EDUCATION | Cecilia García Arocha

"There is a deliberate effort to do away with universities"

"Violence and budget cutbacks are used in attempts to put an end to quality university studies," said the rector of the Central University of Venezuela

García Arocha ratifies that the university's stance is strictly academic (Nicola Rocco)
Saturday June 29, 2013  12:00 AM
The rector is fighting off the flu and has been dragging on fatigue. Her recent days have been cumbersome: rioters wreaked havoc at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) once again; she had to preside an out-of-town meeting of the Venezuelan Association of Rectors; and the strike remains in effect. Nevertheless, she stands her ground in light of the complicated future of universities as their structure and purpose may be slashed in a single go.

- President Maduro accuses you of bringing politics into the university issue. Is that not what he is actually doing?

- I would like to stress that we are academics and are entitled to undertake whatever position we deem fit. One of my premises, as an academic, is that universities must be respected from a student, union, academic and budget perspective. The government, however, acts politically to deter universities and, in so doing, keeps conflict afloat. Therefore, we urge the president and minister (Pedro Calzadilla) to realize that the solution to the conflict is in their hands.

- How can the conflict be resolved?

- By complying with what has been previously agreed upon. On May 28, the Venezuelan Association of Rectors submitted a report to the National Council of Universities. Then on June 4, a meeting was supposed to be held to address the issues noted in that document, but it never happened. The only action taken was commitment on their part to create workgroups (which were never formed) to review the 2014 draft budget.

- Do you mean that the budget increase announced by government falls short?

- Most certainly. It is divided into three parts, with 75% at the end of 2014. But the unions, which do meet up with the government, have asked for 90%. Meanwhile, the Venezuelan Federation of University Professors claims than in 15 years only two salary increases have taken place, one for 30% and the other for 40%, when the actual increase should be for 180%.

- Maduro has said "no one is going to approve an increase by 180%." 

- The president should not be so concerned because that is precisely what we deserve. We have to negotiate the extent of the increase, based on the applicable standards.

- Do they want to put an end to university autonomy?

- If a course of action has been set into motion for over 7 years, it would lead me to believe that they deliberately intend, by strangling our budget, to put an end to quality universities. In the case of the Central University of Venezuela, we are a World Heritage site, so our infrastructure and works of art are also a priority. But, if we are subject to the same budget for 7 years, without allocations to cover the income of new professors, we are certainly facing a direct attack and political action against the university, which has produced over 300,000 graduates, including many current government officers. Then, how could they not grasp what having a fair budget entails?

- Was the struggle in the past focused more on socioeconomic matters whereas now the emphasis is on survival of university autonomy?

- Times change. Some of the issues that we have been fighting for remain the same, but now they have deepened. The Venezuelan Association of Rectors urged the president to end the discussion on the collective agreement, not because we oppose updating salaries but because the agreement contains the same aspects that President Chávez opposed in the University Law when he sent it back to the National Assembly, finding it "inapplicable and lacking consultation".

- They want to induce conflict amongst workers and have academic staff be dubbed classicist.

- That is not true. We are workers ourselves, but we are also professors, and the Constitution establishes, in addition to the autonomy of universities, how their organizational charts are structured: professors, students and graduates. Therefore, we are not endeavoring to divide or be classicists. We are professors and are subject to a University Law governing our academic development; there are different levels and we have a merit-based system.

- Divide and conquer?

- The nature of the university cannot be changed by a labor agreement. The Ministry of Labor is not authorized to amend the University Law. The actors (universities) cannot be trampled on either. All this creates conflict. Therefore, conversations as they are must be stopped, and the interested parties must be called upon and the National Assembly needs to begin discussing the University Law.

Translated by Félix Rojas Alva
The end of a cycle

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Brazil on March 13 to demand the ouster of embattled President Dilma Rousseff, carrying banners expressing anger at bribery scandals and economic woes. A banner read "We don't want a new Venezuela in Brazil."