Students walk through the Universidad Central de Venezuela. ©Rodrigo Romero

(This is the first of a series of posts in which we will examine different aspects of Venezuela’s higher education system. Read our previous post on this topic here and here.)

It’s not often that a cartoon story goes viral. But that’s what happened with a short “graphic narrative” by Yorelis Acosta, illustrated by Lucas García, published in both Spanish and English last week by Venezuela’s independent web portal Prodavinci. Acosta is faculty at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV). As part of her academic work, she documents how the crisis is affecting university professors. At one point in the autobiographical narrative, Acosta goes to the medical center where professors get treatment. “It was almost empty,” she says. “They had just raised appointment fees and my colleagues couldn’t afford them.”

On May 16, fourteen Venezuelan NGOs published a joint statement denouncing “continued attacks by the Venezuelan State against university professors.” The statement describes the deterioration of the “socio-economic conditions” of faculty, and points out that the latest labor agreement for higher education workers (including professors and administrative staff) were discussed and signed last year by government representatives and leaders of unelected, pro-government faculty unions, without the support of elected faculty union leaders.

The deterioration of living standards was behind a 24 hour strike called for June 25 by the Federación de Asociaciones de Profesores Universitarios de Venezuela (FAPUV), the main federation of professor’s unions. The FAPUV also went on a 12 hour strike on May 9, demanding that the government pay professors and administrative staff the 50% salary increases granted more than a year ago in that collective agreement, but which they say still have not been payed. FAPUV also demanded a solution to the problems it says professors are facing with their health insurances.

According to union leaders, government authorities held a meeting with them the day of the strike and gave their word that the debt would be canceled and salaries increases would be honored. But it seems professors’ demands have not been met, since FAPUV is citing the same grievances for the June 25 strike it did for the May 9 strike. The latest strike has been extended and will now continue 48 hours longer, including June 28 and 29. The increasing durations of the strike is usually a preamble to an indefinite strike.

However, even if the government were to cancel its accumulated debt with professors in one payment, and honor 155% increase now being promised above last year’s agreement, given hyperinflation, this increase would not amount to much. The highest ranking full time Profesor Titular earns, since April 15 of this year, 8,436,520 Bs. A starting Instructor earns 2,197239 Bs. That is a little over $2.5 and $0.60 respectively at today’s parallel market exchange rate, per month. In January 2015, an Instructor salary reached $33 at the parallel market rate.

Low salaries are probably the main driving force behind faculty leaving their jobs. For most professors and administrative staff, their salaries are not even enough to pay for public transportation to their work places. Hyperinflation means that many workers on a fixed salary, such as employees of public universities, find the opportunity costs of going to work simply too high.

But professors have other grievances besides low salaries. Before the Bolivarian Revolution, public universities held out as autonomous corporations resisting the neoliberal dismantling of the Venezuelan welfare state. During the 80s and 90s professors had relatively low salaries, but they also received loans for apartments and cars, enjoyed generous grant programs for studying abroad, and most importantly, had access to a good health care system for professors and their relatives. Credits and grants are now almost non-existent and the faculty health system is in danger of disappearing altogether.

In the case of the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), the heart of this health care system is a private insurance company called Samhoi run by Institute for Provision for Professors (IPP) of the UCV’s main professor’s union (APUCV). Samhoi directly handles the health insurance of faculty and close relatives, and co-manages with the IPP an impressive medical center, right next to the UCV campus. Given the high cost of private medical insurance and the general collapse of public and private medicine in Venezuela, in the past it made sense for some professors to remain in their positions despite low salaries.

But according to the president of APUCV, Víctor Márquez, the government has been trying to take over the administration of this health care system and substitute Samhoi with another insurance company, Seguros Horizonte. This second company was created by the Venezuelan Armed Forces to handle its own heath. Márquez suggests this move would mean, not only the militarization of the system, but a collapse in the quality.

Beyond this ongoing struggle between the government and individual university unions for their autonomous healthcare systems, the Ministry of Popular Power for University Education, Science and Technology (MPPEUCT) has been trying to merge into one institution the different Samhoi-IPP like systems that function separately in all the big public universities. To do so, the MPPEUCT created in March last year the Sistema Integral de Salud del Ministerio de Educación Universitaria (SISMEU).

But according to the joint statement quoted above the SISMEU is “an arbitrary and unilateral appropriation of the ability of universities to manage their own healthcare systems.” This attempted merger by the government has been resisted by professors unions and has been only partially completed. According to personal accounts given to this blog, both systems (SISMEU and the IPPs of the different universities) seem to be working in parallel, frequently leaving faculty and their families confused as to which insurance company to call in case of an emergency.

As a result of low salaries and the collapse of the university welfare system, faculty are quitting their jobs at universities and research institutes at alarming rates. University officials and faculty union leaders regularly express concern over the issue and publish their own numbers. Since 2017 it has become customary at the beginning of each semester for universities to report high student drop out numbers, decreases in new student registration, and faculty abandoning their posts. Given the fact that the Ministerio del Poder Popular para la Educación Superior (MPPEU) is providing no numbers, these reports, and other indirect measures, are the only evidence of the alleged university exodus.

Victor Márquez, the president of APUCV, for example said in February that the last report he had received spoke of “approximately 400” professors had left UCV in the last year alone. It is difficult to give precise numbers because, according to Márquez “there are professors that go through the hiring process [concursan], get in, but quit shortly thereafter.” And Relinaldo Monteverde, president of the University Faculty Center of the national Universidad de Oriente (UDO) said in April that in the last three years over 300 professors have left, 50 in the last semester alone. During the 24 hour strike of June 25 Luis Butto, secretary general of the Universidad Simon Bolívar (USB) professor’s union, said that the university has lost 300 of his 800 teachers in the last three years. Alvaro Soto, vice-president of the Universidad del Zulia (LUZ) union, said that 40% of its teachers have left.

Felix Tapia, the coordinator of the Center for Scientific and Humanistic Development (CDCH), the UCV’s internal research support unit, recently declared that university scientific research is “practically going extinct.” He suggests that of the 500 to 600 researchers with high academic profiles that use to work at UCV, only half remain in the country. “With the exodus, the first to leave were from this group because they received job offers from abroad, especially young researchers, who have been leaving since 2009. Only half remain.”

As many scholars in Venezuela begin their academic careers before receiving their doctoral degrees, the CDCH has traditionally provided funds for young academics to study abroad. This was also understood in the past as one of the benefits of becoming a university professor despite the relative low salaries. Before the current crisis, most of the scholars receiving grants returned to their academic positions at UCV or to other national universities, which also had their own versions of the CDCH. According to Tapia, in 2009 the UCV had 180 such scholars studying abroad, now there are only two.

Another measure of the drain of university teachers and researchers is the number of academic publications done by authors residing in the country. Using the Scopus database of peer-reviewed literature, Tulio Ramírez, coordinator of doctoral and postdoctoral programs of the UCV, claims that publications by Venezuelan academics decreased from 2,876 articles in 2008 to 1,476 in 2016.

A local NGO devoted to education issues, Aula Abierta, published in March preliminary results from case studies of “university desertions.” The study looked at two public universities and at specific departments. It complains about the difficulty of gaining access to official overall numbers, but the study was able to at least report a 35% faculty “desertion” last year in the Agronomy Department of the Universidad del Zulia.

Yet another indirect measure of this exodus is universities reporting on the number of applications for vacant academic posts. In Venezuela academic recruitments are usually made though Concursos de Oposición (public exams open to all qualified applicants). These exams may be declared empty if no one applies or the candidates are deemed not qualified by the ad hoc university tribunal. According to a recent report by authorities of the Universidad Simón Bolivar (USB) from January to March this year there were 120 concursos called to fill vacant faculty openings, of which 102 were not filled or declared empty, not because candidates were unqualified, but because no one applied to the posts. The report also revealed that “due to the loss of the [administrative] staff needed for bureaucratic procedures,” half of the few new contracts made were delayed until after the school term had started.

These are all inexact measures of alleged faculty desertions, but they all point in the same direction. Faculty are quitting their jobs at Venezuela’s universities not only because of low salaries, but because of the collapse of a faculty welfare system that survived the neoliberalism, but not the Bolivarian Revolution.