Amid the controversy over the University of Buenos Aires’ (UBA) budgetary crisis which could see the university close its doors in August unless the government increases its funding, The Bubble spoke to the president of UBA’s student union (FUBA), Julián Asiner, to find out what’s going on.
But first, here’s a bit of context: Last week, UBA’s Superior Council approved a 0 percent increase in the university’s annual budget and no, I didn’t miss a number left of the zero. The national Congress under the previous Kirchner government had approved UBA’s budget, which didn’t see an increase, and it’s now up to President Mauricio Macri’s administration to implement it.
However, in light of this year’s inflation, the university argues that the funds simply aren’t enough for the institution to get by. Students and teachers have thus taken to the streets to protest against what they see as an attempt by the government to take down public education. Last Thursday, all of UBA’s colleges simultaneously went on strike for the first time in 15 years, a situation that is bound to be repeated if things don’t change.
Asiner explained that the trouble began with salary increase negotiations.
“When the university’s Superior Council finally agreed to meet, they threatened to give [teachers] a 15 percent increase for the entire year. When you have a 40 percent inflation rate, that’s actually a salary reduction. Now, they’ve approved a 0 percent increase in the budget, so that’s like a 40 percent reduction,” he said.
In Asiner’s opinion, the Superior Council — which is essentially like the university’s board — was far from having its hands tied and, instead, refused to put up a fight for a better budget. “They approved the budget saying it’s only temporary and that it will be reviewed in August. That’s an excuse.” What they’re not saying, he says, is that UBA will have to fire professors, paralyze infrastructure projects and cut investigation funds just to be able to keep its doors open until then.
According to Asiner, the university needs a 40 percent increase in the budget just to match last years’ because the cost of “all the resources we need to subsist have gone up that much.”
The lack of public funds is especially problematic because this means the university is all the more reliant on private funding, which doesn’t always come from the best places.
“Companies like Monsanto and Chevron have agreements where they fund certain research projects to get the university to support their activities, which in reality do nothing but hurt the country,” said Asiner, who explained the University of Economical Sciences gets three times more money from private funding than from the State.
Before the budget crisis became the university’s main threat, unions were already fighting for other basic rights:
- “Right now, half the faculty doesn’t get paid. That means 20,000 professors work for free.”
- “We’ve been fighting to make doctorates free so it doesn’t turn into a source of income to the university that hurts the students by undermining their degrees and making them pay for education.”
- “We’re fighting to elect our authorities [members of the Superior Council] democratically. Right now, only 2 percent of the teachers, the tenured ones, get to elect them. Predictably, the system is rigged and people who answer to a certain government are elected.”
When asked if the government could’ve done anything differently to prevent this situation from happening, Asiner said that Macri’s administration has always made it very clear that its priority is to stand with big business: “They’ve given giant businesses a hand like increasing water and electricity tariffs, but what they’re not explaining is that it’s all to the detriment of public education. We weren’t given any compensation for the increases, not the university or the students, who are asking for a special tariff for public transportation.”
But has the Superior Council presented any alternative to get out of this situation? I asked. The answer was no, not at all: “They told us to hold on until August, but it doesn’t work that way. The university can’t just hold until then and see if the State increases this ‘temporary budget’ then. To make the budget work now means UBA would have to fire more faculty and cut down on expenses because this budget didn’t take into account this year’s tariff increases.” This means that basically, UBA would only make it to August if the government lets it off the hook in its tariff payments. Otherwise, a potential shut down could even come sooner.
Given this precarious scenario, Asiner said teachers and students would likely continue to take action these next few weeks. In fact, UBA’s halls will again be deserted on Thursday when non-faculty staff lead a strike in protest of what they see as insufficient salary raises: “They were offered the same 15 percent raise as teachers, something that would reduce their purchasing power a great deal.”
When it comes to students, Asiner said the union has decided to go on “general strike” next week, a measure that will see professors hold public lectures outside universities as a way to protest. Last week, more than 400 classes were held in the streets, subways, parks and any other public location you can imagine.
If things keep going the way they are, students and teachers will march on May 12 to the Plaza de Mayo to take their demands to the Casa Rosada itself and on May 18, to the Education Ministry. The only thing left to know is which unions will join the protest, as there are some whose political interests might clash with their demands: “Left-leaning unions, which have the largest presence in the university, support our demands. We’re waiting to see what stance unions close to the Victory Front (FpV) take since UBA’s Dean Alberto Barbieri is close to them and he is the one spearheading the attack,” Asiner said.
So could UBA really close its doors? Apparently, the answer is yes: “It’s something that’s being debated. We believe that united, students and teachers will be able to break this policy by Macri’s government. We are defending our education, the possibility of graduating and faculty members’ jobs,” Asiner finished.