For weeks, public universities have been staging protests over budget restrictions and teachers’ salaries. But beyond these specific disputes lie deeper concerns over the future of public education in Argentina.
Last week, students all over Buenos Aires blocked streets with desks and chairs, marking off a space for education in the public sphere. Bracing against the brisk Autumn morning, professors lectured into microphones while pedestrians meandered in and out of their wall-less classrooms. The open lectures were part of a series of innovative protests staged to spread awareness of a budget crisis in public universities.
In another gathering, students at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA)’s Social Sciences department sat outside the campus in candlelight, echoing the refrain of the month-long protest: “we will not have enough money to turn on the lights.” Representatives of nearly every political student, teacher, and worker union – some affiliated with UBA, some not at all – voiced anger about the proposed university budget, and concern for the future of public education. As small arguments broke out among students, each speaker implored the crowd for unity. “We must stand together against their attempts to turn off our lights,” one student exclaimed in the swell of the gathered crowd.
This image of the dark university classroom is only part hyperbole – inflation and rising utility prices have more than tripled electricity, plumbing, and gas bills. Against this backdrop, university leaders claimed the proposed $8.7bn designated for UBA this year would only cover operative costs until around around August.
Lights are not the only issue. University professors nationwide began striking in April, rejecting the national government’s offer of a 31% salary hike (15% in May, followed by another 5% by the October and 11% by the end of December), which they say is effectively a wage cut given estimates of inflation reaching 40% this year. Despite over three weeks of strikes, public classes, candlelit assemblies, and, most recently, a protest of around 70,000, the national government has so far remained at a defensive standstill in regards to a new education budget for this academic year.
Rather than adjust the budget, the government has so far only offered temporary alternatives to breach the gap between utility costs and allocated funds. The subsecretary of University Politics in the Education Ministry, Danya Tavela, told Clarín that the government is working with the Ministry of Energy to provide universities with “differential utility costs.” President Mauricio Macri also met with 30 university rectors earlier this month, where he announced that an additional $500m will go towards covering higher utility costs. The allotment was met with skepticism by protesters and university workers: Universidad Nacional de Rosario (UNR) professor Luciana Seminara told Notas that given the small percentage UNR would receive once the money is split among more than 50 public universities nationwide, additional funds “are not guaranteed to cover even the utilities budgeted for last semester.”
Paola Di Pietro, radio producer and UBA Communications professor, was similarly dissatisfied with the announcement, criticising the vagueness and impermanence of such a remedy. Her concern is less with the conclusion of this particular dispute, which she believes will ultimately be resolved, and more with the new government’s approach to public education: “I think that there will be a solution reached in terms of salaries,” Di Pietro explains, “but I am not confident that public universities will have a better budget in years to come. I don’t trust the current government’s politics in regards to public education.” Few protesters seem to truly doubt that UBA’s lights will, in fact, stay on, many are concerned that this budget proposal is indicative of Macri’s broader vision for the “revolution in public education” that he promised at the start of his term.
To many professors and students, the drama over keeping UBA’s lights on is symbolic of the larger toll that the government’s budget tightening will have on small public institutions of higher learning around the country, including measures to improve university accessibility, such as scholarships and research funding. According to Claudio Freidin, UBA Faculty of Art and Design professor and member of the University Council, students and teachers at the UBA, a school with widespread recognition and prestige, have a responsibility to “work for and with” colleges in other parts of the country.
“Colleges in the interior, in the provinces, are smaller,” Freidin argues. “They work much more closely with their students, and they are much more vulnerable than UBA.” Of the approximately 1.3m students enrolled in a public undergraduate or graduate program, around 300,000 study at UBA. The one million students from other institutions have received far less media attention, but their fate is a source of concern for those who believe Macri’s government will stop or even reverse the Kirchnerist policy of opening new public universities around the country (17 were created between 2003 and 2015). In 2014, Macri himself criticised the opening new universities “everywhere”, saying funds should be used to open more nurseries.
Paola Di Pietro argues that the regional, decentralised universities have a far greater impact on national education than large schools like UBA, particularly since they have the highest rate of matriculation of first-generation college students. In 2013, the Education Ministry reported that 75% of the young people studying in greater Buenos Aires were first generation students, for whom “the only options seemed to be UBA and La Plata” until new universities were opened.
Concern about the current government’s long-term vision of public education has thus spread beyond Macri’s political opposition – last Thursday’s march of over 70,000 people was one of the largest in the educative sector in the last 15 years. Teacher unions and political student groups walked alongside thousands of unaffiliated protesters, chanting in unison as they marched from Plaza Houssay to Plaza de Mayo. Only a few students stayed peering down at the passing crowd from the windows of Universidad del Salvador, one of Buenos Aires’s private universities.
Even some university leaders have expressed support for the protests. Héctor Floriani, rector of the Universidad Nacional de Rosario and affiliate of the Unión Civica Radical (UCR), a party within Macri’s ruling coalition, came out in support of striking teachers, for whom he argues an appropriate remuneration is “essential.” Like Di Pietro, Floriani supports the teacher unions not only because of low wages, but, as he told a panel last week, out of a “duty to defend public education, which we believe is in risk, and needs defending.”
Despite the seemingly relentless opposition to the education budget, the relationship between politically divergent student groups, labour unions, and public officials is not without its tensions. In the week leading up to Thursday’s march, each UBA faculty held assemblies, bringing in students, teachers, university staff, and workers to strategise for a new budget proposal. Calls for unity from the student body’s co-president, affiliated with La UES Sociales, a political group with ties to more centrist university directors, were met with shouts from the crowd, with one student demanding a new student body that “fights for humanity.” Unity may appear to be a given as protesters and the national government remain in a deadlock, but, according to Agustina Frisch, a sociology student at UBA, while “we are united in our goals, we lack a common strategy.” Public education must be defended, they all agree, but exactly how and by whom is still up for debate.
For Claudio Freidin, methods of protesting are only valuable insofar as they promote the overarching goal of quality public education. “Let’s not forget the central objective, which is the formation of our students,” Freidin says adding that he is opposed to strikes, which he argues do not serve students. He is in favor of methods of dissent that make the issue more visible, such as public classes, open discussions with students, and protests that reach out to the broader Argentine community. “The most important lesson we can leave our students is an understanding of the value of our social right to quality public education.”
Agustina Frisch is similarly concerned that strikes are not an effective means of building greater unity, beyond university affiliates. “I think it was necessary that we took to the streets to protest and march,” she says, “for the sake of raising public awareness about under-served professors, under-resourced clinics, and faulty infrastructure and utility upkeep at many colleges.” Yet she worries that the general public is easily tired of strikes, and hopes that those defending public education will find a strategy for communicating their demands that touches the community as a whole.
However, Luis Tiscornia, the general secretary of Conadu Historica, a national federation of teachers, artists, researchers, and inventors, maintains that strikes are not merely important, but a necessity, as the issues of utilities and salaries are twofold in “compromising the ability of the university to operate.”
University professors are still demanding a 45% salary increase, while students are waiting for a budget that makes them confident their university will continue to function into the coming year. Despite differences in methods, all are prepared to fight to defend Argentina’s public education system, the legacy of which is embodied in the political organising, banners, graffiti, and indeterminate student body of the UBA.
The protests have continued for a month, creating a strange midterms season, as the weather turns colder, and public spaces more harsh. After last week’s massive march, the government responded with a new offer of a 33% salary hike between May and November, which teachers’ unions are now deliberating. With student assemblies planned for next week at nearly every university, and these potential adjustments to the budget on the table, there is some optimism that the current conflict will be resolved. But the broader debate over education policies in Argentina is just getting started.