Venezuela's higher education: a model of real social inclusion

By Jo Williams

At the end of February, my co-workers and I head into indefinite industrial action at Melbourne’s Victoria University. VU’s management has failed to negotiate a new agreement guaranteeing job security and acceptable workloads. Despite a strong staff, student and community campaign late last year, which forced the VU vice-chancellor, Elizabeth Harman, to shift her arguments, she and the rest of VU’s management remain determined to see through the biggest mass sacking of university staff in Australian history. These sackings and an unwillingness to negotiate a new enterprise bargaining agreement in good faith will increase workloads and class sizes, cut courses and undermine services.

The ostensible mission of VU — to serve and transform the lives of the people of the western suburbs of Melbourne — is unable to be fulfilled in a neoliberal higher education framework in which a university council stacked with big-business representatives makes decisions on the basis of what will best serve corporate profits. In stark contrast, my January visit to Venezuela to investigate the current educational reforms revealed a very different approach to higher education, based on putting the needs of working people before corporate profits.

Access

This year more students applied for places at Australian universities than last year; 13,000 missed out on first round offers, an increase of 3000 from 2008. In Venezuela, higher education enrolments have been dramatically increasing since the 1990s. In 1998 there were 668,109 students enrolled in universities; by 2007 this had risen to 1,796,507. Historically, universities in Venezuela were an option strictly for the wealthy elite. Many Venezuelans were excluded from basic primary education, let alone the secondary level that could provide access to higher education. Increasing access for thousands of Venezuelans previously excluded from an elitist education system was the first priority of the reforms that are part of the social revolution taking place.

These reforms have met strong resistance and sabotage from an educational elite largely from the middle and capitalist classes and firmly supportive of the political opposition. In 2002, during the failed coup attempt against the Chavez government, universities and schools closed as teachers and academics abandoned their classes and students. This political battle over education has necessitated the establishment of a new system, known as Bolivarian education.

The missions

Venezuela has eradicated illiteracy and helped hundreds of thousands achieve their primary and secondary school qualifications through extensive, free, community-based programs known as education misiones (missions). By 2008 the total number of students having graduated from the Robinson (literacy), Robinson 2 (primary school), Ribas (secondary school) and Che Guevara (workplace skilling) missions stands at 3,412,760. The popularity and perceived success of these missions is reflected in the fact that even the opposition states that it will maintain the missions if it wins an election. Another mission, Mision Sucre, constitutes an alternative entry program to higher education, with classes taking place in universities, schools, workplaces and community buildings in more than 5000 aldeas, or educational villages.

An important feature of the missions is the organisational structure that accompanies the basic classes. This exists at the national, state and municipal levels. Each mission is distinct, but generally involves teaching staff and specialists in pedagogy; logistics staff who coordinate venues, environments and equipment; financial staff who administer funding; and social staff who work with local communities to ensure students have adequate housing, health care, recreation and cultural facilities. Finally, each mission involves a staff unit known as Atencion Laboral, which monitors the work situation of students and their families, working with local communities to establish cooperatives in agriculture and other sectors.

This approach, which supports students and their families socially and economically, show what a mockery the Australian Rudd government’s “social inclusion” agenda is. All students at the Venezuelan missions and at the new universities are provided with a hot cooked meal each day, and all tuition and materials are free. Moreover, the new universities have extensive student health care and support on campus: doctors, dentists, psychologists and counsellors are available free of charge to all students, a service that local communities are welcome to access too. Perhaps of greater significance is the political dimension to this massive expansion of education, illustrated through the establishment of the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela, the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (UBV).

Bolivarian University

Housed in an old building of the state-owned PDVSA oil company in Caracas, the UBV was founded in 2003 with social equality at the core of all educational content and delivery, and as a project central to the nationwide social transformation in the interests of the poor. It is aimed fundamentally at “de-elitising” higher education in both form and content. It is free, and there are no barriers to admission.

In a meeting held in the former boardroom of PDVSA executives, Carina Salazar, the national director of student development at the UBV, explained how the university is based on both political and academic objectives and a fundamentally transformative education. Careers and career development are not spoken of at the UBV. “Instead we speak of programs, and program formation that are based on the general social project and the community project which characterises the nation,” she said. Curriculum is being re-envisaged based on the needs of the Bolivarian socialist revolution.

Silio Sanchez, the national coordinator of legal studies, explained that historically in Venezuela, as throughout the rest of South America, the teaching of law was Euro-centric and adopted — not even adapted — from Roman law. Today at the UBV, legal studies is taught from a multidisciplinary approach incorporating, among other things, Latin American political thought, judicial anthropology, indigenous legal systems and a class analysis of the penal system. For example, Sanchez explained: “When we discuss constitutional rights, which is a big discussion in law, it’s not just the constitution that we’re discussing, but in fact society, state and constitution, in their entire complexity. We are drawing on political science as much as sociology.”

The teacher training course at the UBV explicitly refers to training new educators to take part in the revolutionary process and promotes the development of student-centred learning in schools, with students engaging with the community in local problem-solving projects.

All UBV courses are based on the methodology known as Participatory Action Research (PAR), a multidisciplinary approach linking theory and practice. The PAR methodology bases all UBV students in their communities, working alongside a mentor on a community project that is at the core of their studies. For example, community health students work with doctors within the Barrio Adentro health mission, which provides free, preventive health care to all Venezuelans. Legal studies students might establish a community legal centre to advise and support families with civil law problems. Education students work with a teacher in schools. In the evenings all UBV students undertake classes, to discuss theory linking back into and arising from their experiences in the project.

Through PAR, day-to-day decision making and problem solving are in the hands of local communities, and all participants are being skilled through the process. While PAR is discussed and used by researchers in Australia and elsewhere, it is arguably only in the context of revolutionary Venezuela that its objectives are able to be met. The PAR methodology places researchers in positions of political leadership, but democratically controlled and driven by the communities themselves and their own leaders, and aimed at realising the objectives of the community-based organisations.

This stands in stark contrast to so-called learning in the workplace and community as it has been developed in capitalist academia, where, despite a diversity of intentions by those developing it in practice, research and learning are ultimately subsumed under the objectives of the micro-level market economy. Venezuela has incorporated a concept of work-based integrated learning, where work is not a factory where labour is expropriated but rather the work environment is the site of political struggle.

A rich discussion is taking place in Venezuela around the pedagogy of an education system at the heart of the revolutionary process. Luis Bigott, the former dean of education at the Central University of Venezuela and a current member of the Andean Parliament, explained the historic development of PAR methodology and its significance in the current context. Brazilian educator Paolo Freire and others were influential in the Latin American popular education movement that arose internationally in the 1960s and emphasised the emancipatory and transformative potential of education.

This movement intersected with the work and thoughts of a number of radical educators and community leaders across the continent, who were developing community education strategies to form revolutionary cadre who later became part of the guerrilla wing of the political struggles of the period.

The discussion is interesting, but of greatest importance is who is taking part in it. So much more than social and economic inclusion, this is political inclusion, with educational decision making in the hands of staff, students, parents and the community in a way that is unfathomable at Victoria University right now. At VU, the staff and students are the last to know when a quarter of the academic staff are to be sacked and when campuses are to be closed down. In Venezuela the education system and society as a whole are being re-imagined by the people.

[Jo Williams was co-organiser of the recent Academic Exchange to Venezuela and is a member of the Victoria University NTEU executive and the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]