The academic year begins in Venezuela in late September, but this year most public universities could remain closed because of a strike by professors asking for higher wages.

In early September the Popular Power Ministry for University Education, Science, and Technology (MPPEUCT) announced it had reached an agreement with university professors and workers unions on a new collective contract, including a new salary increment. The pro-government unions called the agreement “historic” and said the unions would be guarantors of the correct use of the resources the government would be spending on the universities.

However the main federation of independent professor’s union of the country, the Federación de Asociaciones de Profesores Universitarios de Venezuela (FAPUV) refused to sign the main “clause 83” of the agreement, in which the salary raise is established.

The salary agreement proposed by the government in clause 83 includes progressive increments counting back from January 2015 and running through September 2016. Starting next month a full time Instructor, entry level professor, would receive a monthly salary of 19,148 Bs., almost two and a half minimum salary wages. By September next year a full time Instructor will receive up to 22,978 (that is an impressive salary of 3,647$ at the lowest official exchange rate, but only $116 at the highest official exchange rate of Bs 198/$ and only 33$ at a parallel market rate of 700 Bs./$) FAPUV had been asking for an immediate increase of the entry level salary to at least 95,000 Bs.

FAPUV has also pointed out several inconsistencies in the government’s proposed salary increase, for example: adjunct instructors working on an hourly basis (tiempo convencional), would now earn slightly less. According to FAPUV an instructor working 7 hours a week received a monthly salary of 4,887 Bs. but would now see that salary reduced to 4,467 Bs. under the new agreement.

As a result, professor’s unions of several public universities announced a work stoppage at most public universities to start the new academic year. On September 18 FAPUV announced that the strike would be “indefinite,” that is, until the government reevaluates the salaries increase.

Professor’s assemblies met at several universities on September 23 to decide on whether to support FAPUV’s possition. According to FAPUV’s president, Lourdez Ramírez the professor’s unions of Universidad Simón Bolívar (USB), Universidad de los Andes (ULA), La Universidad del Zulia (LUZ), Universidad Experimental de Guayana (UNEG), Universidad Experimental Francisco de Miranda (UNEFM), Universidad Nacional Experimental del Táchira (UNET), Universidad Nacional Abierta (UNA), Universidad Centro Occidental Lisandro Alvarado (UCLA), and Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), will go on strike.

Of the mayor public universities, the unions of Univesidad de Oriente (UDO), Universidad de Carbobo (UC), and Universidad de los Llanos Ezequiel Zamora (UCLA), have yet to decide on their position. Professors of public pro-government new universities, such as the Universidad Bolivariana system are unlikely to participate in the strike.

Apart from salary issues, universities claim they are suffering from budget constraints that could force them to suspend regular activities. UCV authorities say they have been offered only 32.6% of the budget they requested for 2016. Such claims by university authorities are a constant in the history of Venezuelan higher education. But this time it seems the constraints could affect basic student services for next year.

Authorities of the School of Engineering of the UCV have said that, strike or no strike, classes will not begin on September 27 as scheduled, but on October 19, and that only if the resources necessary for labs renovations and maintenance arrive on time. On September 14 USB authorities announced the closing of the student’s dining facilities. Students from ULA, UCV, and LUZ say that dining services have noticeably deteriorated this year. Meals almost free of charge served in public universities are one of the biggest and most sensitive student benefits.

Recurrent crises in Venezuela’s public universities are in part due to a publicly funded model of free higher education that is very sensitive to public spending cuts. Conflicts have also been fueled by the government’s struggle to gain political control of public universities.

Lissette González, a sociologist at the private Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB), explains why this crisis is worse than the previous ones: “Venezuela’s public universities follow the model of free education for students. With the decrease in real terms of professor’s salaries, the immediate initial result is a rapid deterioration of the quantity and quality of the universities basic support services. But if you add high inflation, which is something that directly hits salaries, universities start to lose the human capital they have been training for decades. Professors begin to ask for retirement, they change jobs, or emigrate. Without them it is impossible for the universities to do research or teach.”

There are no official numbers on Venezuela’s academic diaspora, but according to the president of UCV’s professor’s union, Victor Marquez, around 700 UCV professors have left the country in recent years. Iván de la Vega, a sociologist at USB and a researcher of intellectual emigration processes, says that at least 240 USB professors have left the country. The administrative vice-chancellor of LUZ, María Muñez, reported last year that her school had “1.577 unfilled academic posts.”