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OP-ED | 27-04-2024 05:38

Missing the point

Milei misread the demonstration as “the caste” riding a noble cause to defend its interests but the scale, spontaneity and peaceful nature of the protest argue against this bid to politicise the march.

The confrontation in Tuesday’s mass march in defence of public universities was more apparent than real since both sides preferred polarisation to entering into any genuine debate. President Javier Milei and his spin doctors are evidently bent on projecting the “Yes or no” (“Por sí or por no”) of his finest hour, last November’s run-off, into any issue, no matter how complex. This gives the universities a perfect alibi for rallying an impressive multitude in defence of a sacred cow of upward social mobility in Argentina without having to cover any of the weaker flanks which the across-the-board cuts of chainsaw austerity have entirely failed to pick out. These weaknesses have less to do with KIrchnerite indoctrination or dodgy outsourcing contracts, the pet targets of government criticisms, than with the entire structure of higher education – the free and unrestricted admission (for home and abroad) and the multiplication of universities nationwide, among others.

This central issue of university education was widely missed on both sides because of the presence of extraneous elements in the demonstration. Peronists, the left and even some Radicals were obviously not going to miss the opportunity to display an opposition strength which the opinion polls fail to reflect, while trade unions and social organisations were also keen to join the pushback (less logical in their case since more money for the universities would in theory mean less for social plans and wages). Milei jumped on this gratuitous intrusion to misread this demonstration as “the caste” riding a noble cause to defend its interests but the scale, spontaneity and peaceful nature of the protest argue against this bid to politicise the march by exaggerating the importance of its devalued disruptive elements. The subject remains education – concentrate, Mr President, concentrate.

That education is the key to success in the 21st century is one of the biggest clichés of futurologists but the libertarian government remains strangely oblivious to this issue, reducing it to fiscal numbers. If they insist on only looking at numbers instead of the quality which is surely the essence of education, how about the dysfunctional total of 320,00 students at the University of Buenos Aires (a mega-university rivalled only by Mexico’s UNAM in this region and the largest in the world outside Asia or South Africa)? 

This is the result of the rigidly defended policy of free university education with unrestricted admission which – without investment – lowers standards without delivering social inclusion. Three times as many youths from the top fifth of the population enter university as from the bottom fifth. Impoverished households all too often are unable to offer their children the cultural and scholastic conditions conducive to finishing secondary school, never mind entering university – many might even feel inclined to follow libertarian deputy Alberto Benegas Lynch’s offensive advice that children can be more useful in the workshop than at school when advancing his controversial proposal to end compulsory education. Free university education thus boils down to the poor paying for the rich via such levies as IVA value-added taxation on food while drawing minimal benefit themselves. The only system favouring the poor would be widespread scholarships since a deceptive free for all is not a level playing-field. Universities thus become the homes of middle-class mediocrity with less incentive to study useful degrees when coming from comfortable family backgrounds – for a case in point, less than a quarter of all university students are enrolled in science, engineering or technology, disciplines surely key to the future.

Indiscriminate spending cuts are not the only or best way of downsizing universities. Simply replacing unrestricted admission with entrance exams would reduce the impossible numbers of students without necessarily resulting in less university graduates since less than a third complete their studies under the present system. And instead of across-the-board cuts, the government could also seek to save money with a more selective approach. Posing the question of whether places like Chilecito (La Rioja) or Saladillo really need universities, it could also opt for closing down some of Argentina’s 131 universities altogether, while maintaining or even boosting the spending in others. Even maintaining free unrestricted admission, there is always the question of foreign students (close to a majority for some medical faculties). This is all without mentioning teachers, professors and their remuneration – salaries on the breadline are surely not the lesson we want to teach future generations about how we value this crucial role.

No country has achieved economic success without a solid public education yet there is a case for downsizing with too many students in too many universities (expanding tenfold in the last 10 years) – numbers which perhaps help explain the success of the march. Still, those from poorer backgrounds must be allowed the ability to improve their lot in life through academic growth and achievement. It is a complicated issue but university education cannot be the either/or proposition of Tuesday’s march – there is much to debate.

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