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PARAGUAY: University Students on the March Again

David Vargas

ASUNCIÓN, Jun 13 2008 (IPS) - After nearly two decades of apathy, the university student movement in Paraguay has made a comeback, demanding a law to grant them rebates on public transport fares and opposing a draft law on higher education reform.

Both issues are the focus of draft laws currently under debate in Congress. In the last few months students have demonstrated, marched, barricaded roads and boycotted classes to put pressure on lawmakers to vote on the proposals before Jun. 30, when the current legislative period ends.

The protesters have been demanding approval of special tickets for university students, which would halve fares on public transport for some 150,000 students attending public and private universities.

The lower house of Congress has already passed the draft law, but the students announced they would keep up the pressure until it makes it through the Senate.

The other bone of contention is a controversial proposal to reform the higher education system, which has been under consideration in parliament for two years. The students are against the reform, alleging that it would restrict their participation in decision-making and undermine the autonomy of the country’s universities.

Paraguay has five public and 16 private universities. The largest is the state National University of Asunción (UNA), with a student body of 33,000 and some 2,500 professors.

This country of six million people has one of the lowest access rates to higher education in Latin America. Less than three percent of children who enter school are estimated to go on to university after 12 years of primary and secondary education.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC)’s Statistical Yearbook for 2007 indicates that in 2004, the gross enrolment rate in tertiary education was 24.5 percent in Paraguay, well below the rates in Argentina (65 percent), Chile (43), Bolivia (40.6) and Uruguay (40.5 percent), though slightly higher than in Brazil (23.8) and Mexico (23.4 percent).

One of the main problems facing university students is the cost of studying. Milciades Flecha, of the Students’ Movement for Democratic Participation (CEPD), told IPS that more than 40 percent of students who enrol in the university drop out in the first year because of financial difficulties.

“We think students are quite an important sector, and they are steadily shrinking in number at this time. Very few students finish their studies and graduate. This is all for economic reasons,” he added.

Subsidising transport fares would help reduce the drop-out rate, Flecha said.

“At UNA, a student has to demonstrate financial, rather than intellectual, capacity,” said Edgar Basualdo, a fourth-year economics student.

Even though tuition is free, students must be able to afford short pre-enrolment courses, course materials, registration costs, exam fees, transport, and other expenses.

All of this leads to high drop-out rates. “We started with 60 economics students, and now in the fourth year only 15 of us are left,” Basualdo told IPS.

This is just one reflection of the decline of the educational system. According to experts and student leaders, the system is in crisis, and in-depth reform is urgently needed – but not the one the government is proposing, student activists say.

Melquíades Alonso, an expert on education, says that during the military dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989), the university system was excluded from the reforms undertaken by the vast majority of Latin American countries in recent decades.

“University reforms in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s were inspired by the wave of democratisation in a large part of the region, but they had no effect on the decrepit structure and poor functioning of Paraguay’s universities,” he told IPS.

Only in the late 1990s, after the General Law on Education was approved in 1998, did serious debate about university reform begin in Paraguay.

In 2003, two draft laws on higher education reform were presented to Congress, one from UNA and one prepared by the then recently created Council of Rectors, made up of the heads of public and private universities.

Both of these were shelved when a third reform proposal was presented in 2005 by the National Council of Higher Education in its report “Paraguay: the University of 2020,” a discussion document on university reform.

At the core of the debate is the proposed creation of a body empowered to certify, oversee and penalise universities. At present a new university needs only the consent of parliament to open its doors. There is a Council of Universities, but its expert opinion is not binding.

“Higher education in Paraguay is unsupervised, disorganised, and chaotic. Everyone does as they please, opening universities and creating faculties, branches and new courses, without the necessary infrastructure to guarantee quality,” said UNA Rector Pedro González, one of the driving forces behind the latest reform initiative.

“A council must be created, made up of representatives from the different sectors of society, the public and private universities, the Education Ministry, Congress, and the university professors’ associations,” he said.

This is the point of contention with student organisations, because they are not included in the plan.

“We protest our total lack of participation in the drafting of this law, as well as the attempt to use it as a way of openly and blatantly legitimising a process which is clearly unilateral, lacking in consensus, non-participative and therefore, from our point of view, illegitimate and invalid,” Cecilia Vuyk, a student at the private Catholic University’s Philosophy and Human Sciences Department, told IPS.

The struggle for a cut-price student ticket and against the proposed reforms have revived the student movement in Paraguay, which after the activism of the 1970s and 1980s lapsed into inertia after Stroessner’s overthrow in 1989.

Sociologist Marielle Palau, the author of “Reseña de las Organizaciones Juveniles Paraguayas y sus Principales Tensiones” (Overview of Paraguayan Youth Organisations and Their Main Tensions), published by the non-governmental organisation Base IS, says that the roots of the university student movement go back to the birth of the Independent Movement (MI) in the late 1960s..

Very influential in most university departments, the MI “was highly critical of both the Stroessner regime and the political parties participating in the 1967 constituent assembly” that rewrote the constitution, she told IPS.

The MI espoused the building of a socialist society based on organised social movements and mass struggle. But in 1977 it succumbed to internal conflicts and broke up.

In 1987 another organisation, the Federation of Paraguayan University Students (FEUP), was formed under the banner “For a Free and Democratic University”. It became a pillar of the struggle against the dictatorship, but a few years after the fall of Stroessner it, too, fell into crisis and collapsed.

In the fight for low-cost university student tickets and against the draft law on higher education reform which, in their view, is against their interests, Paraguayan university students are actively working to regain the power they have lost.

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