Sector split on Chávez policies

November 24, 2006

University autonomy, which was historically a unifying force for students and faculty in Venezuela, is dividing the country.

Supporters of President Hugo Chávez, who is seeking re-election next week, see universities as dens of privilege that exacerbate social exclusion. His detractors say that they are the country's last truly democratic arena.

Henry Suarez, an official in the Ministry of Higher Education, said the university community was defending its privileges rather than preserving autonomy.

He claimed that the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) had a student-to-lecturer ratio of 11:1. Enrolment could easily double to 84,000 without hurting educational quality, he said.

The Government's main educational policy goal has been to bring tens of thousands of underprivileged people into the education system. Critics argue that the initiatives are of poor quality and aim to indoctrinate more than educate.

Eleazar Narvaez, vice-rector of UCV, said he believed that the access initiatives would hurt the university's quality and damage its reputation.

He was concerned that doubling enrolment would overextend universities and take academics away from research, which he describes as fundamental to the university's role.

The Venezuelan Opposition accepted that the sector needed to reform but feared that the Government aimed to quell dissent.

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