CARACAS, Venezuela — Education in Venezuela was once a bright light in Latin America. Years of excessive spending and borrowing, political corruption and an unrealistic exchange rate under Hugo Chavez and his successor, Maduro, contributed to the current economic collapse. Heavy investments in education, healthcare, employment and poverty reduction rested on the back of booming oil prices that fell sharply.
Chavez became President amidst an effective educational system that was working for the country, but only available to the middle class and wealthy due to annual fees. Chavez envisioned an educational system that also provided educational access to poor populations in rural areas.
When Chavez took office in 1998, illiteracy was widespread. However, by 2005 UNESCO claimed that illiteracy had been “eradicated” in Venezuela with 1.5 million people considered literate. Enrollment in secondary school increased from 53 percent in 2000 to 73 percent in 2011. During this time, Venezuela placed fifth among world nations for a percentage of population enrolled in higher education.
His efforts to expand educational access and other social welfare programs were part of his idea for a “people’s revolution” based on socialist principles. Although his programs had successes in the short term, Chavez’s ambitions and the associated costs proved to be unsustainable. Education in Venezuela is in crisis, but it is not the only sector suffering. Healthcare, water supply, electricity and the most basic aspects of Venezuelan infrastructure are all in crumbles.
Venezuelan education is governed by the Ministry of Education with every citizen having the right to an education. There are both public and private schools at all levels, but since Venezuela runs a highly centralized educational system, both are subject to the same standards determined by the government.
Public education is free including supplies, food and transportation. School is compulsory for nine years under Basic Education. This is followed by Diversified Secondary Education and then Specialized Secondary Education. Upon completion, students are awarded a technical degree. After this, Secondary Education is divided between Diversified or Professional Training. There are also technical and trade schools available for those looking for a shorter path to the workforce. Higher education is grouped into two sub-groups called Institutes and University Colleges (for shorter courses of study) and Universities (for longer courses of study).
Chavez introduced Bolivarian universities, firmly under government control, to further his idea of a people’s revolution. These universities are free to all and have no admissions process. His supporters view this as a positive part of helping the poor, but critics note that these institutions are lacking academic rigor and deeply indoctrinated in socialist propaganda.
There are public institutes, university colleges and universities that have remained academically autonomous in the socialist atmosphere. However, it should be noted that Bolivarian universities have not faced the same budget cuts as public universities even though eight out of 10 college diplomas in Venezuela are obtained from public universities.
Education at a Standstill
Education in Venezuela is in crisis. Violence, food shortages, lack of electricity, failure of basic infrastructure and the absence of rule of law has left Venezuelan schools virtually empty. Students, along with teachers, are forced to stay away from school out of fear of violence or because they have no choice but to stand in line for food instead of going to school.
Because of these economic stressors, it is estimated that teachers miss one-third of class time due to their own personal circumstances, with allegations that some teachers are guilty of trading grades for food rations. This, among reports of stolen food intended for school lunch programs and food never arriving due to lack of funding, creates a very troubled educational system.
Schools are held behind locked gates in rancid conditions, where there is usually no running water. Students who can make it to school are often robbed by other students. Coupled with these serious issues is the disturbing fact that Venezuela now has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in South America.
Venezuela has 7 million public school students. The dropout rate has doubled since 2011 and one-quarter of teenagers are not enrolled in any school. With a third of Venezuela’s population under the age of 15, the country is leaving an entire generation of young people without access to basic education and mired in hopeless economic and social circumstances.
Central University, once the crown jewel of Venezuela’s public university system, has lost one-quarter of its professors in the past four years largely due to inflation that has gutted wages.The 2016 budget for public universities was cut 70-80 percent, but at the same time, President Maduro has mandated that public universities enroll 50-75 percent more students.
Additionally, crime and lack of supplies plague public university campuses where perpetrators can steal a variety of items to be sold on the black market. Classrooms not only lack enough professors, but also such basic items as light bulbs.
All levels of education in Venezuela are at a standstill amid economic collapse. The void of law and order leaves not only education but the whole of Venezuelan society in jeopardy for the foreseeable future.
– Mandy Otis