Access plans have yet to show results

November 2, 2006

Schemes to raise the educational gains of Venezuela's poor have had a mixed response, says Jose Orozco.

Venezuela has launched a scheme to encourage the country's poor, who have been shut out of university because of a lack of places at public institutions, to enter higher education.

The Ministry of Higher Education argues that Venezuelan universities became highly exclusive between 1958 and 1998, educating the country's elite while shutting out poor school pupils.

Since 1998, Hugo Chavez, the President, has introduced a series of "social justice" programmes, the Bolivarian missions. Misi"n Sucre and Misión Ribas focus on education, with the aim of compensating poor Venezuelans for the perceived exclusion of 40 years.

The ministry has opened public universities, such as the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, that follow Sucre guidelines and goals to provide free higher continuing education for adults who did not complete school.

Henry Suarez, director of strategic analysis at the ministry, said that, in the past, 80 per cent of high-school graduates came from public schools, but made up only 30 per cent of public university admissions, with private school graduates taking the remaining 70 per cent.

Job Carrillo failed to get into the Central University of Venezuela. "Other people with lower scores got in, but I couldn't afford it," he complained, referring to a bribe he was asked to pay.

When Jesús Cárdenas took his entry exam, he found that the system gave preferential treatment to to children of university employees. "I was told the four places in computer science were going to children of staff regardless of grades or scores," he said.

But the higher education access scheme has been in great demand, and the ministry has had problems keeping up. The pace of the scheme has been slowed down temporarily to take stock.

"We are only gradually enrolling new students because we don't have the infrastructure or enough professors to teach them, but we also need to plan ahead," Mr Suarez said.

The growing demand for teachers has meant hiring a great number of new university graduates and even technical institute graduates.

Mr Suarez acknowledged the problem, saying: "We have a big problem when it comes to training teachers," he said. "They are university graduates, but they don't have the pedagogical tools."

Sucre teachers have been called "knock-offs" by critics, who argue that the programme lacks educators who can teach adequately.

"No university has a programme to train teachers for the missions," said Carlos Calatrava, a professor of education at the private Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas. "No one speaks of quality: all you get is numbers about how many classrooms there are. We have no study evaluating Sucre."

Critics insist that the missions aim less to develop an educated citizenry than to build support for the Chavez Government. "More than educating,"

argues Mr Calatrava, "Sucre wants to indoctrinate."

Students at Eduardo Rol Primary School in the Catia slums on Caracas's poor west side disagree. For them, Sucre represents a second chance to realise their dreams.

"It was like a gift from heaven," said Mr Carrillo, who attended the school. "You feel that you're doing something good."

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