Student Protests as a Force for Change: The Case of Venezuela

Venezuela

The photo depicted above was shared on a social media website one week ago by a dear friend of mine, with the caption below it reading: “It is an unexplainable pain: your country is slipping through your fingers and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.  You can only hope it pulls through. SOS Venezuela”.

This post is in response to the protests against the government in Venezuela that have been ongoing since early February, the largest to sweep the country in the last decade [1].  After spending five months living and studying abroad in Milan, Italy with her and understanding where she came from and how much it means to her, to see her express such concern over what was happening in her native country was heartbreaking.  This experience resonated with me and made me want to know more so I could gain a better understanding, so I immediately contacted her to discuss the matter and her perspective on it.  She was more than willing to share with me because she feels strongly that while she is in the United States the most important and positive contribution she can make to the struggle is spreading information and raising awareness.  Just one day prior to my conversation with her, a friend of hers in Venezuela was taken by the National Guard for peacefully protesting, was beaten by a guard, and then held for four hours before ultimately being released.  The protests are indeed violent with 13 protesters dead, at least 150 injured, and more than 500 arrested since the protests began [1][2].  Understanding the struggle is both eye opening and thought provoking in a number of ways.

The protests were initiated by students on a campus in the city of San Cristóbal, in the western state of Táchira [3] and spread to the capital, Caracas, on the 12th of February when the student movement organized a peaceful march there [1].  Venezuela is cited as having the fifth highest murder rate in the world, and widespread insecurity and crime, as well as a report of a female student of an alleged rape attempt, sparked students’ demands for increased security measures against violence.  Further, while Venezuela is Latin America’s largest exporter of crude oil, with the world’s largest petroleum reserves, it faces 56% inflation and major goods shortages in essential basic items such as milk, sugar, and toilet paper [1][4].

While students initiated the movement initially, it has swept across the country and the protests now have a middle class majority making demands with the nationwide effort being called “La Salida” or “The Exit”[1][4].  Prominent members of the political opposition group have stepped forward to join the protests including former mayor Leopoldo Lopez, currently in jail awaiting trial for instigating violence, and Maria Corina Machado, a member of parliament [1].  Current President Nicolas Maduro only narrowly defeated Henrique Capriles, elected leader of the opposition, a mere ten months ago [4].  Politics in Venezuela are severely divided and have been all throughout the 14-year presidency of Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s predecessor and mentor [3].  While the opposition leader was initially opposed to the marches, he has since voiced support for and has emphasized peaceful demonstrations [1]

Collectively, protestors have a number of demands.  First, they wish to see the release of leader Leopoldo Lopez from jail as well as a number of other student demonstrators that have been detained [4].  Further, the government has been heavily criticized for the excessive violence it has used in response to the student movement, evidenced by its sending of the National Guard into residential areas, accusations of beatings and torture of arrested protestors, and the rising toll of deaths and injuries that have together been called a violation of human rights, much of which is denied by the government [3].  Protestors want pro-government groups to disarm and to address the aforementioned issues that are plaguing the nation, and attention has been called to a blockage by the government of media sources leading demonstrators to demand the free flow and more reliable sources of information within the country.  Even more extreme members of the opposition want Maduro to step down from office [1][4].

President Maduro refuses to step down and has accused the United States of backing the political opposition in staging a coup [1].  After Maduro forced the removal of three American embassy staff from the country, the United States responded by ordering three Venezuelan diplomats to leave the U.S. [5].  While the United States has a long history of disagreement with the Venezuelan government, it is still the country’s main importer of oil.  Despite this conflict, Maduro is encouraging dialogue with the United States and has been quoted as having said in a speech that “U.S. society needs to know the truth about Venezuela” [5], however it is interesting to consider what “truth” he wishes to convey on an international stage especially given the reported heavy censorship of media within his own country and the denial of much of the violence that is occurring.

Learning more about the current state of unrest in Venezuela and a movement that began first and foremost with students, really led me to reflect on the role of education as a force for change.  As I think about college campuses around the United States today, I cannot help but feel that civic engagement is not as high as it may have been at other points in our country’s history.  While at the level of discourse surrounding education in the United States critical thinking skills are hailed as desired and necessary for innovation and progress, I am skeptical of whether youth in the United States today are encouraged to follow through with these critical skills when it comes to a number of political and social issues.

Education can be just as easily used as a force that maintains the status quo as it can as one for change.  It is intriguing to consider the conditions under which one force takes over the other, and what other factors might contribute to students’ feelings of empowerment to incite change in their own societies.

References

[1]http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-26335287

[2]http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/24/world/americas/venezuela-protests/

[3]http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/25/world/americas/in-venezuela-middle-class-joins-protests.html?hpw&rref=world&_r=1

[4] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/02/24/us-venezuela-protests-idUSBREA1N14E20140224

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2014/02/25/world/americas/25reuters-venezuela-protests.html?rref=world&module=Ribbon&version=origin&region=Header&action=click&contentCollection=World&pgtype=article

Community Colleges in Hong Kong: Are they helpful or harmful?

dilemma

When we mention the term “community college,” most of us will naturally relate it to the North American education system. Surprisingly, the Hong Kong government adopted the idea of community colleges in 2000. As Hong Kong’s education system is deeply based on the British model, introducing community colleges has not only been a dramatic change for educators and students, but also a huge mismatch of expectations among different stakeholders.

In North America, the system of community colleges is very well developed and has a long history. It first started in the early years of the twentieth century to cater to the need of the nation’s expanding industries. Community colleges are seen as important higher education institutions.[1] In addition, they have comprehensive articulation arrangements and credit transfer systems between community colleges and nearby four-year institutions. Therefore, students mostly are able to go on to obtain bachelor’s degrees.[2]

In Hong Kong, following the Annual Policy Address from the Chief Executive Tung Chee-Wah in 2000, the government encouraged establishing community colleges as a part of education reforms and life-long learning. It also aimed to have 60% of the senior secondary school leavers receive tertiary education in ten years.[3] In this context, the industry of community colleges has blossomed.

Eight public universities in Hong Kong, one after another, started setting up community colleges under their umbrellas.  Most of them have been self-financing. In other words, their income has depended heavily on the numbers of enrolled students. The speed of expansion has been incredible.

At the same time, the concept of community colleges has been a brand new idea to the general public in Hong Kong, partially because the education system has been greatly influenced by the UK model where community colleges are non-existent. Moreover, according to the traditional mindset, merely the top 18% of the post-secondary students are qualified to enter the formal tertiary institutions.[4] Those who cannot proceed to the mainstream universities would be considered to be academically inferior. Choosing the path of community colleges in Hong Kong would be one of the alternatives for students to try to find a way out.

The incorporation of the elements of the American education system into the British one triggered many problems. First, naming the Associate Degree Programs from community colleges as “sub-degree programs” would give a very wrong perception, implying the inferior status of the community college program to the bachelor’s degree programs. The notion would be radically different from the North American system, where community colleges have been considered to be a vital part of its higher education system.

Second, when community colleges were first established, all the parents, students, and educators lacked basic confidence in the Associate Degree Programs. They were unaware of where these diplomas would lead students to. Moreover, the idea of community colleges has not gained recognition from employers who received education in previous decades and had no concept of community colleges.  In other words, community colleges created much uncertainty in the society.

Third, as most of the community colleges are self-financed, they appear to use this opportunity to make education a business. Community colleges thus become one example of commercializing education. The more students community colleges enroll, the more profit they earn. In 2012, Lingnan Institute of Further Education and the Community College of Lingnan University admitted 5,300 new students, three times more than the previous year. Among other problems, there were reports of lacking chairs in classrooms.[5] This case caught the attention of the public, leading to the investigation by the Legislative Council. More importantly, however, it shook the foundation of trust in education quality in Hong Kong.

Fourth, an ongoing opening of new community colleges has led to over expansion. A total number of full-time accredited self-financing post-secondary programs jumped from 41 in the 2001/2002 academic year to 199 in the 2004/2005 academic year.[6]  It contributed to over supply of post-secondary degrees in Hong Kong, putting the quality of education into question.

Last but not least, the link between community colleges and universities have not been clearly established. Most of the students from community colleges who attempted to transfer into universities have failed to get admission to local tertiary institutions owing to fierce competition and highly selective admission conditions.[7] Even though some overseas universities have recognized the diplomas issued by community colleges in Hong Kong, a large percentage of local students could not afford paying the tuition fee and living expenses. Unfortunately, this group of students would end up facing a dilemma. They could neither have good jobs from employers nor gain access to bachelor’s degree programs.

Clearly, the community college system in Hong Kong needs a complete re-evaluation. Although the government would like to have almost everyone to receive post-secondary education, the solution of the community colleges has generated more difficulties.  The implementation of the community colleges in Hong Kong not only failed to capture the essence of the North American community college system, but also has revealed the shortsighted weakness of the HKSAR government.


[1] Yung, Man Sing (2005). Globalization and sustainability of the community college in the Asia-Pacific region: the case of Hong Kong and the Chinese Mainland. Hong Kong Teachers’ Centre Journal, 4,

[2] Brawer, F., Cohen, A. & Kisker, C. (2013). The American Community College, 6th ed.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.

[3] Yung, Man Sing (2002). Community College: A new born baby of the Hong Kong education system for the new millennium. Hong Kong Teachers’ Centre Journal, 1, 22.

[4] Time Out Group Limited (2013, August 27). Hong Kong’s growing shortage of university places. Retrieved March 4, 2014, from http://www.timeout.com.hk/big-smog/features/60578/hong-kongs-growing-shortage-of-university-places.html

[5] Chong, Dennis (2012, October 17). Lingnan students warn burgeoning numbers threaten education quality. South China Morning Post. Retrieved March 4, 2014, from http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1062640/lingnan-students-warn-burgeoning-numbers-threaten-education-quality

6 Yung, Man Sing (2005). Globalization and sustainability of the community college in the Asia-Pacific region: the case of Hong Kong and the Chinese Mainland. Hong Kong Teachers’ Centre Journal, 4. 

7 Yung, Man Sing (2002). Community College: A new born baby of the Hong Kong education system for the new millennium. Hong Kong Teachers’ Centre Journal, 1, 22.