Friday, August 12, 2005

Mission Sucre 

There was an interesting article in today's Boston Globe about one of Chavez's social program's Missione Sucre. It pretty much speaks for itself so here it is:

Chavez program aims to boost Venezuelans' college options
By Brian Ellsworth, Globe Correspondent  |  August 12, 2005

SAN JOSÉ DE BARLOVENTO, Venezuela -- Twenty-one-year-old Mariuska Espinoza said she always wanted to study medicine but never had the chance.

This sleepy Caribbean town of 12,000, about 80 miles east of Caracas, is too small to have a public university, and Espinoza said she doesn't have money to pay for an expensive private school. She applied to the prestigious Venezuelan Central University in Caracas, but said she was asked to pay a bribe of nearly $1,000 to be admitted to the public university.

In April, she found the opportunity she was looking for: a government program conceived by President Hugo Chavez that promises to provide higher education to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have never had access to universities.

Espinoza is now enrolled in a five-year medicine program, working as a volunteer in a clinic in the morning and taking courses in the afternoons at a community center. ''There was just no way to get into a university. It's a good thing this opportunity turned up," said Espinoza, waiting for the professor of her afternoon classes to arrive.

Dubbed the ''Sucre Mission" in honor of Venezuelan freedom fighter Antonio Jose de Sucre, the program is an effort by the country's leftist government to extend the reach of higher education. Sucre Mission has the ambitious goal of boosting university enrollment by nearly 60 percent in the next five years by offering university courses to an estimated 700,000 high school graduates currently unable to find a spot in the country's higher education system.

Under the program, Espinoza could be a practicing doctor after five years, compared with an average of seven years for most Venezuelan doctors and at least 10 years in the United States.

''We're creating a new system of higher education," said Higher Education Minister Samuel Moncada, a former history professor at Venezuelan Central University. ''Venezuela has closed the doors of the universities to the majority of the population, and it's unacceptable."

Critics said Sucre Mission is simply creating a parallel university system without resolving the problems with existing public universities. They also said the new schools lower educational standards by eschewing admissions testing and grading in favor of an improvised program assembled in less than two years with few experienced administrators and almost no curriculum development.

Venezuela, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, was for much of the 20th century able to finance free university education, which helped millions of Venezuelans move out of poverty. But oil prices fell in the 1980s, forcing cuts to education funding as the number of high school graduates rose -- which left thousands of people without access to public education. Would-be college students today said getting into a public university requires either a well-placed contact or a bribe for admissions officials.

The country's private higher education system, largely dominated by two-year trade schools, is too expensive for most families, particularly because the government does not provide subsidized education loans as in the United States.

Chavez, a former coup leader who won a resounding victory in a recall referendum last August, has promised the Sucre Mission will renew Venezuela's commitment to free access to a college education. The program has a budget of nearly $80 million for 2005 and offers 24 majors, from education to law and petroleum engineering.

The program seeks to take universities to provincial towns such as San Jose de Barlovento, where obtaining a university diploma is nearly impossible. The program jettisons traditional testing methods and admissions procedures, describing them as filters meant to keep out the lower classes.

Now, with a high school diploma and a photocopy of an identification card, everyone has access to a free university education. Traditional lectures and tests have been replaced with progressive educational precepts such as the ''pedagogy of tenderness and love," in which no students are given a failing grade as long as they try.

Sociology professor Amalio Belmonte of Venezuelan Central University said the need to boost college enrollment is undeniable, but he worries that Venezuela is falling into ''academic populism" by offering too much and demanding too little of students. ''The underlying objective of this program is the massification of college education with no concern for the quality," Belmonte said. ''It is a political emergency measure meant to give everyone a degree, which will produce graduates that cannot compete in the labor market."

He notes that some students receive a subsidy of about $85 per month, meaning the program may attract students more interested in a salary than an education.

Students in San Jose de Barlovento said the new programs are not without their problems. Only a week into her studies, Maria Cristina Rodriguez, 22, showed up to class and waited an hour for a professor who never arrived.
''It's not supposed to be like this," she said impatiently as she gathered her belongings to leave.

Nonetheless, she feels the program is giving her new opportunities. Rodriguez and her classmates protest that previous administrations always overlooked the region of Barlovento, a verdant tropical area inhabited largely by the descendants of African slaves who worked on cacao plantations in the 19th century.

Today, Rodriguez said, obtaining a college degree is one of the only ways to get ahead. ''I'm finally fulfilling my dream," she said.


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