Free market vs. free education

The spark that set off the longest student strike in Mexican history is a plan to raise student fees at Latin America's largest university from 3 cents to $220 a year.

But economics major Juan Carlos Vega Martnez says what's behind the strike that has kept Mexico's National Autonomous University (UNAM) closed for 148 days are globalization, and neoliberalismo - free-market economics followed by recent Mexican governments.

"We have to resist the global process that is making Mexico into a maquiladora (assembly-plant) country, a cheap-labor haven for American and other first-world companies," says the fifth-year student behind tree-stump and wire-fence barricades. "The government wants to privatize education like it has so many other public services."

Mr. Vega is not alone. Across Latin America his protest is echoing in other universities. In Argentina, students in May forced a reversal in the government's plans to cut $280 million from the education budget. Also in May, university students in Chile held sometimes violent demonstrations to demand more spending on scholarships and student room and board. Similar movements have shaken Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.

As Latin countries open their economies, political systems, and cultures to broader international influences, the sentiment is growing that these governments are obeying international edicts and no longer determining their own futures. Just as factory workers blame lost jobs on international trade accords and moviegoers nostalgic for a once-robust national film industry rail against Hollywood, students opposed to education cuts and worried about stable, well-paying jobs find their target in the forces pushing a shrinking planet.

The immediate economic issue "is just the tip of the iceberg" of what is putting the protest back on Latin American campuses, says Francisco Rojas Aravena, director of the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty in Santiago, Chile. "Underlying this widespread university turmoil are the continuing globalization process and its varied effects."

With the privatization of so many state industries in Latin America over the last decade, what awaits more of today's graduates is not yesterday's job for life at a government desk with a nice pension in the drawer, but a more competitive private sector promising less-stable job security. "No more is there assurance of a job as there once was, either with the government or in the private sector, nor are there guarantees of a certain living standard and financial well-being," Mr. Rojas says.

Moreover, technology and scientific knowledge are changing so fast that many students find "their formal education is obsolete even before they've finished," adds Rojas.

The students also protest the policies set by the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank encouraging cuts for public higher education. For example, Argentina's planned education cut was part of a deficit reduction agreement with the IMF.

But Latin governments also are following the recommendations of international organizations like UNESCO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Those organizations maintain that countries looking to reduce poverty and expand economic opportunities are better off spending on basic education than on universities that generally serve only the top 20 percent of the population.

This is where the incendiary issue of tuition comes in. Public officials argue that the generally better-off families of university students should participate in financing expensive university programs, while the government puts more resources in basic education.

This is a reversal for Latin America's elite: For decades the wealthy have sent their children to private primary and secondary schools, and then to public universities when higher education became more costly. "You have families that think nothing of spending [$100] a month to send their children to a private preschool, but then balk at spending that much for a semester at a much costlier public university," says Modesto Seara Vsquez, rector of two public universities in Mexico's Oaxaca state.

In Mexico, UNAM strikers argue that it's the state's responsibility to provide a free education at all levels - and ostensibly that issue has kept UNAM shut down since April 20, its 257,000 students with no classes to attend, and its 27,000 professors - more academic staff than most universities have students - shut out of their classrooms.

Despite government inertia suggesting the contrary, few dispute that this is a crisis a developing country like Mexico can ill afford. "This is a national tragedy," says Dr. Seara, a former UNAM political science professor.

Joining a growing chorus of Mexican academic and public opinion leaders, Seara says it's time for the government to "enforce the law" and open UNAM's sprawling campus. "No one wants to take any action for fear of what might happen," he says.

Hanging over the UNAM strike is the memory of Mexico's 1968 student uprising. Police intervention resulted in a massacre that radicalized some social forces and led to the formation of guerrilla groups. Interior Secretary Diodoro Carrasco said that the government would resolve the strike only "through legality and never authoritarian measures." Critics say that position is fine but should not mean the government's only option is inaction.

Most UNAM strikers don't think they will reverse Mexico's economic direction. But many hope to stop the free market's creep onto their campus. Private companies already are playing a larger role, with business leaders "dictating the kinds of courses to be offered so they can get the laborers they need," Vega says.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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