Mérida, December 24th 2010 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – As students in the United States and Europe protest against soaring tuition and lack of funding for public higher education, the Venezuelan National Assembly has passed an unprecedented law to include professors, students, workers, and local community members in university decision-making and to eliminate barriers to higher education.
The law is based on the principle that the government has the responsibility to provide free, high-quality, public education from childhood through the undergraduate university level. This principle is established in Article 103 of the nation’s constitution.
The law says students will have the right to an equal vote in the election of university authorities, evaluate professors and participate in self-evaluation, freely express opinions, access university administrative records, and receive a range of services including housing, transportation, meals, health care, and monthly stipends, among other rights.
The law also establishes a series of university councils that are to be elected on each campus through a one-person, one-vote democratic system that includes students, professors, administrators, wage workers, and other members of the university community.
This includes a University Public Defenders Council and an Ombudsman Council to audit and oversee university budgeting and administration. Likewise, each campus will elect a legislative body of representatives called the University Transformation Assembly that will work with the National Council for University Transformation to manage the changes to the public university system’s administrative structure and programs in line with the new law and the constitution.
Currently, universities are run by a smaller group of authorities called the University Council which is elected in a system that weighs higher authorities’ votes more heavily and gives virtually no power to students or workers.
The new law explicitly upholds the principle of autonomy of public university administration, which is mandated by Article 109 of the national constitution. This principle was inspired by Venezuela’s deep history of deadly political repression and resistance on university campuses, especially during the U.S.-backed, right wing dictatorship that ended in 1958 and the subsequent period of representative democracy.
But the legal interpretation of autonomy has changed under the new law, according to legislator Alberto Castelar from the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). He said public universities will now have “co-responsible autonomy, which means that university authorities cannot go and do as they please.”
University autonomy will be “deeper” because the new law increases the participation of previously excluded parts of the university community, according to legislator María de Queipo, who heads the Commission for Education, Culture, Recreation, and Sports in the National Assembly.
Yesterday, several student organizations including the M-28 movement and student chapters of the PSUV held demonstrations in different parts of the country in favor of the law. M-28 leader Vicente Moronta told the state news agency AVN that those who oppose the new law “consider education to be a commodity, not a human right.”
In the central state of Lara, PSUV student leader Erick Prado said, “The student movement has fought for decades in favor of a more democratic and inclusive education, long before the revolution came into power.” He added that the new law will help to “democratize the university.”
Meanwhile, opposition political leaders and student organizations staged a march in Caracas yesterday to protest the new law.
Diego Scharifker, the head of the University Student Federation, told the Associated Press that the law “imposes socialism as the sole ideology and does away with university autonomy because it concentrates all powers in the minister for higher education.” Students carried signs calling President Hugo Chavez a “dictator” and referring to his administration as a “totalitarian government.”
Opposition marchers pointed to the part of the law that says, “university education is part of the non-alienated labor that consolidates the socialist model of production,” and the part that says autonomy includes academic freedom but also must be exercised “in accordance with the National Development Plan for the strengthening, consolidation, and defense of the sovereignty and independence of the homeland.”
Police and National Guardsmen broke up the demonstration with a water cannon and plastic shotgun pellets after authorities said the students did not have a permit to extend the march beyond university campus boundaries.
Central University of Venezuela (UCV) Rector Cecilia García Arocha called for widespread disobedience of the law and said the UCV will initiate classes next semester according to the old university law. “This is the beginning of the resistance,” she said while defending the opposition students’ decision to march beyond university grounds.
Despite the fact that all of Venezuela’s public universities already operate tuition-free and provide services such as free student housing, transportation, and meals, the tendency remains for rich students to be admitted to the traditional autonomous public universities while poorer students attend the burgeoning Bolivarian University of Venezuela, which was created by the Chavez government and has an openly pro-revolution administration.
The passage of the new University Education Law comes just days before a new National Assembly with a 41% opposition contingent will replace the current National Assembly, which is almost entirely controlled by the PSUV.