History & Background
The Republic of Argentina, the second largest country in South America, contains 22 provinces, 1 national territory, and the federal district of Buenos Aires. Argentina's varied topography and the remoteness of some of its regions have played a large role in the development of its educational system, which serves students who live not only in urban centers, but those who live in rural areas as well. Educational facilities range from the largest university in Latin America, to one-room primary schools scattered in remote areas. The largest city, Buenos Aires, has more than 12 million people, 40 percent of the country's total population. In each of the two other major cities, Córdoba and Rosario, reside more than 1 million inhabitants. Eighty-five percent of the population is descended from Europeans, and the remaining ethnic groups consist mostly of mestizos and Amerindians. More than 90 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, giving the educational system a strong religious background and influence. The country's official language, Spanish, is common to the whole educational system.
Spanish Jesuits and priests of other orders were among the first to open schools in colonial Argentina. Between 1770 and 1820, the government vigorously promoted popular education, establishing primary schools and commercial, art, agricultural, and nautical schools. At first, enrollment was only 6 percent of the school population in Buenos Aires, and in several provinces no one was enrolled. By the 1800s, secondary and normal (teacher-training) schools had been established in the provincial capitals, but most were still poorly attended. Not until well into the twentieth century did children of poorer families in the remote cities receive more than two or three years of schooling.
Under the Constitution of 1853, a secondary school system was set up along with dozens of primary schools throughout the country. The government also formed the National College of Buenos Aires as a five-year institution devoted to the study of humanities and science. By 1878, Argentina had more than 400 private schools, a third of them private and Catholic. The Catholic Church continues to play an important role in the educational system in 2001.
Between 1868 and 1874, the government established another 1,000 primary schools, reorganized secondary education, and founded schools of agriculture, schools for the handicapped, and the Military College and Naval School. Educators from the United States were brought in to set up teacher-training schools and kindergartens. School enrollment rose from 6 percent of the eligible population to 38 percent in the next decade. Compulsory primary school attendance was also established for ages 6 to 14, and the illiteracy rate for persons 14 and older dropped from 77 percent to 13 percent between 1869 and 1947.
Until World War I, schools were concentrated in the major cities, Buenos Aires, La Plata, Rosario, Santa Fe, and Córdoba. Secondary schools prepared students for entrance to universities and were attended mainly by the children of the well-to-do. The national government opened some rural secondary schools that taught agronomy, animal husbandry, and viticulture, but poorer families still could not afford to send their children to these schools. Middle-class families were not interested in them; they looked to university training in the professions as the only path to success and status for their children. This attitude continues to hamper curricula reform in the schools.
In 1918, a student-led reform movement at the University of Córdoba marked a major turning point in Argentine education. This movement sought to eliminate upper-class privilege, which had kept poorer students out of the university, and to protect the university from governmental intervention. It also aimed at modernizing the university curricula, raising academic standards, and getting rid of incompetent and conservative faculty. Free tuition was established, and poor students were given financial assistance. This manifesto led to the creation of the Argentine University Federation, which included student representatives from the five national universities.
Toward the middle of the twentieth century and after, as teachers' salaries fell and conditions in the schools deteriorated, the schools became the target of the changing policies of a succession of repressive regimes. Perónist ideology was injected into the curricula and textbooks. Teachers who resisted these changes were fired. University autonomy was abolished, and 70 percent of the faculty was dismissed. On the positive side, the government stressed primary and secondary school attendance, reducing illiteracy and increasing the number of skilled young people. Adult education was offered outside the federal capital for the first time ever. Schools and services for shut-ins and handicapped children were established. Schools were exempted from taxation, and efforts were made to make the quality of provincial education equal to that offered in urban centers. More secondary schools and a teacher-training school for girls were founded.
In 1958, legislation authorized the establishment of private universities, and the same year the first small provincial university was opened in the La Plata province. The majority of the private universities were operated by Catholic orders, and the 1958 law gave them and other private universities the authority to grant degrees. These new universities emphasized the traditional professions, law and medicine, avoiding new disciplines, such as sociology and psychology. From 1966 to 1972, the military government began decentralizing the educational system by transferring the schools created by the federal government to the provinces. This transfer would make better use of increasingly scarce resources and reduce overlapping of education systems. After 1983, as political freedom returned to the country, the universities regained autonomy. Entrance exams were again eliminated as a way to equalize educational opportunities. Enrollments nearly doubled in the public universities, causing problems with overcrowding and understaffing.
The changes introduced in the 1960s by some national universities—such as new degrees in the sciences, departmental organization by discipline, and the development of graduate programs—reached only a small sector within the university. The universities continued to offer lengthy degree programs, and part-time professors continued to lecture students who combined studies with outside employment. The problems of this traditional model were aggravated by open admissions and budgetary constraints, which resulted in a very high student dropout rate and a teaching staff made up mostly of part-time personnel with no graduate-level training. The government continued to authorize new institutions, both public and private, and the giant public universities continued to expand their programs without becoming accountable for their academic quality or economic feasibility. More than 100,000 graduates, about 1 in every 10, are employed in teaching and research positions at the universities, making higher education the main employer in the academic labor market.
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