Several researchers associated with the GlobalHigherEd network have been looking at President Chavez’ recent initiative – ‘Mission Alma Mater’ – to reform the higher education sector in Venezuela over the next five years. This initiative is part of Chavez’s wider social and political project – ‘Bolivarian Revolution’; it also builds upon the state-funded Bolivarian University of Venezuela (Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela) (UBV) program established in 2003.
For the record, UVB’s are an important component of the Chavez government’s ‘Mission Sucre’ – social programs to provide free higher education to all Venezuelan’s, particularly the poor. The crux of the Bolivarian system’s principle of ‘egalitarian meritocracy’ is that everybody is actively supported to study – through studentships, free transport, an ‘initial’ semester as a bridge to university studies, evening and weekend classes, and so on. Prospective students only require a high school diploma (the ‘bachillerato’ – which is equivalent to an upper secondary school qualification) in order to enter the university. What is being abolished are the entry exams, or aptitude tests, that each university set for itself. These entry exams tended to work as a mechanism of exclusion for the poor.
So, what is Mission Alma Mater? Building upon the Bolivarian principles, Mission Alma Mater is an initiative intended to dramatically increase the capacity of the country’s higher education system. In launching the initiative in May of this year, Chavez was reported as saying:
There will be 11 new national universities, in addition to 13 regional ones and 4 new technical institutions.
These new universities would specialize in basic sciences, health sciences, art, hydrocarbons, economy and fiscal sciences, security and agricultural sciences. In addition, 29 existing technological institutes and schools would be converted to technical universities.
University staff also expect to benefit from the ‘Mission Almer Mater’ initiative – with all workers receiving between 28 % and 34% pay rises depending on their position in the public universities.
GlobalHigherEd intends to follow these initiatives in Venezuela over the next year for whatever else it does, it offers an interesting alternative to the model we have come to be more familiar with, the ‘entrepreneurial university’. Indeed, it could be argued that Chavez’s project is in its own way politically entrepreneurial. Mike Ceaser, in a report carried by the Chronicle of Higher Education, points out that Chavez’s recent threats to nationalize universities if they did not comply with recent curriculum reforms is driven by the fact that the public university system is one of the last government institutions still dominated by opponents of Chavez. Most analyses, however, have been thin on grounded knowledge about the transformations taking place in the Venezuelan higher ed system.
Susan Robertson and Thomas Muhr