In Venezuela, the university space is shrinking. Government policies are creating a man-made disaster with the potential to affect the quality of the country’s higher education system and the lives of its scholars, students, and society for generations. From faculty members self-censoring over social media to government-controlled university admissions, from travel restrictions on professors to threats against students demonstrating their rights to free expression and public assembly, Venezuela is facing nothing short of a freeze on academic freedom.
Despite surveillance, threats, and feelings of isolation from the wider academic community, SAR’s partners in Venezuela are as committed as ever to their students and their studies. Feeling an immense responsibility to protect their students, scholars have taken it upon themselves to watch over student-activists, seeking justice and advocating on behalf of those who have been detained and imprisoned. Venezuelan scholars are given hope not only by their students’ bright intellect and eagerness to learn, but also by their commitment to work for a freer, more equitable future in their country.
Profesor Benjamin Scharifker, Rector of Universidad Metropolitana, and Profesora Angelina Jaffé, Dean of the UMET Law School, offer a jarring account of the ongoing threats to academic freedom in their country.
With parliamentary elections due to take place in Venezuela on December 6, 2015, the executive branch has sought to limit the role of Venezuelan universities as some of the last bastions of resistance to the current administration. In doing so, the government has interfered in the autonomy of Venezuela’s universities and crippled them financially, driving many of Venezuela’s brightest scholars out of the country.
This year, the executive branch took direct control of student admissions, violating the autonomy granted by law to universities and putting students selected by universities based on their academic merit together with those students designated by the Ministry of Education on other grounds. The executive branch has also established compulsory priorities in certain educational fields, developing military-oriented programs in newly formed, non-autonomous universities directly controlled by the government. They are also trying to impose university curricula in all universities. The government privileges military institutions by granting them preferred funding support.
The government is also severely interfering with the governance of universities by interrupting the election of their authorities and student bodies, and by promoting selective violence through government-sponsored task forces and paramilitary groups. Several universities have been forced to stop their academic and administrative activity due to such disturbances.
Last year’s political unrest has taken a high toll on student life and freedom. More than 3,000 students have been submitted to judicial procedures, some are still in prison, and others are under conditional release or temporary release with bail, pending their trials. The Human Rights Centers in several universities have been put under surveillance by the Prosecutor’s Office. A growing number of students are interrupting their studies to emigrate. These students leave unfinished careers behind them with meager possibilities to continue them elsewhere, as access to foreign currency to study abroad has been cut off.
Where students remain and classes have been able to continue, severe limitations in the budget of Venezuelan universities have directly impacted all aspects of campus life. The lack of sufficient funding affects the maintenance of infrastructure including laboratories, libraries and other university facilities and student services. Government spending in public universities currently averages $60 a year per student, and research funds average $0.68 a year per researcher. Consequently, there has been a rapid and general deterioration of working conditions leading to the decay of research activities and academic productivity, resulting from the lack of access to foreign currency. Those who work at universities are similarly impacted; salaries average approximately $40 monthly for a full-time tenured professor at the official exchange rate, but this translates to only $20 at the black market rate.
Due to these economic constraints, Venezuela’s scientific productivity has dropped sharply compared to other Latin American countries. Venezuelan academics cannot attend international meetings, seminars or participate in exchange programs, and local insecurity has made it impossible to invite foreign academics to teach or carry out research in the country. The brain drain is sharply increasing in all academic institutions. One university alone (Universidad Simón Bolívar) reported that more than 600 professors out of a faculty of 794 left the institution during the last decade and accepted academic posts abroad (51% of Venezuelan émigrés to the US have university degrees). Those who leave are in general the most qualified professors with significant numbers of papers published in prestigious international research journals. Due to a lack of funds, there is no movement to fill the vacant academic posts. Certain fields and even whole institutions face a threat of permanent closure.
The professors and students who remain at Venezuelan universities are fighting, not only for their present ability to research, teach, study, and learn, but also for the entire future of Venezuelan higher education. Even as the Venezuelan political climate becomes more difficult in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections, they seek to preserve the sanctity of the university as a place for discovery and discussion for generations to come and hope that the global higher education community will stand with them, reminding them that they are not, in fact, alone.