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UN Periódico Digital
Like in 1918, Latin America needs a general reform of the higher education system updated to the twenty-first century

There were student protests in April in Chile, in June in Peru and Venezuela, in July in Mexico and in August and September in Argentina. Definitely, there have been requests in 2018 with university student and professor protests in Latin America asking to lower tuition costs, lower credit interests and greater budgets for public institutions.

UN Periódico spoke to Universidad Nacional de Rosario Faculty of Political Sciences and Foreign Relations Professor Julieta Zelicovich over what happened in Argentina, where the “Great University Protest” filled the streets of several cities to claim for better salaries and greater budget for public higher education.

UN Periódico (UNP): Do you think there are similarities between the student movements of Argentina, Colombia, and other countries of the region?

Julieta Zelicovich (J.Z.): Although they are not exactly comparable, they are similarities in regards to the challenges posed to the higher education system in the region and I would say that in all the western scope: budget reduction, threats to part of its autonomy, mechanisms of punitive assessments before guidance and a student movement which is activated in support of the values of the university.

Behind this agenda of similar claims, we perceive a threat which seems structural and which transcends governments of one or other political stream.

This is related, in my personal opinion, with the coming into power of groups which are threatened by the idea of a strong public university, unrestricted access to education and the critical thinking of social studies.

UNP: The protests are mainly related to budgetary matters, but how to reconcile these requests with public finances of countries with economies that are not exactly prosperous?

J.Z: Education is a right, not a service. We should not forget that the budget is a political decision. Why is there money for the military and not for education? Why is there money to pay debt interests and not for the educational system? When they say, “It can’t be done,” in reality they can, but just a little.

UNP: Generally the political decisions of increasing budgets also include greater taxes, which taxpayers are not always willing to pay or politicians to accept when it’s about this option.

J.Z.: I can use this idea to underscore something which is frequently forgotten: The public university is where conscious citizens are formed that think paying taxes is definitive for the common good.

Public education is linked to the education of citizens with public conscious. The alumni of public institutions are more conscientious that they were educated with funds coming from taxes and therefore as professionals, they need to help educate other citizens by paying taxes.

In any case, the public university has the commitment of helping change the public policy leading to a greater value to the public.

UNP: In an environment of lack of trust towards politics, public officers, corruption, among others, is it difficult for an idea of this kind to sink in?

J.Z.: Definitely, but it is something we cannot abandon because it’s difficult. On the contrary, we need to think on how much the academic community is participating in the public agenda for these points of view on public institutions to have more clout.

I am convinced that simply going to college transforms the way of perceiving the world and makes better citizens. Another point is how alumni and the university give back to the public what society provided them in order for them to study and work.

UNP: This sounds seems like self-criticism. Which could be the matters that public universities should improve?

J.Z.: As I just said, I think the university needs to relate more to society. They need to show more concern for the issues of the common citizen.

The university needs to be an important participant of the debates of the public agenda and needs to secure mechanisms to participate in these discussions.

They also need more links to the private sector. We need, as the Argentinean case, more enterprise incubators.

Many businesses are comprised of alumni from public universities and the university seems drawn away from cutting-edge technology companies. This gradual distancing of the universities with the private sector and society, in general, is very linked to the indicator and rankings logic and that have been imposed.

 UNP: You seem not to agree with these systems...

J.Z.: Rankings are intentional, such as the credit rating agencies, they have concealed vested interests.

The massive nature and infrastructure are topics where public universities end up with bad scores. This massive nature is not something bad. It can make for deeper discussions, at least in human and social sciences. Perhaps they are a problem in medicine and other related areas. The massive brethren are linked to an important value to public universities and to the ranking that minimizes it: diversity. It is essential for democracies to recognize their differences.

In regards to publications, we have seen that English journals are not particularly interested in publishing topics of the Latin American agenda. If they continue the idea of only requesting papers to publish, where is the time to think and where is the time to give back to the environment where we move the knowledge we are producing?

UNP: Is there self-criticism on education in public universities?

J.Z.: Education has been hit by limited resources, and also I cannot generalize. I think that not all professors are conscientious that we are boosters of transformations and that we should be very aware of updating our educational practices.

Professors need to be at the same level as their students in defending the public university. If professors and students do not create a common agenda, they are just butting heads.

UNP: In Colombia, the weight of private universities with respect to public universities is large, in comparison with Argentina. How can these two forms cohabit?

J.Z.: Work should lead to building research, educational and work networks of universities with the citizens.

Public universities have a space they share and will continue to share with elite universities, which are not exactly competitors for the public universities and with these other institutions I call “market institutions” which seek to establish “customer” like relationships with students before relationships between professors and students.

What is important is for public funds do not end up in private universities. This has happened and weighed down the situation when we saw the government abandonment which led to a deterioration of facilities and also led these universities to be rejected by potential students and many professors went also to private universities.

UNP: Let’s say it very hard for public universities to absorb all students that can go to the university…

J.Z.: The neoliberal modelimposed the idea that everybody needs to have a career and have a university education to the detriment of technical and technological schools.

In reality, not everybody needs to be college student. This is why we need educational institutions that can provide tertiary, technical or for work education. Public universities can also be these institutions as they have the infrastructure and expertise to provide it.

UNP: In 1918, in Argentina, there was a sort of great revolution which involved the college community of Latin America and practically originated the university model we know today. How should this model be a century later?

J.Z.: We need to return to the student reform of 1918, but thinking on the twenty-first century.

We also need to take ownership of the information technologies, educate in new agendas and soft capabilities. We need more transparency and a greater accountability culture.

Education, research and extension need to work to end the most serious issues of the region, for instance, the inequality and look for more sustainable societies.

We should strengthen the idea that education is a right and not an exchangeable merchandise, a university against elitism and social hierarchy and make gender equality effective.

Consejo Editorial