Earlier this week, while flipping through social media, I discovered that I had become a menace to the well-being of Argentina.
You see, I’m part of a certain subset of people living here that now finds itself in the crosshairs of the rising tide of vitriol and fear spread by some media commentators, and now, politicians.
I’m a foreigner who has come to study in one of Argentina’s public universities.
The recent round of attacks against foreign university students in Argentina is a new development, counteracting the country’s traditional openness to newcomers from other lands. Argentina’s immigrant past is well known, but this legacy has deep roots in the field of education as well. Since the 1940s, public university education at the undergraduate level has been free here for both native Argentines and foreigners.
This does not carry over to graduate programs, such as my masters’ degree program in urban planning at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA). Public graduate programs charge tuition for both locals and foreigners, who are also saddled with additional fees. Nevertheless, in comparison with other universities around the world, studying a graduate program at the UBA is still a bargain.
And as a student here, I have crossed paths with many other foreigners whose lives have been improved immeasurably by the education they received here. Unlike me, most of the students here come from other countries in South America. Argentina’s universities have become particularly attractive to students from Chile and Colombia, both of which have been plagued by high tuition fees. But I’ve even come across a few other students from the United States who, like myself, found studying in Argentina to be an attractive option thanks to its affordable tuition structure.
But this system, which has provided the opportunities so many overseas students have lacked in their home countries, is under fire. Jorge Lanata, Argentina’s portly purveyor of scandal and outrage who is increasingly becoming a darling of the country’s nativist right, has been pushing for tuition fees since the beginning of this year, basing his argument almost solely on the fact that graduation rates are higher in universities that charge them.
Lanata fine-tuned his argument in a report he broadcast last month, narrowing in on a subset of students much easier to target: foreigners. With the scathingly sarcastic title “Argentina: a generous country”, Lanata lambasted foreign students as freeloaders, mooching off Argentina’s public funds to the tune of, by his calculations, $360m (pesos) per year. Though the report generated backlash – critics decried it as “xenophobia” – it also energised much of Lanata’s loyal fan base.
This week, Lanata and his followers found a somewhat unlikely but equally opportunistic champion in Argentina’s congress. In an interview with Canal 26, congressman Miguel Ángel Pichetto dedicated a segment to lamenting Argentina’s supposed “culture of equality”, repeating much of Lanata’s argument and attacking the “35,000 Colombians” who had come to study here. The irony in Pichetto’s statements come from the fact that, for the 12 years before president Mauricio Macri took office, he had been an ardent supporter of the purportedly progressive governments of Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
This too generated blowback. The satirical magazine Barcelona made light of Pichetto’s own political background, pointing out that he himself had “migrated” from being a supporter of the neoliberal president Carlos Menem to following Kirchner. Many in his own party came out against his statements.
But Pichetto also had his supporters: a shocking 91% of those following popular news channel TN’s coverage of the story said they “liked” his statements, and neo-Nazi party leader Alejandro Biondini remarked that Pichetto’s statements made him “feel like a moderate”.
This mounting attack on free higher education for foreigners is misguided on practical grounds. But, much worse, it is a grave threat to one of Argentina’s core commitments, which has helped it to progress despite decades of political and economic turmoil, and has defined it as a country.
Critics of Argentina’s higher education policy are fond of claiming that no other country on the planet “gives away” education to foreigners. Not true. In fact, one country that has mostly scrapped tuition fees is one that fans of public figures like Lanata and Pichetto would be hard pressed to criticise: Germany.
In most German states, college tuition has been free to natives and foreigners alike for decades; in 2014, the last remaining state, Lower Saxony, announced that it too would be making tuition free. Far from wreaking havoc on the country’s education system, Germany’s universities have flourished under free tuition – a total of 40 of them made it into the prestigious QS World University Rankings for 2016, and the country is recognised as a leader of academic research in Europe and worldwide.
Free tuition in Germany is not without its drawbacks. Like Argentina, German universities suffer from lower graduation rates, in addition to high demand for free spots in the country’s top schools. Nonetheless, in addition to the accolades its universities have garnered, they also help Germany’s inequality levels to remain lower than other European countries, particularly those with higher university tuition fees such as England.
At this point, critics of free college for foreigners in Argentina would probably ask: if the policy has worked so well in Germany, why isn’t it doing better here? While it’s true that Argentina’s university system has plenty of room for improvement, there’s good reason to believe that free tuition has actually been a boon for public universities, and for the country as a whole.
On a regional level, Argentina’s universities perform quite well; the UBA consistently places at the top of rankings of Latin American universities. Free tuition for foreigners serves as a magnet for talent, which pays off in scientific research; a 2014 report in Nature found that Argentina ranked the highest in research strength in South America – given the budget cuts faced by the country’s public researchers, this may prove crucial in the near future. And, as is the case with Germany, free tuition coincides with lower inequality rates in Argentina relative to other countries in the region.
In addition, the simplistic premise of critics like Lanata and Pichetto, that foreign students are freeloaders who reap the benefits of Argentina’s society without putting back into it, doesn’t tell the whole story. First of all, it’s important to note that, despite the portrayal of foreign students as “taking over” Argentina’s universities, they are still only a small portion of the overall student population; at the UBA, for instance, foreigners represent only 4.4% of the student body.
In addition, while foreign students may not pay directly into the school’s system, the money they spend on living expenses bolsters the local economy, and if they work, they will pay into the country’s tax system. In addition, despite some Atendency to see foreigners as nothing more than a “drain” on domestic social services, there is ample research to suggest that they play a key role in building and maintaining a dynamic economy.
But the case for free tuition for foreigners goes beyond mere statistics. Educational systems form the foundation of a country’s identity, and its place in the world. Argentina’s background, as a country that has traditionally welcomed and accommodated foreign students, is a powerful statement about this identity; putting up obstacles to foreign students wishing to study here would be a grave threat to it.
For Argentina, educating foreign students does in fact work toward some self-interested ends: foreigners learn to see the world from Argentina’s perspective, which benefits the country’s stature in the world. But it is also a statement of purpose: that the country’s educational institutions exist for social advancement, not just nationally but also globally. A bold statement that, at its core, Argentina sees education as a right, not only for people who happen to be born in the country, but to all those who wish to come here, crack open their textbooks, and hit the ground learning. That by welcoming students from outside its borders, Argentina is contributing to make the world a better place.
By contrast, the gathering storm clouds of anti-immigrant sentiment put this legacy in jeopardy. Despite Mauricio Macri’s promise to “open Argentina to the world” – a promise that so far has extended mainly to massive debt from global financial institutions and loosened trade regulations – a climate of xenophobia is threatening to creep across the country, and even begin to take root in government policy. Earlier in the year, the government proposed to build a detention centre specifically for immigrants. It has later pledged to create a special anti-immigrant police force.
Argentina is at a crossroads. It can give into the voices of those who cynically call for foreign students to be charged – often for their own personal or political gain – thereby reducing the quality of its education system and moving the country further down the dark road of bigotry. Or it can keep tuition free for Argentina’s foreign students, stemming the tide of reactionary vitriol over immigration and reaffirming the country’s commitment to universities that build a better world through quality education, motivated not by nationality but by humanity.
The choice is yours, Argentina. For my sake, and for the sake of all foreign students who have come here, not to be demonised by demagogues but to study at world-class universities, whose lives have been changed by the opportunities they have received here, I hope you do the right thing.
The views in this article belong to the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The Indy.