Sunday, June 04, 2006

How does this help anyone? 

Venezuelan universities, public as well as private, have long been the domain of the upper classes. While one would think that the essentially free education given at reputable public institutions such as the Universidad Central de Venezuela would be snapped up by the lower middle classes and the poor it isn't. Instead the student body there comes probably overwhelmingly from the top 10% of Venezuelan society (a guestimate on my part).

Why is that? There are several reasons. First, the public universities are concentrated in the larger cities and in particular in Caracas. There are no dorms and no financial assistance with living arrangements. That means if you live in a small city or rural area you have a problem. Unless you have a close relative in a place like Caracas willing to house you for 4 or 5 years you don't have much a chance of attending a university.

Secondly, during the years of study you must be self supporting. Even if the tuition is free your living expenses are not. Plus things like text books and anything else you need are your responsibility. In a country where a very large segment of the population lives hand to mouth this is no small obstacle for most people.

Lastly, and most importantly, there is the question of getting admitted. The universities have limited slots available and one must compete via admissions exams to get one. This is not a bad system - after all the spots should go to those who are the most capable and hardest working. But it suffers from a fatal flaw. There is gross inequality in the academic preparation people get in the years leading up to their university studies that make passing such an exam a trivial matter for most upper class students but a Herculean task for those from lower class backgrounds he received a much lower quality primary education. So the net effect of the admission exams is to screen out even the few poorer students who might be otherwise able to attend places like the UCV and leave them the almost exclusive provinces of the middle and upper classes.

Yesterday there was a march by some students to the Presidential Palace that was received by President Chavez. What was the purpose of the march? To demand the elimination of the entrance exams. And not only did the students demand this but Chavez said he would work to do just that and called the admission exams a hold over of the 4th Republic ?!?!

That would seem to help solve a problem, but does it? Would the students who came in with an inferior preparation be able to do university level work or would they be so far behind they would wind up dropping out? It's not possible to know for sure but most likely some students would rise to the occasion and excel while the majority would become frustrated and leave. So its not clear to me that this is the solution to what is a very real problem .

There is an alternative, of course. Significantly improve the primary education given to students from poorer backgrounds. This could be done by increasing funding, extending the school day and giving free meals to students to entice them to come to school, using a thorough regime of testing to find out when students are falling behind and get them extra help, and improve the salaries of teachers to make them more motivated and attract more qualified people. Moreover, there could be educational missions whereby, for example, university students would be required to spend 15 hours a week tutoring youngsters in primary schools.

These are just a few ideas for improving education. I'm sure there are many other ideas out there that could be successful. But the notion of eliminating tests seems self-defeating. After all the tests aren't really the problem. It's the sub-standard education that so many Venezuelans receive that is the problem - the tests simply alert us to it. The proper thing to do would be to fix the problem of substandard education rather than eliminate tests that measure it. The idea behind any good government should be to fix problems, not simply pretend they don't exist.


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