June Terpstra, Ph. D.
I visited two universities yesterday in Caracas, Venezuela. The translator who was assigned to our group introduced the Universidad Central de Venezuela saying: "this university is the good one, the open one, the free one, the other one; Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela is the radical one with the closed minds". This type of negative commentary has been ongoing everyday of our visit here. Thankfully, yesterday, the faculty of Bolivariana put his claim to rest as they explained all that has actually been implemented at Bolivariana compared to centuries of oppression through unfair and elitist systems of higher education.
The UBV, Bolivarian University of Venezuela, is a state university in Venezuela which the government founded in 2003 in the aftermath of the oil strike--indeed locating it in the oil company's headquarters. Ironically, these buildings became the campuses for the new universities on August 17, 2004; two days after Chavez won the recall referendum the opposition had intended to use to throw him out. It has locations in 9 other locales around Venezuela. The UBV is a part of the Cha'vez government's "Mission Sucre" social programs, which aim to provide free higher education to the poor. Consequently, enrollment at the UBV is free and open to all, regardless of academic qualifications, prior education or even nationality. The UBV was created to break the paradigm of the elite universities and almost 70% of the graduates are women. According to Zulia's largest daily, Panorama, Chavez' daughter, Maria Gabriela, was among the over one thousand graduates. There are already 21 publicly funded universities in Venezuela, including Bolivarian University of Venezuela
"This is very significant and I have always said it: capitalism is machista and to a large extent excludes women, that's why, with the new socialism, girls, you can fly free," said Chavez at the first graduation ceremony, "I give my life for you, children of the homeland, because you are the standards with which the struggle against academic exclusion in this country began."
The UBV seeks not only an education for all, but an education that challenges traditional frameworks in non-exclusionary and non-selective enrollment. Students are encouraged to be critical, reflective, and to participate in and lead classroom activities using the methods of popular education taught by Paolo Freire.
The university has a responsibility to provide services and work for the wider community's benefit. Thus, students of Architecture design projects to meet the huge housing needs for those who live in precarious barrios. The health centre, library and cultural spaces at the UBV are open to the community. In addition, students conduct a project which will benefit their local community, rather than simply writing a dissertation. In an interview, Maria Ejilda Castellano, the rector of the Bolivarian University of Venezuela said:
"We have always said that education is not just to create professionals. Education is much more than that. Knowledge is power, and more people with knowledge empower the whole population. Educating women empowers not only the women educated, but the whole population. Creating critical thinkers, a population of intellectuals, is a much more profound project than just preparing people for jobs.
This country, this world, is changing and will continue to change. Your counterargument about 'jobs' assumes a static world. We have a model of development in this country that demands a new kind of professional. If the government is trying to diversify the economy, these new professionals will have a place in the development of the country. And I am willing to bet that there will be plenty of work for the professionals we create. I am not talking about jobs. I am talking about work. Those are two different things." http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/707
Contrary to the revolutionary methods and service model of the Bolivariana, faculty at the Universidad Central de Venezuela school of Social Work asked us to investigate the fact that Bolivarian socialism, promoted by the government, did not promote critical thinking such as the Central U does. The Central U has been abandoned by the government. One faculty expressed disdain for the general policies of the government saying "why should one bother to get an education if a professor makes the same as one without education?" This comment said it all and represents the real goal of elitist education, making money in the capitalist system while remaining exclusive so to sequester knowledge for the benefit of the intelligentsia and the upper classes which support them.
Conversely UBV challenges the hegemony of the globally accepted market-driven research-oriented elite model of higher education. The UBV is key to the revolutionary commitment of "constructing a Venezuela for all Venezuelans, in which social justice and equality rules". The democratization of higher education is envisaged as being achieved through the strategy of municipalisation, which means that the state-funded university is operating in all 335 municipalities, as well as in prisons and factories, to facilitate equal access opportunities.
Indeed, there appears to be some reason to share the Venezuelan optimism. Even data obtained from the World Bank and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), cannot deny that under Cha'vez, participation at all educational levels has substantially increased.
"The UBV also signifies social inclusion and solidarity. Our students are committed, from the very first day, to work with love for their neighbor, for the community, for the neediest, all through socio-community action. This is an important aspect which differentiates us from other educational institutions. The UBV constitutes a pedagogical point of reference for social transformation," states Angel Moros, Chancellor of the UBV.
Students are also provided with scholarships and food and transport vouchers in an attempt to address "social injustice" as a barrier to educational access.
So far the government's efforts to create an inclusionary university education system can boast some significant achievements. Since 1998 the number of Venezuelan citizens possessing university level qualifications has risen from 785,000 to over 2,480,000. Venezuela also has the second highest university enrolment in Latin America and the fifth highest in the world after Cuba, South Korea, Finland and Greece, according to figures released by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2009.
The anti-Chavez rhetoric breaks my revolutionary heart as I see how difficult it is to transform a country from the capitalist greed model to a new model of socialism for social justice. Bless Chavez for caring about the poor and oppressed. He has even worked with the indigenous people through the Bolivariana Indigenous Studies program to frame their own constitutions in the pueblos.