Last month, thousands of university students and workers took to the streets in an attempt to influence the future of higher education in the country.
Their focus is the debate being held in the National Assembly over a proposed Special Universities Law.
The tabled legislation is an amendment to last year’s Organic Education Law, which ended the right of universities to administer their own selection processes and gave a say in their running to new “participatory councils” of students, staff and others.
Although they are broadly aligned with the government of President Hugo Chávez, marchers want more to be done to enforce the 2009 law, which was rejected by several leading universities on the grounds that it threatened their independence.
The protest highlights the continuing tension over public higher education provision that has existed since Mr Chávez came to power in 1998 and began his drive to create “socialism for the 21st century”.
Last month’s march came hot on the heels of a demonstration in October in support of the elite universities’ anti-government stance. Students and lecturers held a demonstration in favour of a “fair budget” following a recent 6 per cent funding cut and the failure to deliver a 30 per cent pay increase promised to university workers in 2007.
With the backing of a document signed by the authorities of 11 leading universities, protesters accused the government of punishing the elite institutions for maintaining their right to autonomy and argued that the country’s slow recovery from the global recession was no justification for the budget cuts.
Over the past few years, the different stands on public universities, as represented by participants in the two marches, have resulted in frequent upheavals both on and off campus.
They reflect the coexistence in Venezuela of two parallel models of higher education and the continuing polarisation of opinion over Mr Chávez’s reforms.
According to “Venezuela: Higher Education for All”, a scholarly paper by researchers Thomas Muhr and Antoni Verger published in the Journal of Critical Education Policy Studies, the Chávez government put higher education at the centre of its plans for widespread social transformation.
In an effort to address what it called the “social debt accumulated under previous administrations”, the new leadership increased education spending, which has risen from 3.8 per cent to more than 6 per cent of gross domestic product since 1998.
It also launched a “Higher Education for All” policy aimed at making university free and accessible to every section of society.
Autonomous universities, long dominated by Venezuela’s upper and middle classes, resisted the new policy. But instead of confronting the dissenters directly, the government established parallel university structures in order to achieve its objectives.
However, recent legislation has aimed gradually to bring existing publicly funded institutions in line with its overall objectives.
The perspective from inside the autonomous universities is frequently critical.
Luis Chesney Lawrence, a professor in the School of Arts at the Central University of Venezuela, believes that institutions such as his are being punished for having a high-profile presence in the media. “The government wants to drown the universities because they have a voice that is critical, independent and autonomous,” he said.
But Francisco Domínguez, head of the Centre for Brazilian and Latin American Studies at Middlesex University and secretary of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign in the UK, questioned the evidence for such an accusation.
“There has been no attempt whatsoever to silence the members of the traditional public universities, who don’t mince their words, or to prevent them using their autonomy to wage opposition against the government,” he said.
On the dispute over funding, Dr Domínguez said that the Venezuelan government had consistently increased higher education spending, even on the autonomous institutions, until the recession hit.
Dr Chesney Lawrence, in contrast, argued that budget reforms were already having a devastating effect on university staff.
He said that he had not been paid at all in 2010, and he was highly critical of the budget freeze during a period when the country is experiencing extreme inflation.
He said he doubted whether the government’s newly reduced majority would be able to pass the Special Law this year.
Meanwhile, as protests continue, the outlook remains uncertain for Venezuela’s autonomous universities.
• The full version of this article first appeared in the digital international edition of Times Higher Education magazine. To subscribe, visit: www.subscription.co.uk/thed/digital