Tuesday, April 16, 2024

ARGENTINA | 14-03-2024 11:44

Universities challenged: Chancellors warn Milei government money will only last until May

President Javier Milei’s government is in the grip of a battle with universities over the education budget in 2024. Amid growing complaints, chancellors despair at condemnation from Casa Rosada and Presidential Spokesman Manuel Adorni.

The problem afflicting Argentina's universities is easy enough to understand: despite annual inflation topping 250 percent, their budgets for 2024 will be the same as in 2023. 

For weeks now, Education Secretary Carlos Torrendel and University Policy Under-Secretary Alejandro Álvarez have been receiving visits from chancellors from across the country. They hear them out and afterwards repeat the same answer: No hay plata (“There is no money”). 

Although in one meeting or another, the intention of increasing the allocations for operating expenses by 65 percent was discussed, government officials continue to refuse to confirm the fact. 

Meanwhile, the consequences of Argentina’s new economic era are starting to be observed at higher educational institutions. Some universities have declared an economic emergency, restricting the number of students per course, moving out of rental offices, suspending the purchase of inputs, services and equipment or digging into their savings. 

The most alarmist voices from the sector say that unless the situation changes, they will not be able to guarantee classes beyond April or May.

Tensions are escalating. In late February, the Consejo Interuniversitario Nacional (CIN) umbrella group of chancellors published a communiqué warning of the gravity of the situation. From then on, the authorities of each university, along with union organisations of lecturers, non-academic staff and students, have been active in every province to demand an updating of the numbers. Last Thursday, the Frente Sindical de las Universidades Nacionales union grouping called a 24-hour strike for last Thursday.

When the Milei administration took office, CIN called for a 300-percent increase of the 2023 budget for this year, from 752 billion pesos to some 2.25 trillion pesos.

The austerity in public spending proposed by the libertarian leader’s government is combined in this case with the administration’s negative view of universities. Although the private meetings are cordial, the government in public has selected them as a new enemy.


Chancellors on the alert 

Argentina has 55 national public universities. The national budget provided by the state is used to cover salaries and operating costs beyond the normal functioning of classes. 

Martín López Armengol, president of the National University of La Plata, explained in an interview that the universe affected is much broader than it first appears. “In our case there are 17 faculties, five colleges, the canteens, the hostel, everything linked to welfare, the scholarships and infrastructural works – all that enters into our general concern,” Armengol told Perfil.

Guillermo Durán, the dean of the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), focused on three points of conflict: the freezing of the operating costs, collective-bargaining pay talks for lecturers and non-academic staff being capped at “only” 16 percent of the institution, and the “asphyxia” facing the system of science and technology.

“What’s happening to science and technology directly affects the universities. Many of the scholars and researchers work in the various faculties. And there you have another problem: 1,300 CONICET scholarships were announced last year and in the end only 600 will be granted. What does that imply? That many of these students will leave the country or switch to the private sector,” Durán said in an interview. “To that should be added collective bargaining [talks] being far removed from the 70 or 80 percent of inflation, so that the real wage losses of lecturers and non-academic staff will be brutal.”

Durán gave one particular example of government work. The building housing the Exact Sciences faculty, Cero + infinito, was conceived during the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s Presidency, built under Mauricio Macri and inaugurated in the Alberto Fernández administration. 

During Macri’s time it was agreed that the state would take charge of maintenance for 10 years in return for a floor ceded by UBA. Since Milei took office, the companies supplying maintenance, cleaning and security – SES, Clarity, Cruz de Malta and Maxsegur – have ceased receiving money. 

Last January 29 one of the contracts expired “with no guarantee of renewal,” related Durán. The consequence? It opens up the door for both the companies and UBA being able to initiate legal action against the state for breach of contracts signed by former Science & Technology minister Lino Barañao.

Enrique Mammarella, chancellor of the Universidad Nacional del Litoral, assures that Milei’s austerity is already having its impact.

“Our activities can no longer be regular. At this time of the year we start off with preventive maintenance, the service and calibration of equipment, the purchase of chemicals and some products from abroad for research. Much of that today has been suspended or postponed,” he told Perfil.

According to Mammarella, “if there is no solution” to the crisis, “the problems will become more complex.”

“At our university, which is close to 105 years old, there are buildings which are of national historic heritage, making tasks of constant maintenance obligatory.”

In the case of the Universidad Nacional del Litoral, the authorities have decided to use their own funds stemming from patents and know-how sessions with the productive sector producing contracts or royalties.

The budget which the national government sends to the universities always contemplated 90 percent being destined to salaries and the rest to operating costs. And all the chancellors agreed that this is not a new situation – in both 2019 and 2021 Congress failed to approve a national budget, prompting the use of the previous one. 

Yet, on this occasion, the economic emergency and inflation place universities at further risk.


Chainsaw to study

At some universities the situation is drastic. The Universidad Nacional de Comechingones, based in Merlo, San Luis Province, has announced that it has been forced to abandon the administrative offices it had rented due to the lack of cash. The big doubt in the short term is how to provide basic services.

“Last year we paid 800,000 pesos for electricity – now we don’t know how much we’ll have to pay,” the university’s chancellor, Agustina Rodríguez Saá, told the local press.

The Universidad Nacional de Quilmes has informed potential students that “due to the budget freeze suffered by public universities, there will be new ceilings [on numbers] on registering for  courses.” The authorities also explained that they will not be able to “cost additional courses or contract extra lecturers.” 

A similar decision was announced by the Universidad Nacional de Hurlingham, which said: “We are using all the channels of reclamation possible and available so that the authorities of the national government review this decision and comply with the university budget for 2024 which was agreed by all the nation’s chancellors.”

Marcelo Alba, the chancellor of the Universidad Nacional del Centro in Buenos Aires Province, says that, according to his projections, the institution’s budget suffices “to pay salaries through to midyear.” 

The Universidad Nacional del Comahue, shared between the provinces of Neuquén and Río Negro, won’t even make it that far. Neuquén City Hall has coughed up 50 million pesos for the upkeep of the university canteen.

“We’re balancing [our budget] with leftovers but if this is not sorted out quickly, in April or May, we’d be spending what little remains to us,” said Chancellor Beatriz Gentile.

The Humanities School of the Universidad Nacional del Oeste has announced a change of office to avoid rent. On February 22, it has moved its installations from Merlo to San Antonio de Padua.

Many universities nationwide have already declared an economic emergency and the subject has already reached Congress. Unión Cívica Radical deputy Marcela Coli has presented a bill to update the budget destined to the universities.

“The concern is enormous and daily for universities and the entire educational system but evidently the national government does not share this concern,” she told Perfil.


Ideological austerity ?

During his successful election campaign last year, Milei insisted that he would introduce a system of educational vouchers. Since becoming president, he has liked posts on social media proposing fees for all subjects which are not “hard sciences.” 

The official in charge of the dialogue with the chancellors, the aforementioned Álvarez, holds them responsible for educational “decay.” He claims that since 2018, there has been an atmosphere of “sovietisation” in university cloisters.

On his X social media account, Álvarez has posted a link to an article he wrote for a book called El resurgir de la Argentina, penned by Pedro Luis Barcia. In the text, the official brutally criticises Argentina's university system and harps on the origins of its chancellors, whom he links to the political “corporations.” 

In line with the stance of La Libertad Avanza as a party, Álvarez also questions the creation of “new universities.” In February the government decided to suspend the opening of five universities created by a law of Congress during the previous administration: the universities of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, Pilar, Río Tercero, Ezeiza and Delta. 

Recently, Presidential Spokesperson Manuel Adorni declared at a press conference that “the creation of universities has become one more business racket for politicians.” 

Even if the chancellors go to the meetings and the dialogue is cordial, at least in public the La Libertad Avanza government is showing no signs of rapprochement. Quite the contrary.  

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Giselle Leclercq

Giselle Leclercq


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