I have seriously mixed feelings about the current conflict engulfing our public universities.
On a purely human level, I sympathize with the protesters. The current wages for University professors in our public system are insulting to say the least. University budgets have been practically frozen since the Revolution took hold, and violence on campus is a fact of life.
And yet, while I defend their right to march and protest, deep down everyone knows it’s not the government’s fault.
It’s the model that is not working.
Venezuela decided long ago that its public universities would be free of charge. We chose, in the midst of our oil-boom-distorted view of the world, that we could afford to pay for the tuition of everyone who wanted to go to college. Ta’barato, dame cuatro (universidades). Hugo Chávez only compounded this illusion by irresponsibly creating more and more free universities, thereby increasing the pressure to continue these subsidies ad infinitum.
Now that our population has doubled, our oil income has stagnated, and we want to continue paying for everyone’s gas tanks, we find that, lo and behold, we don’t have enough money for university education!
Much ink has been spilled on this topic. Public universities are deeply inefficient, and they (mostly) benefit the middle and upper classes. Every Venezuelan dentist we meet working overseas, every USB engineer we see drilling for oil in Qatar, and every UCV economist working for a multilateral institution are a walking, talking advertisement of money that was not well spent.
I know this may irk some of you, but think about it: we are taking money from each and every Venezuelan (in theory, the owners of the oil we drill) to hand it out to people who can afford to pay their own way.
As if this wasn’t crazy enough, we also limit private education. Our private universities are constantly cash-strapped because the government regulates their tuition costs as well.
Regulation of private universities represents an assault on academic and economic freedoms, and it makes absolutely no sense. The government is basically putting itself in the middle of a transaction between an organization and its customers, and it’s doing so uninvited. It’s a race to the bottom, and this is preventing our universities from taking off.
The solution is to move away from this system where the supply of higher education is subsidized to a system where we subsidize demand. In other words, make everyone pay their fair share of their university education, and if there are people who gain admission and can’t afford it, subsidize them.
Blanket subsidies leave everyone in the cold, because the blanket ain’t big enough.
The world learned this lesson long ago. Even in Communist, Maoist China universties are expensive – tuition at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, for example, runs at about 10,000 USD per year. Imagine what Simón Bolívar University would do if it could charge 10,000 USD per student. ¡Hagámonos los chinos!
So yes, let’s take to the streets and protest, but let’s not kid ourselves. This is a recurrent problem and it’s bound to rear its head again and again.
Unless we tackle the underlying model of how we finance university education, we will continue seeing professors marching and students sewing their lips shut. Their place is in the classroom and in the research lab.