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ARGENTINA | 23-04-2024 15:16

Universities in Argentina defy Milei’s spending cuts with massive march

At cities nationwide, students, graduates, faculty and auxiliary staff from 57 national state-run institutions take to the streets “in defence of public and free university.”

University students, teachers and staff took to the streets on Tuesday to repudiate a lack of funding for state higher education institutions, research and science under President Javier Milei’s government, a claim backed by unions and opposition parties.

Universities have declared a state of budget emergency after the Milei government decided to rollover for this year the same funds received in 2023, despite year-to-year inflation which in March stood at just below 290 percent.

Milei has refused to adjust the budget for the sake of the zero deficit target he has committed to.

“Don’t hold your breath for a handout from public expenditure,” he warned on Monday in a nationwide broadcast.

He revealed that Argentina had recorded a fiscal surplus in the first quarter of the year for the first time since 2018, albeit at the cost of thousands of state lay-offs, a collapse of the economic activity and consumption.

Last week, following protests from university staff and students, he granted “a 70-percent increase in operating expense items in March and a further 70 percent in May,” in addition to an extraordinary sum for university hospitals, Presidential Spokesman Manuel Adorni reiterated Monday.

Yet "operating expenses” exclude faculty salaries, which account for 90 percent of the university budget.

The paltry reinforcements contrast sharply with the cost of soaring energy rates, which have climbed since the removal of state subsidies, putting universities on the edge of paralysis, according to their authorities.

“At the pace we’re being given money, we can only last two and three months,” said the rector of the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), Ricardo Gelpi.

Milei has called into question the transparency of spending at higher educational institutions and the quality of teaching. On social media, he has accused state universities of doing “shady deals” and attempting to “indoctrinate” their students.

Some 2.2 million people study in the public university system, which is chosen by 80 percent of students compared to private institutions.

The state higher education system enjoys great academic prestige and was the alma mater of five Nobel prize winners from Argentina, three of them in hard science, in addition to numerous laureate researchers, scientific and technological development renowned worldwide.

Most Argentine chief executives graduated through the public system, as did half the current Cabinet of ministers. Milei studied at the private Universidad de Belgrano.

Tuesday’s protest, which university professors backed with their own strike, is the corollary of weeks of public lectures, pot-banging protests and symbolic embraces of university venues in a cause that transcends all social sectors.

In Buenos Aires, people were called to flock to the famous Plaza de Mayo, in front to the Casa Rosada, and to raise books above their heads as a sign of protest.

Columns of demonstrators left from 13 institutions in the capital, marching down the city’s main avenues in defiance of the government’s controversial anti-picket protocol which, under the pretext of ensuring free circulation, represses protests with arbitrary arrests, according to reports from social organisations.

The CGT, Argentina’s giant umbrella trade union grouping, announced its adherence to the protest in advance.

Last week, as part of a series of emergency measures, several UBA buildings had to streamline the use of lifts, turn off lights in common areas, limit library hours, reduce the use of hot water and restrict university extensión programmes.

UBA’s Medical School, where two of the five Argentine Nobel prizes studied, worked with half the electricity, leaving many classrooms and hallways in the dark, with lifts limited to use by disabled people.

The same thing happened at the School of Exact Sciences, where César Milstein, Nobel prize in Physiology in1984, graduated.

The frozen budget also applies to students’ scholarships, extra-curricular, supplementary and sporting activities.

Adorni, the president’s chief spokesperson, offered a tough diagnosis of the problems at public universities.

“They work with serious problems, schools are in poor infrastructure conditions, professors are not being paid for their work,” he said, confirming that the government “values public, secular and federal education.”

 

– TIMES/AFP

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