Argentina's educational system has not had a smooth evolution. Many educational reforms have been politically motivated and punitive, and the reforms of one government have been undone by a subsequent government. Political upheavals in 1946, 1955, 1966, and 1973 decimated the teaching profession, each time changing the character of the universities. Progress has been further hampered by the fact that Argentina's educational system is a maze of parallel and overlapping agencies and authorities, each having the power to decide educational affairs. This bureaucratic redundancy is expensive and makes change slow and difficult.
Although Argentina boasts a literacy rate of 94 percent of the population, this figure does not tell the whole truth. Recent studies indicate that as of the year 2000, about 54.0 percent of Argentina's adults had no education beyond primary school, only 14.1 percent had finished secondary school, and only 4.0 percent were university graduates. According to the Ministry of Culture and Education, more than 9 million people have no education past primary school. In recent years, the principal barrier to educational improvement has been inadequate funding, which has resulted in constant tension between the public education sector and the state.
The government abolished entrance examinations in 1983, and within three years the number of students at public universities nearly doubled—to about 635,000 nationwide. At the University of Buenos Aires alone, enrollments rose from 132,000 students in 1984 to 250,000 in 1986. But increased enrollments were not accompanied by budgetary increases, so standards declined sharply and buildings and staff could not keep pace with soaring enrollments. In 1989, about 92 percent of the budget for universities went to salaries, causing many universities to have so little money that they stopped paying their other expenses.
Economic troubles have become the central issue in education and have raised union membership. Collegiate bodies, teaching and non-teaching unions, and students have joined in an almost permanent political fight for university budgets and salaries since 1984, often paralyzing the universities and making consensus on proposed reforms impossible. Enrollments in Argentina's private universities have increased while those of the public institutions have slipped. Observers say one reason is labor conflicts at public institutions, which jeopardizes the completion of studies.
By all accounts, teachers do need to be paid more. Faculty salaries from 1971 to 1990 decreased more rapidly than the wages of civil servants and non-farm workers. A teacher in Buenos Aires receives little more than $300 per month, and teachers in the provinces receive even less. A university lecturer receives about $200 a month for five lectures per week. In some areas of the country, salaries arrive late or teachers are paid with meal tickets. Not surprisingly, the quality of teachers has fallen along with salaries.
The government agrees that increased funding is necessary, but it calls on the universities themselves to help ease the financial crisis. Universities could generate income by providing the business community with training, scientific, and technology services; students also could pay fees. Making school administrations more efficient and reducing educational bureaucracy are further ways to ease the crisis. In 1991, the government did its part by reducing the staff of 27 universities and of the Ministry of Culture and Education. Public universities also suffer from poor financial management. On average they spend for each student up to three times more than private universities do.
At the same time, the Minister of Education is trying to align university curricula with the reality of the marketplace, revising programs to take into account realistic social needs. Undergraduate programs are too long and, in most cases, impractical. About 30,000 students graduate from Argentine universities each year, yet the labor market can absorb only 4,000. At least 100,000 university graduates have left Argentina in the last 20 years because of a lack of job opportunities.
Argentina's system of higher education is criticized for promoting social inequality. Only 8.3 percent of all university students come from the lowest social stratum. Forty percent of the 18 to 24 age group in Buenos Aires are enrolled in school, whereas only 10 percent of the same age group is enrolled in education in the poorer southern and northern provinces. Urbanization has produced a great discrepancy between urban and rural education.
The proliferation of graduate degree programs in Argentina is causing problems of quality control for the country's higher education system. By 1995, Argentina had more than 80 public and private universities and more than 1,600 non-university institutions, all awarding degrees and diplomas and causing a crisis in organization. The universities are working with the Ministry of Education on a new system to accredit graduate programs, seeking help from other countries in designing and implementing new graduate programs.
Since the country returned to a democratic government in 1983, the educational system has received serious attention at all levels, evidence of which may be seen in some genuine improvements and many positive proposals awaiting implementation. The Federal Education Act of 1993 set forth the government's plan to revamp and revitalize the national educational system. The Act establishes a system for evaluating quality in education and a federal network for permanent teacher education. The Act also speaks of educational reform and restructuring the national educational system. To help ease the budget crisis, an Argentine group has set up the Fund for the Improvement of University Quality, which aims to distribute $224 million over a period of five years to update library collections and facilities, and to provide fellowships for graduate studies in Argentina and abroad. Ministry officials will support efforts by the country's privately financed universities to obtain loans for similar purposes from the World Bank and other agencies.
Argentina continues to be deeply committed to improving the quality of education. Although financing is at the heart of the problems plaguing the educational system, it will take more than money to mend the system. The problems have developed over years of economic and political turmoil and are so deeply rooted in social beliefs and traditions, in the country's size and geographical features, and in the national character that most believe a successful resolution will not be easy, inexpensive, or quick.
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—Bernard E. Morris
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