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As socialists mourn the death last week of President Hugo Chávez, now seems a good time to take stock of what has been achieved in Venezuelan higher education since his election in 1999.
The higher education systems of the UK and Venezuela are microcosms of fundamentally differing economic and political conceptions of what is fit for purpose. The massive increase in managerialism and top-down control in UK universities is well documented. In Venezuela, while the exclusionary and elitist vestiges that dominated higher education pre-Chávez continue to exist, stringent efforts are being made to tackle them.
One example is the University Education Act. Currently the subject of national debate, this legislation would require university councils to be elected on each campus through a one-person, one-vote democratic system. Those entitled to vote would include students, academics, administrators and workers. The current system gives virtually no power to students or workers.
Tuition fees in England, now up to £9,000, are among the highest in the world. Mission Sucre, by contrast, is a good example of 21st-century socialism’s democratisation of higher education: it provides free, continuing tutelage to the 2 million adult Venezuelans who did not complete their elementary schooling under the old regime.
In the UK, there are just under 2.5 million students in higher education. In Venezuela, which has less than half the population of the UK, the number is 3 million, with enrolment up 170 per cent since 1999.
A fair retort might be: “But what about quality?” Well, Venezuelan universities compare well with other Latin American institutions in the international rankings. Furthermore, UK notions of “quality” miss the point and raise the question, “quality for whom?” What is the class background of those studying at the UK’s league-table leaders? What about those poor working-class students now effectively excluded from higher education by the unpalatable prospect of incurring tens of thousands of pounds in debt? What about quality of life?
In the UK, the university’s role as a functionary for capitalism is firmly entrenched. In Venezuela, the goal of education is to produce not human capital but a critical citizenry and social justice on a mass scale. When education is designed to serve society, it cannot be articulated only or mainly in positivistic, quantifiable standards. For example, the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV), founded in 2003 by presidential decree, is part of a major attempt to extend access. Free to all students, social justice and equality are at the core of its educational content, and all courses taken there use “participatory action research” methodology: a multidisciplinary approach that links theory and practice, and bases students in their local communities, working on community projects that form a central part of formal study.
The spirit of the proposed University Education Act is already well established in Venezuela. At the start of one of several seminars I have given at UBV, for instance, a caretaker arrived to unlock the room. Instead of going on to other chores, he sat down, listened and actively contributed to the discussion. A lively interchange of views ensued about the meaning of socialism.
Another abiding memory I have of Caracas is my first visit to a local bar. From the bustle and vibe emanating from inside, I expected to find a lot of noisy male football supporters shouting at a TV screen. Instead, I encountered men and women from the local barrio engaged in serious and passionate discussions about the president and the direction of the revolution.
Chávez’s death is a tragedy of immense proportions for the Bolivarian Revolution. However, 21st-century socialism is and must be first and foremost a revolution of the people, as Chávez was well aware. The fact that the people have taken socialism to heart, in higher education as in other areas of life, ensures that the revolution he started will not die with him.