Latin America University Rankings 2022: down but not out – a view from Venezuela

Higher education in Venezuela has suffered with the rest of the country, but Juan Carlos Navarro identifies pockets of hope in the sector

July 12, 2022
Supporters of Nicolas Maduro participate in a rally on Youth Day
Source: Getty

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Venezuela has been in the headlines for quite some time following a succession of several rather extreme events. Over 6 million migrants, out of a population of 30 million, have exited the country in a few years. The percentage of the population living in poverty estimated by international institutions stood at no less than 85 per cent in 2018. Hyperinflation has become routine. The government is considered illegitimate by almost all liberal democracies around the world, including most of its fellow Latin American countries. GDP estimates point to one of the steepest economic declines on record. The list could go on.

The combined effect of developments like these have landed the country on the shortlist of fragile or failed states collected by organisations such as the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Fund for Peace.

The impact of such a damaging combination of economic and social decline as well as political strife has had a severe, albeit far less publicised, impact on institutions of higher education.

While systematic information on all aspects of Venezuelan society is hard to find, a credible estimate a couple of years ago established that more than half of scientific researchers active in Venezuela had recently left for other countries. The vast majority of them worked at universities. The average monthly salary of a professor in a public university was $15 (£12) per month in 2020.

According to an official government source, public institutions of higher education (including universities and short-programme technical institutes) registered a 25 per cent decline in the student body in 2018 compared with its peak in 2008, despite inclusion in higher education being the government’s stated top policy priority.

The main traditional public universities have been the targets of large reductions in budget allocations for years, in favour of a new batch of universities created by the Chávez successive administrations, with enrolments of over 100,000 students. These new institutions, under the umbrella of the government initiative known as Misión Sucre, were built with little regard for academic standards, but were generously funded.

The outcome, in addition to the loss of a critical mass of faculty, has been the ruin of physical infrastructure and the acute deterioration of teaching and research activity: there was never more than a few Venezuelan universities included in the Times Higher Education ranking, but the single one remaining in the latest exercise (2021), the University of the Andes, Venezuela, lost about 400 places in the last four years in the worldwide ranking. The same university was recently the subject of an article in The New Yorker, in which pictures of senior professors can be seen emaciated, since their salaries and pensions are insufficient for them to eat decently.

Fortunately, there is also some good news to report.

Against all odds, public universities are still open (although they have not been able to keep their historic levels of graduates and research output, and have had to close quite a few programmes at the undergraduate and graduate level). Most of them have remained politically independent, after more than a decade of strong government pressure to silence inconvenient free speech and student activism. Expatriate researchers, some of them working at top-level research laboratories around the world, have connected with the remaining colleagues at home and provided support for remote advanced training and research.

Last but not least, several private universities have preserved their academic and financial viability and, in the case of leading institutions such as the Andrés Bello Catholic University (UCAB) or the Universidad Metropolitana in Caracas (UNIMET), have proactively adapted to the challenging environment. They have found ways to retain academic talent, to recruit and support financially ever-larger numbers of students that need assistance. They have diversified international alliances and enhanced engagement with their communities through innovative programmes for schools, non-traditional students and young entrepreneurs.

The current Venezuelan crisis and its effect on higher education seriously compromises the country’s capabilities to face development challenges. This, in an age when advanced human capital is considered more important than ever before for economic growth, innovation, resilience in the face of emergencies and equal opportunity for the new generations.

Recovery will not be quick or easy. There is no sign, unfortunately, that it has even started or that the Maduro administration has any plan other than staying the current damaging course.

Juan Carlos Navarro is an international expert in higher education, former professor at several Venezuelan universities and a former member of the National Council of Education in Venezuela.

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