After years of financial struggle, public universities in Venezuela are reaching a point that many fear will cause entire schools to shut down.
Since Chavismo took office in 1999, year after year public postsecondary institutions have been receiving gradually less funding from the government that runs them. Problems have been mounting for over a decade and experts say the situation has cause droves of professors to leave their jobs and students to drop out of school.
Case in point: the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) in Caracas, one the oldest and most populated in the country.
“This is the most severe crisis we’ve had as an institution,” Amalio Belmonte, UCV’s administrative secretary, told Fox News Latino. “[This year] the government granted us just 38 percent of the funds we requested to operate normally.”
In the once prestigious School of Sciences, laboratories have run out of the most basic resources – test tubes, wire gauzes, chemicals.
As many as 450 aspiring scientists are currently at risk of not getting credit for the academic year in UCV because, in what would be a first in 25 years, the School of Science's labs may not be operating beyond this week for lack of materials.
“The School opened registration for the lab classes, but we’ve had to warn students that they will not start if the School doesn’t get the materials by mid-May,” Julz Narváez, a student representative, told FNL.
“One month ago, when we first warned [school authorities] about this situation, we needed 6 million bolivares ($950,000) to buy materials and reagents,” he said. “But inflation is so high that now those same items cost over 12 million bolivares.”
When Narváez and other students personally requested funds to government senior officials at the Ministry of Science and University Education, they said donations were on their way – none of that has yet materialized.
Last week they met again, but officials argued that other universities are going through similar trouble so it wouldn’t be fair to distribute the donated and subsidized materials until all petitions are filed.
And infrastructure and logistics are not the only affected.
Most faculty members at the School of Chemistry make between $30 and $50 a month, and more than a thousand have left the UCV since 2009, according to Buzzfeed.
A simple walk around the university grounds offers an eerie display of decay and neglect. The main campus, designed by architect Carlos Raúl Villanueva in the 50s and declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, has been deteriorating for years. Two new buildings stand unfinished as they have for the last 15 years – one was meant to house laboratories and the other a Math School.
In the School of Odontology, aspiring dentists have to buy their own materials needed to treat the patients and train their budding skills.
“In the past, the university gave us all the equipment we used. Now we have to buy it,” said Yuleidy Damata, a fifth-year student, adding that she spends approximately 20,000 bolivares a month ($3,170 at the 6.3 per dollar exchange rate).
“We even have to bring our own cottons balls and anesthesia,” she added.
An added problem is that these specialized materials are increasingly hard to find in Venezuela, so now you see a lot of former students selling their old instruments to future colleagues.
“I had to buy a used bio-art articulator for 16,000 bolivares ($2,500). You can’t find new ones, so the old ones are getting more expensive”, said Estefanía Ramos, a first-year student.
A new articulator in the U.S. goes for about $300.
In many cases, Buzzfeed reported, hands-on practice classes have been replaced by training videos. Also, class sizes have grown to accommodate students whose professors have left the university and most probably the country.
UCV’s administrative secretary Belmonte is worried about the damage being done to the illustrious name of the school, proudly regarded as the best of Venezuela. “We don’t even have money to buy academic magazines [for faculty members] or to give scholarships for postgraduate studies to our teachers,” he said.
In the past, he said, some 250 teachers use to get their doctorate degree in top abroad — that number is now down to 27. Belmonte said universities won’t be able to endure this situation much longer.
“The government uses its financial leverage as a means of control. If this policy continues, educating and doing research in Venezuela will be close to impossible,” he said.