Reif, laptops, and how we spend our education money

Wait, they’re not red??

The Venezuelan government has been spending millions on little laptops for children in public schools. The computers, known as Canaimitas, use open software, come with a Linux-based operating system, and allow the user to browse the Web.

But according to the latest research, they are an enormous waste of money.

The paper tells a devastating story: results from a randomized experiment in rural Peru show that the mass spread of computers did nothing for enrollment nor Math and Language tests. General cognitive skills were positively affected. The students also reported increased use of the computer both at school and at home, but there is little evidence they made a difference on educational achievement.

The money quote:

“First, the time allocated to activities directly related to school does not seem to have changed. The program did not affect attendance or time allocated to doing homework. Second, it has been suggested that the introduction of computers increases motivation, but our results suggest otherwise. Third, there is no evidence the program influenced reading habits. This is perhaps surprising given that the program substantially affected the availability of books to students. The laptops came loaded with 200 books, and only 26 percent of students in the control group had more than five books in their homes. Finally, the program did not seem to have affected the quality of instruction in class. Information from computer logs indicates that a substantial share of laptop use was directed to activities that might have little effect on educational outcomes (word processing, calculator, games, music and recording sound and video). A parallel qualitative evaluation of the program suggests that the introduction of computers produced, at best, modest changes in pedagogical practices (Villarán, 2010). This may be explained by the lack of software in the laptops directly linked to Math and Language and the absence of clear instructions to teachers about which activities to use for specific curricular goals.

On the positive side, the results indicate some benefits on cognitive skills. In the three measured dimensions, students in the treatment group surpass those in the control group by between 0.09 and 0.13 standard deviations though the difference is only statistically significant at the 10 percent level for the Raven’s Progressive Matrices test (p-value 0.055). Still, the effects are quantitatively large. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the estimated impact on the verbal fluency measure represents the progression expected in six months for a child.”

The inability of our public sphere to ask basic questions about how we spend money earmarked for education brings me to another newsworthy item from last week: the appointment of Prof. Rafael Reif as President of MIT.

In case you didn’t know, the new President of MIT is Venezuelan, educated at the Universidad de Carabobo. He went on to get his Ph.D. in Engineering from Stanford University, and has had an apparently brilliant career.

So while we take pride from our very own “local boy does good” story, stop and ask yourselves: is it fair that the Venezuelan state, by virtue of paying for his entire undergraduate education, planted the seeds for this brilliant scientist?

Schools in remote areas of Venezuela may lack the basic supplies, but our Universities, then and now, give free education to people who can obviously afford to pay something. Many of these people go on to have brilliant careers overseas.

In essence, the Venezuelan state subsidized the education of the MIT’s new President, just like it does to many doctors, dentists, and other professionals. Is that a wise way to spend our money?

This is not a knock on Prof. Reif himself, or on any of the beneficiaries of this system, many of whom are our readers. But the question remains – should public money be spent on people who need education the most, or on people who can afford to pay their own way?

How many more First-world University Presidents will we have to subsidize until we reach the right answer?

(HT on the Canaima research: Omar)

79 thoughts on “Reif, laptops, and how we spend our education money

  1. My wife is a specialist at the Toronto School Board, working largely in computer-assisted learning. Experience here shows that if teachers are HIGHLY computer-literate, and wifi connectivity is present at the school, there are huge benefits. Kids write plays, make documentaries, work in teams, etc. The central limiting factor is that teachers do not know enough to get even 10% capacity from the equipment provided. I have no idea what might be the computer literacy of Venezuelan teachers, but I suspect this might be a factor there, too.


    • Indeed, the problem seems to be ‘the absence of clear instructions to teachers about which activities to use for specific curricular goals.” Just access to hundreds of books on computer would justify the expenditure. And if Venezuelan children are anything like the children in the rest of the world, they’ll find all kinds of uses for these computers and perhaps teach their teachers a thing or two.


  2. This post was valid 30 years ago. Right now universities are pretty much broken. Yes, they are still free. But the cost of charging them outweights the actual cost. Maybe a significant percent of the guys at the simon could pay, but not as many as people think. I went to the USB, but was no rich kid. Had no car, no money for parties. Seriously. And so did many of my friends. Yes, some had a LOT of money, but not too many. Look at what is happening at Chile. I’ve also heard that -not 100 sure about the countries- in Peru and Ecuador the fact that there a few or none public universities has been a huge problem for the lower classes to become middle class.

    Honestly, among the whole mess and shitty situation in Venezuela, I don’t think charging the students at public universities is going to help in anything. For crying out loud, in Europe they are free too you know! What I mean is that the free university system has worked in other parts of the world.

    In Europe when an european gets a position like that, I hear people complain about the need to bring those guys back, not about why did they receive a free education. If they complain at all.

    I thing you missed the point.

    With the salary of a college professor getting closer and closer to minimal wage (at least the new professors just getting hired today) universities need more money, not less.


    • I agree. It is also worth pointing out that Venezuela, at one stretch in its history at least, was attracting talent (including academics) from other parts of the world.

      Take the toys away from the generals and put it into education!


    • I strongly disagree.

      There are a couple important issues here that are very misleading. I devoted 16 years of my life as university professor both in Venezuela and in Europe, so I beg you to bear with me until the end:

      1) The universities in Europe are, in general, NOT FREE, but heavily subsidized. This varies a lot from country to country and within regions of a given country, but for instance in a country like Spain you typically pay about 15% of the real cost of your pre-grad education (roughly 2500 USD/year), which is way, way more than what you pay in Venezuela. Besides, with the current economic measures these fees are going to raise to about 25%. Moreover, that’s just applicable to the FIRST time you enroll in a given course: If you have to repeat it, you pay a substantially higher fee, or even the full cost (again, the specifics depend on the region).

      On the other hand, in France the university is in general free, but the selection process is just brutal: If you are not a really good student you’ll find yourself out of the university very quickly, not like in Venezuela where you can become a ‘professional’ university student.

      So, it is very misleading to compare both university systems. If you also put into the mix that we are talking about countries whose GDP per capita is several times the Venezuelan one, the comparison is even more asymmetric. For instance Catalonia has 7 times the GDP/person of Venezuela, which means it can afford 7 times more money for public universities, and nevertheless you have to pay.

      2) The most misleading issue, though, is to confuse FREE university with AFFORDABLE university. Almost everyone believes that it is the same but it is not, and I’ll explain you why:

      The prospective student that is really poor CAN NOT afford to go to college, even if college is completely free, because his/her family can’t afford to have an unproductive member: Every adult member of a really poor family (C class and lower) must be economically active in order to add to the family pot.

      Therefore, you can set up as many free universities as you want, but the really poor people will be left out because they can’t afford to be full-time students.

      Have you never wonder why during the Venezuelan economical crisis of the 90’s the private technological institutes started to sprout everywhere? Now you know why: Those private institutes allowed poor students to work during the day AND study during the night and on weekends, maybe providing a lower quality education but nevertheless an education they could really afford.

      So, if you really care about education for the poor in a country like Venezuela, don’t ask for free high schools or free universities, because you really must ask for quality education and for a comprehensive scholarship/educational credits program for those really in need, including at least a minimum wage plus the fees.

      With that in place, it is irrelevant whether the education is public, private or mixed: I’ll just work for everyone.


      • I actually agree with you in almost everything. But I don’t think that charging the students helps in anyway. It’s complicated, and it’s 1am on a monday, so I’ll leave it here. But just as a comment, do you know that in some universities about 50% of the budget goes to “prestaciones-jubilicion-etc”. The whole system is so messed up, and right now with so little money, that charging the students would be one of the last things I would take into account. Seriously. The comparison I made was unfair, but was to make a point. Which I think I made. I mean, with all that needs to be done, from all that can be said about Reif, we are going to lament that he studied for free? seriously? That’s what you would fix?!!!


  3. Education should be free for all in a primary stage and if the person demostrate academic excellence he/she should still have the opportunity to study wherever he or she (keeping in the goverment mode) decides. It’s only through a well educated population that a country can move foward.. so, yes…public money should be spent on education: wether it’s on “Camainitas” or in people like Reif.


  4. As Luis Castro once said to me about having a carreer abroad and the implied ethics of yor post, “Stop it! it still works for the country”. Even if it doesn’t, your post leaves me a bit baffled. At a time when the Regime is bent on destroying the universities you take one of its favorite battle horses (that they only favor the upper classes), and toy with a “solution” that would only bring in peanuts to the budgets of the universities.


  5. Luis Carlos covered the LapTops and their *exhuberant* costs:
    “El Gobierno dice ofrecer a través de Venezolana de Industria Tecnológica (VIT) dos modelos de laptop a precios populares. Los hemos revisado: el modelo M2420-01 cuesta 4.432 bolívares y el M2420-02 cuesta 5.393 bolívares. Es decir, la política oficial del Estado venezolano es ofrecerle a la ciudadanía unas computadoras que cuestan $1030 y $1254.

    En el modelo capitalista, o lo que es lo mismo, cada vez que un humilde funcionario público accede a, descubre que unas computadoras con características técnicas similares, como la HP ProBook 4530s XU015UT o la Asus B007XTZHCM cuestan apenas 490 dólares y tienen el doble de memorio RAM. Entonces alguien está sacando mal la cuenta y es el propio Gobierno. O miente con la manera de calcular el dólar o miente en su estructura de costos”.


  6. I smell a study bias, and even with the negative bias, the program shows a statistically significant positive improvement, one that it even sounds like they admit at gunpoint. The bias is that they are measuring the result of a non scholastic tool based on scholastic results. I think that the fact that the kids are even using the computers is a win. Dang, recording sound, using a calculator, using word. It seems that the main goal of giving them computer access is successful: they learn that computers are gateways to many other things, and they experience using them!

    Again, however, we’re back to the “how to better spend that money”, when the question should be “why does the government have that money to spend, to begin with”. The only reason it’s being spent is because they have it, and someone whispers into a government official’s ear, “wouldn’t it be nice if kids had computers”, and the deep pockets official just hums in agreement because it also wins him votes and says, “make it happen.” But the post doesn’t question whether he should be spending the money, but whether we would spend it on something else *if we were the government offical*. That’s the ill of the matter.

    Get rid of the petro-state model, and these kinds of investments stop happening without analysis, competition, budgets and oversight.


      • 10% at that age is huge!
        To make a financial analogy, it’s like getting 10% annual interest on learning. Compound that over 8 years and the difference between someone with the computer and those without is almost double.

        If we consider all the deficiencies and limitations of the project there is a huge potential for improvement.


        • I should have been more precise: 10% confidence level is nothing! And it is. Note they talk about statistical significance or standard deviations, not whatever you are understanding.

          Read about confidence level here:

          Loosely speaking, when you say that you know something with, say, 90% confidence level, what you are saying is that there is a 10% chance that you are wrong. Conversely, when you say something is ‘true’ with 10% confidence level, what you mean is that there is a 90% chance you are wrong!

          What one does is compare a reference number (some measure of cognitive skills in kids in a ‘control’ group) with your test number (the measure of cognitive skills in your test group). You then get a difference between these two. When you say it “is only statistically significant at the 10 percent level” what you are really saying is that if you repeat the experiment 100 times, 90 times you will get differences that are larger than what you are getting even if providing laptops causes no effect!

          Sometimes you make an experiment where you claim something with 95% confidence level and it turns out to be a statistical fluke. 10% C.L. is nothing.


          • I think you are misinterpreting what statistical significance at 10% CL means. As for their own interpretation, they even translate: “A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the estimated impact on the verbal fluency measure represents the progression expected in six months for a child.” That is huge, not nothing.

            But I also made the point that there is bias, so much so that even a positive result seems to be not to their liking.

            I also made the point that measures is inadequate: a scholastic (i.e., reading) measure for what is tantamount computer experience. The fact that the kids were even using the computers is a very valuable learning, I dare say at 100% CL.

            But the most important point, was not about whether the money is well spent or not, but whether it is theirs to be spending at all, or, at least, whether the proper checks and balances were followed in the spending.


            • Yes, I was sloppy. I usually think in terms of confidence intervals and not statistical significance. I realized, panicked, sent a message to FT to see if there was a way to delete, posted a comment telling people to disregard the last post only in the wrong one, got upset, gave up… :-)


          • “is only statistically significant at the 10 percent level”
            The text refers to Significance Level not Confidence Level:


            Although 10% is not great it’s not bad either they just need a bigger sample to reduce it.

            “students in the treatment group surpass those in the control group by between 0.09 and 0.13 standard deviations”

            That statement it’s harder to interpret and I assumed they performed 9% to 13% better but I could be wrong. BTW, 0.09 to 0.13 would be the Confidence Interval at 10% Significance.


            • Well, I had corrected it already. Purely coincidentally, if one is not clear 0.11 sigma corresponds to a 9% confidence interval, which didn’t help me notice my error :-)


  7. The results are hardly surprising considering the fact that only thing that’s changed are the educational tools and not the quality of the education provided. I think most people in developed and developing countries have fallen for the notion that ‘technology in classrooms’ is somehow a panacea that solves all deficiencies when educational quality is really determined by instructor competence and the quality of the curriculum. Basically, lousy teachers working in a lousy education system produce lousy students regardless of technology.


  8. Sorry Juan Cristobal, I do not think this is the proper way to frame the issue of college education in Venezuela.

    You will always lose some trained professionals that will go abroad. The question is _how_many_. The question then becomes what incentives should there be in place so this people who went to finish their education abroad do come back and _stay_.

    Comparing the investment in college education with primary education is also not right unless you reach the point where you have to decide between one or the other and I do not think we are at that point. I prefer to frame it as ‘primary education’ Vs ‘maletines’.

    Having said that, I think it _might_ be ok to charge for education if people can afford it. However, there are some things about the university ‘as a service’ that I do not like, like students that feel that because they paid they should get the grade (and if they did not get it it is because of the professor). I prefer a ‘forgiving’ system, where you do not have to pay for your courses unless you fail and this is equal across the board. After a certain number of failures your tuition has to increase (for the courses you are repeating).


  9. Owning and operating Linux equipment is a better education for these kids than learning what fucking Paez was doing 200+ years ago, or what photosynthesis is. This is the new world, and computing is at the center of it.

    University-wise, I think the issue brings up a paradox that I don’t think has yet been overcome by any government:

    They issue pollicies for the people with specific aims, but people that actually take advantage of the policies are self-loving human beings like the rest of us and the government’s purposes are the last things on their minds.

    Chavez-logic (the theoretical one, not the practical one) would suggest that we then add many layers of regulation to insure the purposes are respected, but corruption (specially in Venezuela) prevents this from working.

    Another idea might be to design the policies with simplicity in mind, in a way “tricking” the beneficiaries into aiding the government.

    I sense the uestion being asked in this post is “how can we make education subsidies pay off for the government?”

    Instead, I would ask “what are the purposes of government that are attempted to be met with education subsidies?”


    • “Owning and operating Linux equipment is a better education for these kids than learning what fucking Paez was doing 200+ years ago, or what photosynthesis is. This is the new world, and computing is at the center of it.”

      I don’t understand why you think they are mutually exclusive. That is, knowing computing and other knowledge.

      Those who fail to learn their history are doomed to repeat it, and it is important to know more than Linux, wouldn’t you agree?


        • If a good case can be made that what f-ing Paez did 200 plus years ago got us to this, then hold the Linux and let’s read about f-ing Paez! Lesson 1: The Caudillo, His Characteristics and Historical Origins.


        • Carl, with all due respect, that is the stupidest answer I have ever gotten to a question, period.

          I sincerely hope you never go anywhere near academia, not even to teach papagayo making 101


  10. Mutatis mutandi, the same could be said for subsidizing labor for multinationals, who in turn make our technicians and managers expatriates and send them all over the world. Put in that way, it goes hand in hand with the objective of all education: To create and educate a technically apt workforce that can feed the appetite for labor in order to grow the economy.

    However, in a globalized economy, the downside of this is that the better you prepare your workforce, the more appetizing they will be to multinationals and the like. So really, the world is paying our education system a compliment by taking our brains and using them. But not today’s system. The system that was in place 30 years ago, which spawned the Moises Naim’s and Rafael Reif’s; the Ricardo Hausmanns and Ana Julia Jatars of our time. I guarantee that a graduate of the Bolivarian University would not be nearly as highly regarded.

    So public education to grow the economy, of course. Do we run a brain drain risk? We do. But, if conditions in Venezuela were appropriate and compensation just, I guarantee that such talent would never leave our borders for greener pastures.


  11. Public universities have been free in Venezuela as long as I can remember. The dividend has been good. If we did not give those thousands of graduates the opportunity to develop their skills in our country is our own fault. Many whent abroad for further training and came back, others stayed in other countries. In the last decade many have been denied opportunities locally and have left and enriched other countries. I am elated that Prof. Reif has been appointed to be President of MIT. Venezuela gave him the opportunity but it was his hard work that paved the way. I can also recall Dr. Igor Palacios, a brilliant cardiologist, who holds a very important medical position in Harvard University at Mass. General Hospital. They have both contributed to prove that in Venezuela we not only produce oil and beautiful women but also brilliant scientists that are making this a better world.


  12. I agree that education sholdnt be free but also shouldnt be excluding, I think an easy way to do this would be, instead of giving free ride to university students, they all get a scholarship so they pay 0 BsF, the scolarship requires the student to have an average grade above 14/20,can only fail 4 subjects in the entire carreer, and must enroll in a minimum 75% of the available courses he or she must take, also, the student must pay by him or herself the cost of retaking any failed subject he or she has. Problems with the RERE? Students taking 12 years to get their degree? No more! They can keep studying on the university, no problem with that, BUT they lose the scholarship that keeps them in :). Who gets the scholarship? Well, bring back prueba de aptitud academica and pruebas especificas of each university, those who get into a university get the national university scholarship. Available openings need to be limited so there arent 200 students per teacher, thus not requiring enormous amount of teachers ergo reducing costs (just a little bit :p).

    I think that if you are G-O-O-D you deserve to study in a university, doesnt matter if your daddy makes a zillion a month or if you live on a rancho, and if you’re not that good, but you want to pursue a degree, well then, there are always private universities that wont have the benefit of the scholarship.

    What does the venezuelan economy get out of this scholarship thingy? Interns, lots and lots of hihgly prepared interns, almost graduates and you dont have to pay them nearly as much as a professional, increase the minimum period of internship from 6 weeks to 6 months (minimum) and strengthen (actually, MAKE) bonds between university and industry so the university is partly funded by the industry who in return will either complete proyects thru an university or complete tasks thanks to interns.

    This is not perfect, obviously, but t it’s a proposal that still preserves education as free but is not the WO-HOOO free ride half the people get and is not nearly as pointless as the system as it currently is.

    Any comments on this are welcome :)


  13. Actually, regarding the laptop program… I would not know, but it can’t hurt if you do it properly, you follow it up and it is realistically possible to scale it up. In my ideal world :-) the government would conduct the double blind experiment in this case anyway and then decide to scratch or scale up. The problem is when things are not properly evaluated and a decision is not made as objectively as possible. Todo es con criterio de pulperia… Everyone has his/her opinion: evidently having laptops is good, evidently we need universities, evidently we need to pay more to universities.

    For example, I think that ‘evidently’ the LOCTI was a step forward, since industries could decide exactly where to allocate money for research. That changed. Apparently it was ‘evidently’ wrong in someone’s eyes. But does someone here know in reality?

    The issue is not only whether the government should give tons of money to universities or not (Evidently it should :-). It is what research would the government favor and this is no easy question.


  14. Let me take this one step further: the Venezuelan State should not have universities, and if it did, they should charge the same amount as the Universidad Metropolitana charges.


    • You seem to be very, VERY convinced that a very big, high and thick wall should be built in order to prevent people who inhabit “lower-class-land” from crossing the border to “middle-class-land”. While you are at it, put some watch towers with armed guards to shoot any intruder, will you?


  15. While I recognize the debate on public funding to tertiary education is a rational one, and I personally agree with some of your points, my Ucevista heart deeply resent the timing of your rant. In unrelated events, the Venezuelan public universities, perhaps the last surviving remains of democratic antibodies in our dying Republic, that have been under siege for many years, are finally under the final attack.

    Maybe the more technocratic approach will prefer to see the UCV died in hands of chavismo now, and get a shot in reconstructing a more rational institutional framework later. But that would make no justice to the role played by the universities in these dark days. And believe me, from a pure political economy point of view, if the UCV survive this charge, they will be entitled to decide how they will survive in the years to come.


  16. When I read Juan Cristobal’s post this morning I had a reply in mind but had too much to do to write. Since then there have been a number of interesting, even provocative posts but I’ll stick to my original brief mind letter, with some inserts.
    1. The cost-benefit design of the study is, in my view, erroneous and misleading. As extorres correctly states: “The bias is that they are measuring the result of a non scholastic tool based on scholastic results. I think that the fact that the kids are even using the computers is a win. Dang, recording sound, using a calculator, using word. It seems that the main goal of giving them computer access is successful: they learn that computers are gateways to many other things, and they experience using them!”
    More than 16 years ago, I pleaded for widespread computer access in order to avoid a new source of inequality – the gap between the minority that manipulates symbols and the majority that is limited to manipulating “things”. Math and language scores don´t measure this; maybe general cognitive skills might but I am not competent to say the tests used are adequate. More research, including longitudinal studies, is necessary. (The cost of the
    Canamitas is another issue, part of the corrupt overpricing of just about any government endeavor.)

    2. I take exception with the statement that our Universities, then and now, give free education to people who can obviously afford to pay something. Many of these people go on to have brilliant careers overseas.
    In essence, the Venezuelan state subsidized the education of the MIT’s new President, just like it does to many doctors, dentists, and other professionals. Is that a wise way to spend our money?
    This is not a knock on Prof. Reif himself, or on any of the beneficiaries of this system, many of whom are our readers. But the question remains – should public money be spent on people who need education the most, or on people who can afford to pay their own way?}
    University education in Venezuela may be subsidized but it is not free. I have had many students who had to work in order to pay for their studies and many more whose education deprived their families of additional and necessary income. In the case of Reif, whose family I happen to know, saying that he could “obviously afford to pay something” is misleading. He comes from a poor immigrant family and his oldest brother started to work early on in order to finance the university studies of his younger siblings.

    I agree that those who can pay, should, but beware of sweeping statements.

    Xsia, budget also plays in, then and now Scholarship students had to sign a contract promising to return as professors for x years to the UCV only to find that the UCV had no obligation to employ them when they came back


  17. I read Reis’ life story last week, and given that he was the first person in his family to attend University, it was implied that his family was poor (or, to say the least, of modest means). So I’m not sure that the elitist bias of University education can be pinned on him (even though the irony remains).

    I agree, however, that there IS a bias in favor of university budgets, but this has little effect in academia: most goes to administrative entitlements and bureaucratic expenses. Our teachers -at any level- are grossly underpaid.


    • When I was a TA, we had to use mayonnaise and baby food flasks for performing experiments, while there was money to renew floors that were in excellent condition and to hire the “miniteca” that played when they were electing the “queen” of the campus.


  18. I’m advocate of free education, But I have to disagree with the article’s questions and conclusion. The Venezuelan main law, enact the principle that the government should guarantee and provide education to all citizens of Venezuela.

    So clearly it should not be a matter of who can afford it or not. Moreover, the fact that you are receiving free education doesn’t mean that you have to return the money to the government. You have the freedom to do whatever you think is right for you, without affecting the rights of others; and also I believe that’s what Tax Revenues are for, we charge more to the wealthy people, and less to the people that have less money. Otherwise we are falling in the worst case of socialism or communism, where there is not freedom of choice.

    If the government would’ve wanted those people to return the investment, the same government has to create a perfect environment for them, giving credits to build company, giving money to scientific research, invest in patents. So overqualified people, they comeback, with their overqualified diploma, dreams to build a new country, but instead, the government does not care for them anymore, and the industry can not afford to pay the right salary to them. Not much of a choice when some foreign company is giving you the opportunity that could be provided in Venezuela.

    So in my opinion, the question should be, why are the government investing money in things that we don’t need, instead of giving money to them?, so we can create more jobs and more education here in Venezuela. Wasted money like helicopters that crash every month, obsolete military hardware, giving money to others country for almost no benefit for ourselves.

    That is the real question.


  19. More to the point, the problem with the program is more like a problem of execution. Clearly the program was mismanaged from day 1. Because I have seen cases in Japan, China where they are applying the program properly, in their case the computer is just a tool, the teachers are being trained to make sure the kids are following the curriculum. In China for example, there are many places as poor as Peru, Venezuela, and they are doing just fine.

    But it seems that the goal of this program is to put in the hand of every child a mini-laptop, and tell them, Ok kids have at it.


  20. I am now on sabbatical in Chile, where Juan Nagel resides. The free market university system is a nightmare and I suspect that Juan knows this. I am rather surprised by his latest statement that essentially there should be no publicly subsidized (or state-supported) universities. The average Chilean makes something like $700/month–hardly enough to make a living here. Most people here cannot afford a college education, but they are becoming indebted for life for mediocre university degrees in private universities. I think Juan is totally missing the point. One thing is to ask that those who can actually pay, but another is to do away with the state-supported system. Not for nothing Chile has one of the largest inequity indexes in the world. Should we spend relatively more on elementary and high school? Absolutely! Should we ask that students pay some of their way at university? Absolutely! Should everyone go to university? Absolutely not, but not on financial grounds.


    • On target! Given the choice, I prefer the ‘Bolivarian’ status quo to the ‘Pinochetista’ higher education. But we have more creative and less exclusive solutions available.


    • hgdam,
      The Chilean system is a marvel compared to the Venezuelan one, an absolute marvel.

      Let’s keep the debate without straw men arguments, ok? I have never said that the State should not participate in the University system. What I have said is that the State should not be incharge of running and owning universities. It should subsidize demand, not supply.

      I am not advocating doing away with the State-supported system, something that not even greedy, capitalist Chile has done. Rather, I am advocating not spending tax bolivars on the wealthy, which is something apparently you support.


      • Why not thinking about a ‘mixed’ system? I know it would require a major revamping of the fiscal administration amongst other previous measures (ex. setting a ‘police patrolling’ system to avoid abuses/corruption) but it would avoid higher-education from becoming exclusive by default and inclusive only as an exception.

        For example, you could imagine a system were: 1) Funding comes from both the State and Private sources; 2) Tuition fees are pegged to the student’s household tax return; 3) a system of scholarships to fund the livelihoods of lower-income students is devised.


        • I think your comments make it clear – you support the State paying for the higher education of the wealthy.


          • Juan, we think to be having two different debates. You stated in the comments section: ” the Venezuelan State should not have universities, and if it did, they should charge the same amount as the Universidad Metropolitana charges.” This tells me you want the state out of subsidizing education. This tells me that you want only those who can pay to go to college. That explains a lot of what I say. And if you read my post, it does say this: “Should we ask that students pay some of their way at university? Absolutely! ” So, we agree on some stuff , but fundamentally disagree.


      • Based on which metrics, Juan? Honest question, not snark. We need a reference frame for this kind of debate.

        But, answering your last comment with what I have seen here, the lack of access to higher education is definitely a factor in such a high inequality here. Specially because here you can get a great job with university education. Unlike Venezuela, here you can pay the bills, mortgage, while if you have no degree, the income is much less.


          • Juan, take a look at figure 2 of the report. If we go by that figure, Venezuela does far better than the regression line, with an average education of just over 6 years (I realize this is data from 1994). But the tendency is (not surprisingly) to increase productivity with years of schooling. So, a government official (or more importantly those in the private sector who want productive workers) might well argue that the State should do all it can to increase the supply (the number of students), not just the demand. for the number of people who finish college. If the government can provide the means, better than private loans, for students to attend college, then it should. This does not mean I am saying that the government should pay for the education of rich kids. Just making that clear.


  21. “Should everyone go to university? Absolutely not,…” If it’s not a right for everyone, why exactly is the government necessarily involved?


    • Will everyone become disabled at a certain point in their lives? No. But still the State (not the government) is the only entity that can potentially ensure [at least minimal] social protection for its citizens without bias.


      • Not quite a direct answer, and quite a debatable analogy. Firstly, with disability, the government is insuring everyone, equally, so it is a right for everyone. Secondly, exactly why does the government have to be an insurer, and simply not make it a policy that everyone must have basic insurance which covers disability?

        So back to the question: why, exactly, does government have to be involved in covering higher education for just a subset of the population?


        • 1.- Everyone is insured the same way that everyone has the potentiality to accede the higher education system. It depends on contingencies that this universality will translate into an actual spending by the government.
          2.- Why does the government have to be an insurer [of basic ‘safety nets’ in matters of social protection]? Moral hazard + Anti-selection + Essential purpose of the State (provide welfare)
          3.- Why does the government have to be involved in covering [at least partially] higher education? Ask the students in Chile + Check Chile’s GINI coefficient. Growth with equity is not the Market’s expertise.


          • 1. So it’s a higher education insurance? Not one in case something happens for which you need help, but on in case you decide to further your lower education? Using the disabilities analogy again, it’s for those who decide to be disabled?

            2. You didn’t answer as to why the government has to be the insurer. There are plenty of insurance companies that have education insurance, even disabilities insurance. Governments even require that you have car insurance; they don’t insure you themselves. So, why exactly does the government have to be the insurer?

            3. It’s a lot easier to improve GINI numbers even more with mere cash distribution, so Chile’s lowering of GINI is not necessarily convincing. Besides, the GINI coefficient in Chile has lowered due to a whole series of polices, not just the higher education aid.

            Let me up the ante: The oil money, coming from oil sales, is a regressive tax that takes away from the poor as much as from the rich, which translates to higher brackets for the poor. How do you explain suggesting that the poor be the ones to pay for most of those higher education aids, especially when the poor at at an educational disadvantage to begin with, therefor less likely to take advantage of this educational insurance?


            • 1.- It’s an analogy, both cases are not the same by definition. It is obvious that the capacity to go into higher education requires agency and will; while becoming disabled is a misfortune. What I’m trying to compare is two situations in the which the State is more performant than the Market at ensuring equal/fair access.

              2.- I did answer to this question; the State is a more competent and fairer ‘insurer’ in this case.

              3.- I’m not against cash distribution, ‘bolsa familia’ has worked wonders in Brazil; but, I believe (and I’m pretty sure most would agree), the resiliently high GINI index in Chile is related to a heritage of fiercely neoconservative/neoliberal measures such as the almost absolute privatisation of higher education.


              • Do you have empirical evidence for that? Because I think the high GINI coefficient is caused by the frequent earthquakes here.


              • 1. and 2 exactly, the analogy fails because one is a career choice the other is a misfortune. Which brings us to why would the State better at ensuring equal/fair access, by being the provider. If the State makes it a policy that everyone have a higher education insurance, and it dictates the minimum provisions that must be contained in said policies, the private insurers can more than adecuately fulfill the service, competitively, fairly, equally. At least, in my mind. Why would you think not?

                3. Again, there is no easier and more efficient way to lower GINI than through direct cash distribution; it’s just in the formula. So, regardless of whether you or others attribute high GINI to private education, I could turn it around and say it’s lack of cash distribution, or something similar. So, just because there may be a relation with higher education does not explain why a government would *have to* be involved in higher education aid.

                4. I’d like to know your position with regard to having the poor, who are at a disadvantage to your higher education proposal, pay for the richer students with what is tantamount to a regressive taxation.


              • Extorres,

                1.- I guess we will have to agree to the disagree in what concerns the pertinence of the analogy.

                2.- Why would a [performant] State do it better and why do most Western states agree to have a system of safety nets / social protection? I’ve told you a couple of times already: Microeconomics 101 (Anti-selection + Moral Hasard) + Political Science 101 (The purpose of the State is to provide welfare). The Market cannot do it on its own, it is a fact that the lost decade and the neoliberal disaster demonstrated in the Latin American case.

                3.- Cash transfers can be a part of the solution but they’re short-term mesures that need for complements to ensure sustainability. Efficient policy requires not only helping households getting up (conditional cash transfers) but also showing them how to walk (redistribution policy, job opportunities, education, etc.).

                And I’m not saying Chile has a high GINI coefficient *only* because of a lousy higher-education system, I’m just saying that Chile is now harvesting the consequence of dismantling the state apparatus (during neoconservative Pinochet) in a country already particularly unequal because of its economic background (extractive/capital-intensive economy). I am not original saying this, every single sensitive academic on Latin American economic history understands it (even Washington Consensus enthusiasts, John Williamson and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski).

                4.- I did not understand why you equated the oil rent with a regressive tax but it doesn’t matter because I’m not defending the absolute ownership and funding of higher education by the State. I actually believe in the virtues of the coexistence of public, private and [my favourite] joint-venture-type institutions (Check my comment higher up).


              • 4 is what matters most. You are suggesting that it doesn’t matter if the poor are the ones providing most of the money for a “social welfare” that is clearly advantagous to the non poor. Some welfare!

                As to why it is regressive, well, 30 million barrels of oil sold come from 30 million Venezuelans. Each Venezuelan provides one of them. That means the poorest Venezuelan provided as much as the richest Venezuelan, one barrel of oil. Percentually, that is a 100% tax bracket for the poorest and 0% tax bracket for the richest.

                With such a non performing State as the Venezuelan one has demonstrated to be, I wonder why you would consider that the status quo is not the one on the bench here. The status quo states that government should pay for higher education. You go further to say they HAVE to at least be involved in part of the aid. I must simply question why. I’m calling the paradigm into question given the paradigm is simply not performing.


    • Having a business is not a right, yet the government provides incentives for it. The arts are not a right, yet they would hardly survive without support from the government. I could probably provide a very long list of things that fit this bill. While university education is not a right, that does not meant that only those who can pay should have the privilege of attending. In the USA, all students pay for university, yet almost no one pays fully because of state subsidies. Even Harvard, which has an endowment larger than the budgets of many small nations, gets state subsidy.


      • Why exactly does the government have to be involved in businesses? Same with arts? And I ask because it is precisely this kind of activity that slips down into mismanagement and corruption sinkholes. Also, same as above, how do you explain support for most of the money going to businesses and arts and education for the advantaged middle and upper classes coming from the poor, given that the money comes from oil, which is majority owned by the poor?


          • I Agree with the not. But was disappointed at your lack of answer. Why exactly have government run those things? Many people would say space exploration wouldn’t happen without government. I ask why not:

            “Far more important than the supplies is the proof of concept. Mr. Musk is trying to show the world that a determined entrepreneur can start a rocket company from scratch and, a decade later, end up doing a job that has until now been the exclusive province of federal governments. ”


            So, in a country where most of the government’s spending money is coming from regressive taxation of sorts, considering how many government interventions have and continue to go wrong, government after government, it’s a valid question: why, exactly, do you think government should continue to run things that it doesn’t necessarily have to, given Venezuela’s reality and history? And if you think it necessarily has to, then why do you think so?


            • I am sorry, I think we are having two different debates here. I am not saying that every endeavor a government engages in is always a good one. By the same logic, the same applies to private enterprise. So, why is one model better than the other? I don’t think the debate is whether there is place for government in running or subsidizing functions that matter to citizens. For example, the US constitution says nothing about elementary and high school being a function of government. Yet, citizens willingly pay taxes for that purpose. You might say that it would be better if private entities took over that function, but I suspect that they would not survive without some sort of state subsidy, and guarantee that there would be a huge lobby to have those subsidies from the government. The example you cite about space exploration is not a great one. That guy is just using technology and infrastructure that were developed with massive infusion of government funds. My main bone of contention with the folks on the band of privatizing everything is that when we do that, we privatize gains, but socialize losses. Once private business learn to make it on their own without asking for subsidies and bailouts, then we can have this debate about getting government out of every endeavor.


              • I’m not saying one model is better than the other. I am calling the paradigm into question, given failing results, and little promise of improvement regardless of who is put up in power. So I wonder, how can we get the most out of those in government, and one way is to reduce and simplify whatever their responsibilities. So when someone just states outright, the government has to provide aid in higher education, I question, why. Is it something we can take out of government hands? So I wonder why you think it is so important to have the government handle it.

                Regarding the space example, do you think that would have any sooner if NASA hadn’t pulled out of certain aspects of space exploration?

                As to why I am calling it into question, mostly because the money being used by all these proposals of who the government should be spending money comes from a regressive taxation of oil money mostly from the poor. I find it hypocritical to be claiming it is for the good of those in need of educational aid, when it’s money mostly from the poor in the nation to pay for the higher education of the more advantaged, to then go and be even better off than before.


      • “only those who can pay should have the privilege of attending”
        Again with the straw men. Nobody is advocating that. What you are advocating, however, is the status quo, whereby poor children do not have the funds for decent education because a big chunk of it goes to pay for the undergraduate education of wealthy urbanites.


        • Not at all, Juan. I clearly stated that we should spend, relatively speaking, more on elementary education and high school, Juan. But you were pissing out of the perol, my good man. These are your words: “In essence, the Venezuelan state subsidized the education of the MIT’s new President, just like it does to many doctors, dentists, and other professionals. Is that a wise way to spend our money?” I mean talk about a strawman argument. In the first place, if you saw Reif’s statements at the time of the announcement of his appointment as President of MIT, he clearly stated that he came from very poor means. More generally, we agreed that those who can should pay (see my post). But, we should not throw the baby out with the bath water.


          • Whether Reif was or was not entitled to the education, the point remains: many wealthy Venezuelans enjoy the benefits of a free University education when our country can ill afford it. If Reif is indeed a bad example (something I highly doubt) then we can find another one.


  22. Venezuelans, and many others too, have a superstitious relation to technique and formalism. They believe, since we are supposed to be in a “digital age”, a computer will do, therefore kids have to learn computing since age 2 o 3. They believe, as well, a university degree is the great solution to everything. The degree, not the education. For a good education you need a good teacher, a tree and a shelter. Anyone can learn to use a computer. Venezuelan people in poor neighborhoods show great expertise using mobile devices. But just read their SMSs. It is easier to spend money in computers than educating and training outstanding teachers. And with the profession teacher, you need “outstanding”, nothing below.


    • A good pianist hardly ever gets hold of a first piano at puberty. A good athlete hardly ever starts excercising as an adult. Reading, too, is started as early as possible, if not too soon. If it’s a given that we want all Venezuelans to be good at computer literacy, it should start early, rather than later. I would say, as soon as they show interest.


    • I agree on outstanding teachers, by the way, for teachers to be good at computers, it would behoove us to get them access to computers as early as possible, too, like when they are children, too.


  23. It is obvious from what I have been reading from this blogger, that he is anti-chavista. So, of course, Unreliable for information. Nothing is good enough for him. I’m glad all these Oligarchs are getting what they deserve. People who think they are above everyone else. Who believe that the Natural Resources of a country could actually be inherited, due to your social status or the color of your skin. Guy, get a life and stop complaining. Move to Miami, I’m pretty sure there’s where you are right now. You must be [ Gringo ], government does nothing, of course it’s bad. Government does something (but I hate them) bad too. Wow, typical Republican. Destroy the country cause I hate Obama.


    • Deep sigh…getting lectured by people who manifestly understand nothing about Venezuela isn’t exactly new, but getting lectured on the basis we have an attitude like we own the country’s natural resources by a friggin’ chavista!?!?!? No me jodas vale…


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