Socialism U

by Nathan Tek:

With his backpack and casual clothing, Benjamin Garcia could pass for any other student at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela campus in Maturín, Venezuela. But Garcia is an English professor. “Today is my first day on the job,” he told The Yale Globalist inside UBV’s gleaming linoleum-tiled main campus building.

A building at the UBV campus in Maturin. (Tek/TYG)

Garcia had just finished a tour at a “University Village,” a rural community where he worked as a volunteer professor in a rural village. Now Garcia works at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV), established by a government initiative called Mision Sucre. “Mision Sucre was created to give a second chance to people who had no chance to get university studies,” he explained in flawless English. “Now our president came out with this great idea for a free university—most students here get scholarships.”

Garcia comes from a poor family—he grew up in a Caracas slum called Eseceo Samora. He said his background would have been a handicap were he to apply for a job. “As soon as [employers read] my address, they would have said, ‘Oh, we’re sorry.’” But Garcia had a wealthy grandfather, an immigrant from Grenada, who sent him to the United States for college. Garcia returned to Venezuela in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the State University of New York in Brentwood, but he still identifies with his barrio roots.

Had UBV existed when Garcia graduated high school, he would have been the kind of Venezuelan that UBV is now seeking to educate. Garcia, in fact, is an example of the generation of young, educated, and socialist Venezuelans whom President Hugo Chávez hopes to mold in the Bolivarian University of Venezuela. Established by presidential decree in 2003, UBV is one of seven new universities created as part of the higher education component of Chávez’s wide-ranging domestic policy agenda known as “misiones.” About 180,000 students study subjects ranging from medicine to journalism to pedagogy at its seven campuses around the country. The purpose of the new universities is, according to the Ministry of Higher Education, “to combine a vision of social justice with…higher education” by increasing the ability of the poor to access them. Venezuelan students, administrators, and professors are as starkly divided on issues of higher education as the rest of their country is on politics in general. But as long as Chávez remains in power, the UBV approach to higher education is sure to prevail, exporting its model to parts of Venezuela’s traditional system of private and autonomous public universities.


“The vision this university has is important,” explained Professor Judith Acosta, an administrator at UBV-Maturín. “We want to create new citizens here to work for the community, not for profitmaking.” Acosta, a preternaturally calm, thoughtful woman in her forties, has been in academia for 22 years and at UBV for three years. She strives to be a selfless “new citizen,” opting to forgo her salary at UBV and derive her income from teaching at another university. Tuition at UBV is free, and the university provides textbooks, transportation, assistance, even childcare and medical care for its students. Unlike most universities in Venezuela, which require prospective students to take a standardized or in-house admissions exam, UBV simply asks students to fill out a survey detailing what they wish to study.

As a result of this open admissions policy, the first semester at UBV is spent balancing differences in students’ reading and writing skills. Professor Acosta reluctantly admits that some students are “not doing so well.” According to UBV’s administration, only 10 percent of students drop out before finishing their degree program, but given the unreliability of statistics about government social programs, it is hard to know how many actually do.

Despite the problems they face, UBV officials insist open admissions are the only way to counteract an unfair system: “Not all students come from the same socioeconomic conditions, and so it might be easier for some students to do well on traditional entrance tests,” Acosta explained. President Chávez recently put forward a measure to ban the standardized university entrance exam at all Venezuelan universities, alleging that exam fees have discouraged low income students from taking them, and that urban testing sites put rural students at a disadvantage. If the law passes, university administrators will have to deal with Acosta’s problem: ensuring that students are qualified to take their classes.

The students with whom the Globalist spoke represented a wide spectrum of Venezuela’s working class society. One was a mother of four who enrolled because the school has a flexible class schedule, allowing her both to work and to take class. One was aged 18, another 31. Each lived off-campus and commuted to classes. The students were similar in many ways to American community college students—the Venezuelan government describes them as “nontraditional.” In the cafeteria at UBV, a poster hung from the ceiling read, “You are the instruments driving the revolution.” UBV’s ideology is clear, and in fact a large number of UBV students have joined Chávez’s new United Socialist Party, a detail UBV President Jose Berrios insisted was the result of each student’s personal decision. “We do not put pressure on students and it is not compulsory. We simply explain to them why they should join.”

Conservative Criticism

Statements like that are why critics at traditional universities say expanding access to higher education is a glib cover for UBV’s real purpose: political indoctrination. Osmel Brito, a recent alumnus of the Central Technological Institute in Carabobo, explained to the Globalist, “At the university I went to, the study of Marxist ideology is very common, but it’s the students’ personal decision whether or not to accept it. The Bolivarian Universities have no room for discussion of other ideas.”

But despite what either Brito or President Berrios say, the UBV-Maturín students seem apolitical. “We don’t really have time to read the newspapers,” one said, explaining that they are too busy with their jobs and their class work.

The campus of the Institute for the Advanced Studies in Business Administration (IESA) in the plush Caracas neighborhood of San Bernardino looks just as new and modern as the campus of UBV-Maturín, with the notable difference that its halls prominently display a Banesco ATM rather than propaganda posters. IESA, a private business school with only 500 students established in 1965, is one of most prestigious academic institutions in the country. But at $2,000 a year, it is also the most expensive. IESA students are ambitious and cosmopolitan, and many are among Venezuela’s wealthiest. If an elitist system can be found anywhere in Venezuela, it would be here and at other private Venezuelan universities.

But students, faculty, and administrators insist that is not the case. Manuel Lepervanche, like many of the students the Globalist met with on IESA’s campus, could easily fit in at most American colleges. He is a 21-year-old Caracas native who speaks flawless American English; he majors in economics at an IESA-affiliated undergraduate university called Andres Bello Catholic University (UCAB). He just finished a semester studying abroad in Spain and his main extracurricular activity is Model UN.

Lepervanche, like many students at private Venezuelan colleges, is among the wealthiest Venezuelans. But IESA and most private schools offer loans and financial aid to students. At UCAB, more than half of students are receiving some form of financial aid. The two most prestigious universities in Venezuela, the Central University of Venezuela and Simon Bolivar University, charge no tuition at all, like all traditional public universities in the country. UBV, Lepervanche said, offers “a politicized education and a bad education.” For example, a medical degree from UBV takes two years, whereas the standard requirement in Venezuela is six. “To attend the Bolivarian universities you have to have their same line of thinking,” he argued. “Namely, you must be, or pretend to be, Chávista.”

Chávez’s attempts to mold the traditional higher education system in the Bolivarian image have gone further than the creation of UBV and his proposal to ban standardized testing. Already, some in the academic community have complained that UBV is squeezing them out of Ministry of Education funding. “We aim to have universities like this all over,” Berrios told the Globalist. UBV is quickly becoming the future of Venezuelan higher education—whether the rest of the Venezuelan academic community likes it or not.