The first student movement demanding radical reform emerged in Latin America in 1918. The expansion of the middle classes into the conservative environment of the public university system in Córdoba, Argentina created a groundswell for change, demands heightened by the revolutionary fervor that enveloped Latin America after the triumph of the Mexican and Russian Revolutions. The reform movement began with a succession of militant strikes and an outpouring of manifestos organized by a new student union, the Argentine University Federation. Demands included student representation in university government, the reform of examination practices, and an end to nepotism in the appointment of faculty. "We rebelled against an administrative system, against a method of teaching, against a concept of authority," read one of the students' manifestos.
The struggles of today's Latin American students is intimately linked to these earlier struggles and those that followed for greater participation and democracy within the university. Indeed, student movements throughout the region frequently cite the Córdoba student movement as a primary source of inspiration. But today's students face fundamentally different challenges than their counterparts of 1918. While the trend in that period was toward the expansion of public universities to incorporate the needs and aspirations of the growing middle classes, today the public university is being whittled away by privatization. And while the student movement of 1918 inspired the Radical government of the time to challenge the conservative tendencies ensconced in the university and promote a broad process of democratization of the university system, today's students must battle the ascendancy of neoliberalism and its gurus, who favor the needs of profit-making over the goals of a liberal education.
As Pablo Gentili eloquently argues in this issue of NACLA Report, privatization is not simply about the sale of public enterprises and institutions. It is, rather, a process of restructuring of the functions of the state—of "delegation," as Gentili calls it—such that the state hands over increasing power of decision making and the provision of formerly public services to the private sector. In this light, in the case of the Latin American public university, a central concern is not only the dramatic expansion of privately funded universities, which are edging out their underfunded public counterparts. Also of concern is the delegation to the private sector of increasing elements of education policy that were formerly the reserve of the academic community itself, such as the power to define research agendas. With the current hegemony of free-market ideology, research that is most profitable is favored over socially useful research, and in the social sciences, short-term, fundable projects take precedence over long-term social inquiry. In all cases, "applied" academics are favored over "theorists." The result, as several of the authors in this Report document, is the impoverishment of intellectual debate and the narrowing of research agendas to "technical" issues versus broader social questions and problems.
In the end, this contributes to the creation of parallel systems of education, as Carlos Iván Degregori and Javier Avila Molero note: well-heeled private schools for the rich and the upper-middle classes, and dilapidated, underfunded public schools for the poor. And notably, these trends are evident not only in Latin America. The struggle to keep the City University of New York easily accessible to lower-income students and recent migrants in the face of the onslaught of the Republican municipal administration of Rudy Giuliani is not dissimilar to the battles being waged from Mexico to Chile to keep public higher education open to all who desire to study at the university level.
The crisis of the Latin American university is multifaceted and complex. This issue of NACLA Report is an effort to address some of the dimensions of this crisis, and the struggles of those—students as well as committed, progressive faculty members—who believe in the promise of accessible and democratic higher education for all, not just a privileged few.
Education in Latin America & the Caribbean at a Glance
Adult Illiteracy Rate Estimates for 1995 (% of Total Population)
Circulation of Daily Newspapers level p/1000
Public Expenditure on Education as % of GDP 1996
Antigua & Barbuda
St. Kitts & Nevis
Trinidad & Tobago
Trinidad & Tobago
Source: 1998 UNESCO Statistical Yearbook, http://unescostat.unesco.org/. Compiled by former NACLA staff assistant Ben Grames.