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OP-ED | 25-08-2018 08:22

Editorial: School or scandal?

Universities are supposed to value quality over quantity but the sheer quantitative dimensions of higher education in Argentina should not be underestimated.

The urgent is forever crowding out the important in Argentina and this week is no exception. While for much of the media there is simply no story other than the mushrooming fallout from the copybook exposés of Kirchnerite corruption, a nationwide strike of university lecturers moved into its third week almost unnoticed. The big noise around the graft scandal (this week very much centred around former president and Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner) is thus a dangerous distraction but not for the reason usually given. The government is widely accused of using this uproar to divert attention from its acute economic problems (with June seeing the steepest plunge since the 2008-2009 global meltdown) but you do not distract attention from a crisis by making it worse, as this scandal undoubtedly does by throwing a huge spanner into the public works which were the last remaining lifeline to growth – if all this is indeed a diversionary strategy, the Mauricio Macri administration could hardly have made a worse choice. Instead it would be more accurate to say that this buzz perpetuates the neglect of a whole raft of important problems ranging from such immediate needs as 30 percent of homes lacking sewage to the apparently more abstract spheres of education.

Within the latter the spotlight almost invariably falls on the teachers of Buenos Aires province and their constant strikes but for reasons which seldom have much to do with education – the public schools are valued as the source of at least one daily meal for the poorest sectors and their teachers as glorified babysitters for families of all classes but far less for the scholastic preparation of future generations. But today’s subject is university education. Here an average salary of 27,000 pesos might compare favourably with schoolteachers but well under US$1,000 a month is dismal by international standards (if paid at all – the ad honorem lecturer has long been a frequent figure). Nor is there any solution to the pay deadlock in sight when a paltry 15-percent increase is offered in a year when inflation is poised to reach 35 percent.

Universities are supposed to value quality over quantity but the sheer quantitative dimensions of higher education in Argentina should not be underestimated. At last count some years ago the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) had over 308,000 students – most people would find dozens of ways of describing Argentina’s capital other than as an academic centre but even without UCA Catholic, Belgrano, Palermo, El Salvador, etc. universities, this figure alone means that the Federal Capital has a higher percentage of student population than such purely university towns as Cambridge or Heidelberg. Argentina has over 210 public and private universities with almost 1.9 million students and an academic staff of around 170,000. But this quantity notoriously conspires against quality – only around 20 percent of these students ever graduate, way below regional never mind international averages. To this long-standing waste of resources should be added the proliferation of universities in this century (especially in the Greater Buenos Aires area) – this means a huge commitment to physical infrastructure perilously close to a time when the multiplication of online educational techniques could soon make it wholly obsolete.

Modern day politics is often too focused on the temporary and the short-term fix, but any government that claims to truly be working in the national interest should be investing in future generations. The immediate problem is to give university lecturers decent pay making them worthy of their hire, a challenge inseparable from maximising the efficiency of the budget, with the whole future of higher education up in the air. Questions that cannot be answered in this space, but they need to be asked – perhaps serrated copybooks should serve for something more than a school for scandal.

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