciatura paying next to nothing in tuition, which resulted in a scholarship based on my academic merits. Then, I got my master’s degree and paid nothing (instead, I got paid to teach as part of our training). Now I am finishing a Ph.D. in a top research-oriented university in the U.S. This has been possible because of my personal effort and my Venezuelan academic background. I feel a strong moral debt with my alma mater, and I worry about its future. I will center my discussion on public universities because they are the ones that produce research in STEM fields in Venezuela, a fundamental part of economic development.

The key to surviving is finance. Universities have been neglected by the current regime chiefly by financial choking. What can we do to prevent this after chavismo? Today, universities need revenue outside chavismo, but later they will need to achieve revenue outside the grip of the state funding. Diversifying university revenue is a current issue within discussions of university autonomy. European universities are looking at this closely, since they usually get 70% of theirs from the state, which results in a high level of dependance. Their American counterparts, though mostly private, also rely on grants from the state to fund research. Nevertheless, the private revenues of American universities come from tuition, businesses sprung out of their labs, huge endowment funds, and donations.

The dependence of Venezuelan universities towards state funding paves a grissom path: lack of autonomy of higher education.

The dependence of Venezuelan universities towards state funding paves a grissom path: lack of autonomy of higher education. Many attempts have been made by the government to change how Venezuelan universities are run, such as the LOE (Ley Orgánica de Educación), which tried to change how the autoridades were elected, how professors were selected/classified and how students are admitted. This law succeeded only in preventing internal administrative elections from taking place over the past several years.

You may think that they are only waiting for those autoridades to get tired and quit (or die on the job), but this is only a piece of the puzzle, because how can you control an institution if you replace the management without internal support? Replacing professors is easy if you pay them miserable wages of $5 or less per month and wait for them to quit as well.

How can we help overcome some of these deep obstacles? Endowments represent a pretty good way to start. Also, while donations can be done, Venezuelan universities have a culture of not asking for donations because they didn’t need to before chavismo. Therefore, they have no internal structure dedicated and trained to raise funds like their American counterparts do. Donations must also be made from overseas, in foreign currency. No interest rate can match the 1,000,000% inflation projected by the IMF.

You might think this sounds mighty unrealistic, but I can tell you that my alma mater (Universidad Simón Bolívar) has taken the first steps. We have created an international alumni network (AlumnUSB) which has been supporting such institution with hard currency since 2015, while the UCV and the UNIMET are starting to imitate this initiative. AlumnUSB believes there is no academia without professors, so we are fundraising to prevent resignations and offer professors dignity within their context.

We are fundraising to prevent resignations and offer professors dignity within their context.

We would be kind and subtle to say that Venezuelan higher education is on the verge of collapse. It’s currently experiencing, without a doubt, the worst crisis in academic history.

These institutions have the reputation of giants, and it will take a lot of work to recover what was lost. Professors used to have Ph.Ds, great publication records and solid teaching experience. They ran away looking for institutions that could offer what public Venezuelan universities used to. What do we have to do to get them back? If Venezuela can’t train or retain its professional workforce, who will run PDVSA, Polar, or any other productive institution (private or state-run) during the post-chavismo era?

As a trained scientist, I don’t expect that my thoughts and answers become dogmas to follow in the Herculean task of rebuilding higher education in Venezuela. I just want to ignite the conversation. Just like modern scientific knowledge is created in academic institutions all over the world through discussion between peers, this conversation will provide the answers we desperately need.

Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.