IN the 31 years since dictator Marcos Perez Jim'enez fled Caracas, access to free public education from preschool to university has been one of the greatest achievements of Venezuelan democracy. From 1958 to 1988, total school enrollment increased 650 percent, from 800,000 to more than 6 million students. One out of every 3 Venezuelans is currently studying.
The government foots the bill for almost all these students. Private education serves only about 13 percent of the total student population (approximately 18 percent in higher education). Most Venezuelans believe access to education, including higher education, is a democratic right that should be guaranteed by the government.
Many primary schools are overcrowded, with two or even three sessions daily. In the past 10 years, many middle-class families have deserted overcrowded public schools, paying for private schooling from preschool through high school to better prepare their children to enter a university.
According to a 1985 government study, a disproportionate number of students from private schools are enrolled in public universities - 47 percent of the students at the Central University and 78 percent at the Sim'on Bol'ivar University came from private schools. Various government leaders have called for university students to pay tuition to end what they consider to be a government subsidy of higher education for the upper-middle and upper classes. Critics of charging tuition respond that fees would limit access to higher education for low-income students.
The current minister of education, Gustavo Roosen, says tuition should at least be considered for students from families who can afford to pay. Giving an example of a change of attitude he considers necessary, he says, ``If someone can buy his son a Toyota costing $20,000 - and you see plenty of Toyotas in the Sim'on Bol'ivar University student parking lot - then that parent can pay for his son's university education.''
A proposed higher-education law in Venezuela's Congress does permit several exceptions to the constitutional guarantee of free public education at all levels, including higher education. Students could be charged tuition for repeated failing grades, a second undergraduate degree, or graduate education. There is also a proposal that university graduates be required to pay the government a fixed percentage of their salaries.