Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 57 | Marzo 1986



Nicaragua’s Universities in Transition

Envío team

On January 10, 1812, by decree of the court of Cadiz, the Seminary of San Ramon, (Tridentine College), which had been founded in the city of Leon, Nicaragua, 42 years earlier, acquired the rank of university. The conservative government of Fernando Guzman closed the university in 1869 and confiscated all its property as punishment for having published a document considered revolutionary. In 1888, under the government of Joaquin Zavala, it was reopened and a university was started in Granada as well. These actions were more a result of public demand for social development than of any liberal ideas that the reactionary Conservative Party President may have had. During the Liberal Revolutionary government of Santos Zelaya, however, these advances in higher education were consolidated. After Zelaya was overthrown with US influence and blessing, the universities were again closed in 1913, and some professors and cultural figures were even exiled or assassinated.

With the passage of Decree 466 on March 27, 1947, the University of Leon became the National University. On May 5, 1966, by virtue of Decree 105 from the Political Constitution of the Republic of Nicaragua, it was officially declared the Autonomous National University of Nicaragua (UNAN). Since its founding, the central campus of the UNAN has been in the city of Leon, with branches in Managua, Carazo and Esteli. In 1982, the UNAN was separated into two independent campuses, each with its own rector—one in Leon, which continues to be the central campus, and one in Managua.

Since the overthrow of Zelaya, the interests of the groups that usurped power during each historical period have determined Nicaragua's higher education system. The universities in particular have been closely tied to government. The successive governments of the Somoza dynasty from 1937 to July 19, 1979, maintained tight control over them and used them for their own ends.

The universities served the government in two ways: in its competition with the other Central American countries in the education field, bestowing a "cultured" image on the country, and in maintaining a system through which certain social groups added to their prestige. The universities in the first decades of this century had an eminently social function. Their emphasis on the humanities was designed to ennoble the already economically privileged minority.

In 1937, when Anastasio Somoza Garcia took power, the universities' graduating classes had barely 300 students, distributed among socially "prestigious" careers, such as law, medicine and pharmacology. The curriculum at the universities, like the country's entire education system, was completely unrelated to the population's fundamental needs or the country's agricultural economy.

Neither during the rise of coffee as a principal export nor during the cotton boom in 1950-55 was the education of Nicaragua's manual labor force considered a necessity; neither crop requires literate workers. As long as production was essentially agricultural, it wasn’t necessary to create a body of technicians. The traditional skills of the agricultural worker (coffee or cotton picker, pruner, etc.) were learned within the family, traditionally knowledgeable in this type of work, or from contact with other workers. Investing resources to educate the landless peasant masses created by the period’s economic structure was seen as not only useless but detrimental to the interests of the government and the landowners.

According to the 1971 biography, Mariano Fiallos, written by Sergio Ramirez Mercado, the total student population in 1950 consisted of 490 students; in 1952 it reached 950 and in 1957 dropped back to 919. The above figures are revealing, given that there were 160,658 university-age youths (between 18 and 25) in Nicaragua in 1950, and by 1955 this number had climbed to 174,487. In short, as Ramirez points out, only 0.004% of them reached the university classroom.

The number of professional degrees given is equally revealing. According to the National Council of Economy's Estudios de la Educacion en Nicaragua, 759 professionals graduated from the National University between 1951 and 1962. Of these, 323 graduated in law, 283 in medicine, 94 in pharmacology, 16 in dentistry, 15 in obstetrics and only 28 in civil engineering.

New development phase, new education needs

In 1960, there was a change in the university system. The country had entered into a new phase of economic development that required a certain amount of education. The businessmen directing the new enterprises related to coffee and cotton production couldn’t perform all the tasks required in the commercialization of these products.

The national census of 1963, the beginning of the dependent industrialization period, showed that 991,943 persons over 10 years of age were living in the country. Of this figure, only 5% (50,000) had finished elementary school and only 6,259 had gone beyond the equivalent of junior high. The number of professionals satisfied only 19% of the demand. The universities then became institutions for reproducing the knowledge and skills needed by the entrepreneurs of the country’s nascent industrialization. This, in turn, gave rise to a proliferation of careers and institutions of higher education.

The number of university career majors rose from 9 to 20 between 1960 and 1969 and had reached 36 by 1978. In that 1960-78 period, the number of higher education centers grew to 11: the Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN); the University of Central America (UCA); the Polytechnic University (UPOLI); the Private Autonomous University-Center for Higher Studies (UPACES); the National School of Agriculture and Livestock (ENAG); the Central American Institute for Business Administration (INCAE); the National School of Nursing (ENE); the Technological Institute for Higher Studies (ITESNIC); the Public Accounting School of Nicaragua (ECPN); the Commercial Sciences Center (CCC) and the National Education and Sciences Center (CENEC).

The careers offered through these centers were again directed toward the needs of the entrepreneurs and not those of the population. Three-quarters of the students were in business-related careers, and identical courses were offered at the majority of the different schools.

This proliferation of university level educational centers, beyond responding to the demand of the Nicaraguan business class, served another purpose: to draw students away from the UNAN. During the Somoza period, this university again became a dangerous area, this time to the hegemonic and life-long interests of the Somoza regime. The student body gained an awareness of the national situation and became progressively more politicized. Student demands grew more numerous and the population responded to the call. In light of this, dispersal of the students among various centers was an intelligent maneuver. Since the government viewed the UNAN as a “hotbed of communism,” the creation of other “apolitical” educational centers was necessary to counteract the supposed spread of Marxism among the students, which posed a threat to a regime such as Somoza’s.

At this point the UCA, a private university run by the Jesuit order, appeared on the scene. Its creation responded to a dual objective. First, it provided an institution of higher learning that was an alternative to the UNAN and would counteract the Marxist orientation that it was claimed dominated the National University, “causing” the nation's troubles and popular discontent. A university run by priests would guarantee the defense of traditional Christian principles (which in Nicaragua have historically blessed private property and the constituted authority), oversee discipline and order among the student body and lead the way in the anti-communist struggle.

Second, this university would fill a gap for the private sector, which had been calling for the creation of an adequate private university for the education of their children. The parents of students in the Central American High School and other exclusive private schools felt "obliged" to send their children outside the country to pursue university educations. A university system needed to be created that would respond to all these interests and simultaneously guarantee the preparation of the solid, serious professionals private enterprise needed. Using the arguments of anti-ommunism, an improvement in academic quality and the offer of "modern" careers, the UCA in fact became a private university for the private sector. It began by simply repeating some of the same careers as the UNAN.

Enrollment at the universities progressively increased beginning with the 1960s. By 1979, the universities boasted an enrollment of 26,473 students from the country's middle and upper classes. Access to university was limited to the children of families from the most powerful sectors. In Managua, the city with the largest number of students, they were from families involved in private business and the commercial sector. In other parts of the country, only families in export commerce or the large landowners who farmed coffee, cotton and cattle could afford to send their children to the cities for a university education.

The university as a political arena

Despite the elitist and repressive atmosphere at Nicaragua's universities, they have traditionally been the origin of nonconformity and of resistance to a political system based on the interests of a small minority that relegates the majority of the population to misery and exploitation. In Nicaragua, as in all of Latin America, the universities have had an undeniable influence on revolutionary processes by providing a certain margin of legitimacy and freedom in which consciousness-raising can take place. At many points in Nicaragua's history, they have provided the only space for criticism, the only space within which students and authorities together questioned repression.

In May 1957, Somoza appointed Dr. Mariano Fiallos Gil, a progressive opponent of the regime, as rector of UNAN. It was an intelligent maneuver by a dictator who needed to soften his public image to remain in power. The student body was a formidable enemy and at the time it was necessary to give the impression of an opening. Upon assuming the rectorship, Dr. Fiallos demanded the concession of autonomy. On March 27, 1959, Decree 37 was passed granting the university autonomy in its curriculum, administration and finances.

Autonomy had been a dream of students and professors for many years, not only in Nicaragua but in all of Latin America, especially since the Cordoba movement of 1918. Outstanding in Nicaragua's history of higher education were the student leaders of the 1944-47 academic years, who despite violent reprisals by the military repeatedly advocated the separation of university control and administration from the state. The slogan at the time was "We fight for a unified, autonomous, and popular central university." This objective, present in the students' demands for generations, was also a goal of many of the university authorities and even some parliamentarians.

Autonomy, the open attitude of the new rector towards the students and the work of some student leaders—FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca Amador among them—permitted a qualitative leap in the student movement. On July 23, 1959, one of the most violent and inhumane student massacres took place. Somoza’s National Guard opened fire on a peaceful demonstration organized by students to protest events at El Chaparral, Honduras. Four people were killed and 41 wounded. This marked the birth of a new student movement and intensified the confrontations between the Somoza government and the universities. Despite this, the universities’ autonomy grew and the work between students and authorities became better coordinated. Fiallos’ open support of the student body and against the repressive Somoza regime left no doubt that a space for political freedom and organization would develop inside the university and that this space would grow and be consolidated in the future.

The student body was changing its view of the role it should play given the country's reality. Nicaragua's worsening economic situation, resulting from the country's role as a dependent agro-exporter, caused serious social problems. The standard of living was falling, while unemployment and underemployment figures were on the rise. Discontent became generalized and the only method the government had to address this unrest was repression. The most progressive elements viewed the situation as unbearable and the impact was felt at the university level as well. The student body passed from a stage of struggling for student rights in particular to a stage of struggling for the rights of the exploited working class and the oppressed masses in general. It was within this context and as an expression of this shift in the student struggle that the shooting of Anastasio Somoza Garcia by university student Rigoberto López Pérez took place.

The universities were an unmanageable problem for the Somoza dynasty. Students found the necessary atmosphere for their work in the university halls. From there, they supported the strikes and demonstrations launched against Somoza by outside organizations. From there, they worked to raise the consciousness of the general population and were so successful that the poor classes expressed the greatest solidarity with the students during the fiercest periods of repression. Their willingness to struggle against tyranny aroused general sympathy and people began to cover up for their activities.

Somoza lashed out in myriad ways against the institution that caused him so many problems, but by the time he became aware of the real danger it represented for his permanence in power, it was too late. On various occasions, he sent in the National Guard, which burned or otherwise destroyed university facilities or materials. But with each occupation, each act of aggression, the university would grow stronger as a site for ideological struggle against the dictatorship. In this atmosphere, revolutionary leaders surfaced who today occupy high positions of leadership in government.

The university since July 1979

One of the new government’s top priorities was to turn education into a factor in the transformation of the country. Since the deformities in the Somoza education system were clear at a glance, it was obvious that the system itself would have to be radically transformed.

Like the rest of the country, the university system was faced with the challenge of national reconstruction and the forging of a new individual. The university, however, lacked adequate planning capabilities to restructure the whole educational system. A plethora of faculties and centers had been created under Somoza with the sole objective of providing access to high income jobs or simply social prestige. It was necessary to end this abuse and create a body or institution to implement a new definition of principles and objectives that would serve as a base for reorienting the university system. On February 29, 1980, the Government of National Reconstruction created the National Council for Higher Education (CNES) as a central organization charged with implementing pertinent changes in the higher education system. The council was originally made up of Dr. Sergio Ramirez Mercado (currently Vice-President of the country) serving as president, and the rectors of the two existing major universities, the UNAN and the UCA.

Restructuring the universities
and transforming the curriculum

In 1979, there were 11 centers of higher education—10 in Managua and one in Leon (the UNAN with branches in Managua, Carazo, Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas). Each offered similar careers. It was urgent to find a rational way out of this chaos. The first task of CNES was to restructure and transform the existing centers and careers to meet the country's immediate demand for skilled technicians and professionals. Such skills were desperately needed to get the country's institutions off the ground. The criteria for restructuring these centers included reducing the number of unnecessary careers, regrouping centers to better distribute the country's scarce resources, changing the course content in certain majors and appointing faculty members in line with the country's new social, political and economic reality.

UNAN’s Department of Economic Sciences absorbed the majors offered at the Private Autonomous University of Higher Study (UPACES). The ECPN, CCC and CENEC were also phased out and their students were placed in the Economic Science and Educational Science departments at the UNAN. The UNAN campuses at Carazo, Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas were closed. The nursing school, ENE, was placed under the Ministry of Health, while the School of Agriculture and Livestock, ENAG, was absorbed by the UNAN and became its Department of Agricultural Sciences. It has since been transformed into the Institute of Agricultural Sciences.

In 1982 technical centers like the International School of Agriculture and Livestock (ALAG-Rivas), the La Salle Technical Institute (ITLS) in Estelí run by the Christian Brothers Schools, the Nicaraguan Technical Institute (INTECNA-Granada) and Nicaragua's Polytechnic University became Institutes of Higher Technical Education and passed from the authority of the Ministry of Education to CNES.

On April 28, 1982, the UNAN in Leon was officially divided into two campuses, one in Managua, one in Leon, with independent faculties, administrative bodies and rectories. In 1983, the Simón Bolivar National Engineering University was created, which absorbed all engineering majors previously offered at the UNAN and the UCA. At the same time, all the majors in the humanities previously offered at the UNAN moved to the UCA.

Currently, higher education is one of the five sub-systems that come under the National Educational System (SEN). SEN is a new structure based on the concept that education is a single process made up of several progressive formative levels, which should be organized according to the Principles and Goals of Nicaraguan Education, promulgated on March 1, 1983.

The restructuring of the universities and technical schools was followed by the restructuring of majors. In 1979 81 majors were offered in higher education institutions, 56 of them university level and 25 technical. In 1984, the number of majors had increased to 110, 72 at the university level and 38 at the technical level. There are now 17 graduate degrees offered in the country as well. Of the majors existing in 1979, 15 have been eliminated at the university level and eight at the technical level because they were considered unnecessary or of low priority within the new occupational profile of higher education. For example, Didactics and Tourism were eliminated at the universities, while Interior Decorating and International Commerce were eliminated from the technical schools. Eleven more university careers and four technical careers are being phased out. Since 1979, 13 high-priority university careers have been created, including nutrition and mechanical, electrical and industrial engineering. In the technical field, agronomy, zoology, agricultural mechanics and 14 other careers were opened. The majority of the new majors created have been in the area of higher technical education. All are becoming more accessible nationwide. In 1980, the Northern Regional University Center was opened in Esteli. La Trinidad Nursing School (EET-Esteli) and the Puerto Cabezas Nursing School (EEPC-Zelaya) were opened in 1982.

In 1980, the transformation of curriculum and course content itself began. In 1979 curriculums for university careers with the exception of math and physics included a first year of general study. In 1982, this initial year of basic studies was replaced with four courses, basic math, general biology, Spanish and history of the revolution, which are now part of the basic requirements for all university careers.

The previous credit system, which perpetuated students' stay at the university indefinitely and increased costs considerably, was also eliminated. Under the credit system, students were not obligated to take any set number of courses a year, but could take as many or as few as they desired. Some students had spent up to ten years at a university. That old system was replaced by a semester system that better suits the country's present needs by reducing costs and being more in line with the current educational objectives. Under the present semester system, students are required to take a set number of courses per semester, depending on their chosen career, to assure that they advance along some relatively set schedule. If students fail two or less courses in a semester, they are allowed to repeat the failed courses along with the next semester's required course schedule. If they fail more than two, however, they are not allowed to advance to the next semester before repeating the failed courses.

Despite its advantages, the semester system has generated some problems. It leads to a certain rigidity in course scheduling, makes it practically impossible for students to take advantage of visiting professors due to conflicts in scheduling and makes it very difficult to set up research programs that involve students from different courses.

The new study plans were drawn up with a central focus on the occupational profile of each career, so that the academic programs and careers would respond to the country’s needs. This curriculum revision is continuing. Inexperience and the emotional momentum of the initial period gave rise to reforms that were too accelerated and didn’t take the university community’s opinions adequately into account. Furthermore, the occupational profiles of some careers weren’t sufficiently defined. It is anticipated that this stage of transformation, begun in 1982 and reinitiated in 1985, will be completed in 1987. In addition to conforming course content to present occupational profiles, this transformation process is tending towards greater flexibility in the length of semesters, contingent on the complexity of the career and the number of electives chosen.

Hands-on experience

A significant advance in university and technical education is the introduction of a methodology that allows students to gain hands-on experience in their field or area of specialization. On November 18, 1982, the Government Junta passed the Law of Encouragement and Promotion of Production Practice in Higher Education. The law's first article states:

“It is considered of social and public interest to encourage and promote activities designed to link professors and students of higher education to the different sectors of Nicaraguan society and the economy, with the objective of combining study with work and acquiring professional benefits, a technical and revolutionary preparation that is closely tied to the national reality.”

The combining of theory and practice, the students’ participation in the tasks of their specialty and the time spent with workers in their particular field learning their problems, are all part of this law’s proposed objectives. It is an effort to familiarize students with their occupation so that upon leaving the university they aren’t shocked by the difference between what they learned in the classroom and what’s required of them on the job.

Presently, 200 hours of work/study are required from all university students and the curriculum reforms for 1987 consider the possibility of increasing that number, depending on the career. The first 100 hours of work/ study are done in the first years of study. This is an exploratory stage in which the students get accustomed to work. The second stage is devoted to the student's area of specialization and is more related to the occupational profile of the student's career. For those in the fields of medicine, pharmacology and dentistry, taught principally in Leon, practical work experience begins in their first year in the university. In fact, students in the pharmacology department produce 25 of the medicines used in the country today. An effort is being made to establish a balance between scientific knowledge and concrete practice in order to better prepare the students to confront the future in their occupations.

Another important aspect of this effort is the “Campaigns for Scientific Development,” started in 1982. These campaigns, in which students and teachers are encouraged to find alternative solutions to the nation's problems, are designed to develop their interest in science, technology and research. In 1985 alone 250 study projects were launched in areas such as infrastructure, nutrition and health.

Yet another way of introducing students to the field of production is through their participation in the coffee harvest during their vacation. School vacations in Nicaragua run from the end of November to the end of February and university students generally join the Student Production Brigades (BEPs). More than 20,000 young people participate in these coffee picking brigades annually.

While there have been many advances in the effort to provide students with this variety of experience, there’s a problem: the country's businesses can’t absorb the thousands of students who seek work/study projects yearly. In many cases, there are scheduling problems, or projects are planned that don’t coincide with a student's particular interests or theoretical level. For example, engineering students have ended up planting trees when they should have been participating in the construction of bridges. Attempts have been made to better coordinate work/study programs with the different business enterprises, but often the latter’s interests in efficiency preclude the integration of future professionals into their concrete plans.

Shifting the skews

Education has clearly been one of the new government's priorities. Since 1979, its goal has been to increase student's access to education and create adequate study conditions. The country badly needs new professionals and technicians and a great effort has been made to increase enrollment in these areas. The number of university graduates rose from 21,062 in 1979 to 34,211 in 1984, an increase of 62.4%. The lack of a coherent admissions policy before 1979 resulted in a deformed enrollment structure, reflected in the first years after the triumph. Of the 53% percent of the students who enrolled in 1979, 28.4% were in non-priority careers. Economics and business had almost as many graduates as agriculture, medicine and education put together.

Even among the students pre-registered for night school in November 1985, there was an exaggerated number of business-related majors. An upper limit of 300 was placed on the number of slots available in each of the business-related majors, but there were 700 applicants in administration, 517 in economics and 504 in accounting for the 1986 academic year. Despite this skewed emphasis on business and economics, which will have to be corrected with a gradual orientation to the vocational careers, 70% of the estimated student body for 1986 is enrolled in prioritized programs. In 1984 enrollment in Agricultural Sciences was five times greater than it was in 1979, while enrollment tripled in medicine. The number of students enrolled in technical careers rose from 7.9% in 1979-80 to 17.7% in 1984-85.

In 1980, as part of the policy of educational growth, the new Preparatory Department was created and added to UNAN in Managua and Leon. Its purpose was to incorporate low-income students and peasants into higher education. Intensive preparatory education is offered in this department, which takes less time than the normal high school program. After three years in this intensive program, the student can choose between the fields of medicine, education and agriculture, prioritized throughout the higher education system. The Preparatory Department currently has 1,388 students—95% of whom are on full scholarship and 5% of whom receive partial scholarships. Despite such efforts to incorporate youths from rural and isolated areas into higher education, university graduates are still primarily from Managua (82.6%) and Leon (14.2). The remaining 3.2% are from the rest of the country. Although the war and the precarious economic situation limit initiatives, it will be necessary to increase the scholarship program and seek alternatives for a more equitable distribution of educational opportunities. Once again, the gap between what is desired and what reality permits is great.

An urgent need for professors

Historically, university teachers had never received sufficient or sustained incentives. The low salaries and the limits on educational resources discouraged teaching as a career. Immediately after the insurrection, these factors were compounded with others of a different nature. On the one hand, the best faculty at the universities went to work for the government. The task of organizing a new state was very complex and required the efforts of well trained personnel able to deal with this great challenge. Another group left the country after July 1979, either for political or personal reasons.

It was necessary to seek alternative solutions at the very moment when the restructuring and strengthening of the educational system was being planned. There were two solutions: to promote the cooperation of foreign teachers and to seek teachers from the university student body. These were not ideal solutions, but they were feasible ones.

In the second year after the insurrection, the UCA, for example, had approximately 60% foreign professors. That figure has now dropped to 25%, which is about the same as at Nicaragua’s other universities. The experience with foreign teachers has been positive. In general, they’ve been well-qualified professionals with a great desire to serve Nicaragua. Their support has been and continues to be of great value and they have been able to adapt well to the emergency and survival situation that afflicts the universities just as it afflicts the rest of the country. Impressive efforts have been made to proceed with research projects and experiments despite the scarcity of available resources in the university.

Another solution to the shortage of professors in the country is the use of student assistants. In order to become an assistant, the student's academic performance and teaching ability is reviewed, and qualifying students receive methodology courses for the subjects they will teach. They also participate in weekly tutorials with designated professors according to prior planning. These student assistants serve as a supplement to the regular faculty, but in the long run the quality of education at the university level cannot rest upon their shoulders. Even the most advanced students can’t be expected to have professional experience or expertise. To a certain extent, a measure taken as a response to an immediate need has become an indefinite and inadequate cure to the shortage of faculty, and university authorities have recognized this problem. The student assistant program is continuing to be promoted, but with a different thrust, which is to convert this emergency response into a training program for teachers. The experience has proven valuable in promoting the pursuit of teaching as a career, something badly needed at the university level.

Universities know no borders

Nicaragua urgently needs prepared personnel in technical and professional fields where there’s a lack. In today’s difficult economic situation, the country isn’t able to train such personnel, so it has solicited the collaboration of friendly governments or universities in different countries. In 1980, the response to Nicaragua's request permitted 266 students to enroll in undergraduate programs in European and Latin American universities.

This initiative has broadened in accordance with increased solidarity from foreign governments and universities and has been very effective. Czechoslovakia, East and West Germany and other European countries have offered significant assistance. The University of Barcelona and the Engineering School of Spain have specific programs in support of higher education in Nicaragua. Mexico has also offered scholarships in postgraduate studies. Cuba has been the most helpful of all, placing its educational centers at the disposal of Nicaraguan students. At present, Nicaragua is sending students abroad to study in 245 different specialties. Animal genetics, chemical technology, plastics production, land development, geology and transportation are just some of these specialties.

The contingent of students studying abroad has increased yearly, as the chart below shows. The assignments of scholarships have also improved considerably. Initially, the selection of students and careers was improvisational, and as a result was not what it should have been. Now one important policy of the scholarship program is to prioritize poorer students. In addition, the scholarship programs have been regionalized and the CNES planning and budget secretary determines the selection of careers and specialties that students can participate in abroad.

A study is done of the needs of each region’s production areas, and scholarships are assigned to the regions in accord with these needs. Only students from the given region can take advantage of these scholarships. The objective is to give rural youths the opportunity to receive professional training while guaranteeing that graduates will return to the areas where they are most urgently needed: their places of origin. For example, Regions V (Chontales-Boaco) and II (Leon-Chinandega) are assigned scholarships in the areas of geology, mining geology and mine exploration because these areas are rich in mineral deposits now being explored by the government in collaboration with Sweden. Veterinary medicine has become a priority for Regions V and VI (Matagalpa-Jinotega) because they are major livestock producers.

By now, 102 graduates of the foreign scholarship programs have returned. Of these, 80 have graduated in technical fields. In 1986, 180 more graduates are expected back. CNES, in coordination with the Ministry of Planning, has already found placements for these students upon their return, several of them as part of the trained personnel needed by the ministries.

The new professionals

“What we’re going to do now is go where there are diseases spreading, tend to the patients, principally the poor, and give back to the people what they’ve given us.” These are the words of a student from the first class of medical interns at the graduation ceremonies in January of this year. Currently more than 200 Nicaraguan doctors are lending their services in the rural areas of the traditional marginalized regions. In February of 1986, the first agricultural engineers (133) to have received all their education since the revolution began work in dozens of agricultural development projects around the country. Since July 1979, 3,000 technicians and technical assistants have completed their education and are now working in rural areas. This figure represents 42% of the technical personnel to have graduated in the last 50 years.

Those who have benefited from the modifications in curriculums and careers have in general acquired a new conscience. The young professionals who are graduating today are much more committed to responding to their country's needs and fulfilling their social service with revolutionary spirit than they are to the love of money that motivated many students in choosing their careers before the revolution. The change hasn’t been magical, and certainly a change in structures doesn’t automatically indicate a change in conscience, but the advances have been notable. “To efficiently fulfill the tasks of our profession by investigating the problems of our national reality and seeking concrete responses to them” is the commitment of a group of sociologists who graduated from the UCA in December 1985.

There are no overall statistics on the distribution of graduates in professional careers for the past two years, but provision for social service has been made within the university structure and in coordination with different ministries. For two years after they finish college, young professionals fulfill their social services according to their specialties in the areas where their presence is most urgently needed. Because of the war, Regions I, V and VI have been designated prioritized attention zones. Consequently, all graduates from the School of Medicine have been placed in these zones for the last two years.

Levels of participation in education

The creation of CNES as the coordinating body of the Higher Education Sub-system has enabled the university sectors to take part in management of the whole system. At present, the groups participating in CNES, in addition to four university rectors and an executive secretary, include representatives of the Nicaraguan National Student Union (UNEN), the Association of Educational Workers (ATD), the National Educators' Association (ANDEN), the Sandinista Worker's Central (CST) and the Sandinista Youth-July 19 (JS-19). UNEN, ATD-ANDEN, JS-19 and the Association of Professionals (CONAPRO) are also participating in the national scholarship commission, the body with the final decision on recipients, programs and geographical regions. The commission that analyzes the universities' income statements is made up of members from ATD-ANDEN and the Ministry of Education (MED). In the universities, ATD and UNEN also participate in the University Council. Students take part in the Scholarship Commission through UNEN and in other bodies such as disciplinary commissions.

There is also effective cooperation with the productive sector in certain activities. The Health Ministry (MINSA) provides assistance in coordination and advice for health-related projects. Agricultural production is coordinated with MIDINRA, the Ministry of Agrarian Reform. An effort is being made to promote more coordinated work between MED and CNES.

There is the impression that differences in conception about the kind of professionals the country needs aren’t always easily resolved. This has given rise to gaps in the curriculum due to lack of continuity. The authorities are aware of this and are seeking channels for better integration. Perhaps in the future it will prove necessary to have a single body in charge of all the subsystems. Initially, the multiplication of administrative entities may have been the only way to restructure the country at different levels, but with the passing of the initial emergency, this multiplicity tends to create a bureaucratic apparatus that impedes rather than facilitates management and fluid communication.

The student body has played an important role in the development of education. As has been mentioned, students were very active in the universities, especially in the final years of the dictatorship. They took to the streets more than once for the liberation of their student leaders when Somoza imprisoned them. It wasn’t easy to integrate youth who had been planning and carrying out such militant acts against the Somoza government into the process of reconstructing the country. But the FSLN’s triumph was the triumph of students, organizations and people in general. The student leaders were now becoming prominent figures of the new government.

The desire to contribute to the construction of a new model of society and national reconstruction in all fields reached the students as well. University work took on a new meaning in light of this task, which involves everyone. The discussion focused more on consolidating the national revolutionary process than small student demands. The climate was right for initiating a change. The students went from being fierce opponents to being ardent collaborators.

University autonomy has to be mentioned in this context. Legally, nothing has changed in relation to the autonomy decreed in 1959 and included in the Constitution on May 7, 1966. There is freedom of curriculum and each rector has control over personnel appointments and study program design within the general lines of the curriculum transformation. Autonomy is viewed more as an opportunity for integration in the service of a national project than as a space for antagonizing the government authorities. This is because the revolutionary project is conceived of as a sociopolitical project guided by the logic of the grassroots majorities. The criticisms of university professionals should respond to this project as long as it maintains this direction.

This is not to say that there have been no errors or dogmatisms in the last five years. There are professors who, believing themselves the defenders of orthodoxy, have been unable to accept criticisms of the nature of the transformation of the university and the nation. There are also the "textbook types" for whom the only valid interpretation of Marxist tradition is that of the particular author. There are students, too, who receive the healthy criticisms of their contemporaries negatively, accusing them of being counterrevolutionaries. Fortunately, this isn’t the present trend and space for criticism and openness to different currents of thought is greater than ever.

Repercussions of the war

The war is a reality that is present in all spheres of socioeconomic and political life In Nicaragua, and education hasn’t escaped the direct and indirect effects that this situation provokes in all areas. The economic crisis that the country is suffering has had a great impact on the availability of the materials needed for normal development. One of the greatest problems has been the lack of textbooks for each of the specialties, and the lack of supporting texts. In 1983, only slightly more than 150,000 reference texts were available in the whole higher education system, and of these, many were for outdated courses. Thus, the curriculum transformation wasn’t accompanied by the necessary bibliography updated in accord with the new course offerings. There are still courses without a supporting bibliography, and others don’t even have a basic text. Some professors are obliged to “dictate” their classes so their students will have some references. Others make multiple copies of their personal texts and distribute them among students, but paper and other reproduction technologies are in scarce supply as well.

In 1982, CNES took on the task of centralizing of available resources for the acquisition and distribution of texts according to the needs of each educational facility. In 1983, a total freeze was placed on the purchase of textbooks. The higher learning centers received about 13,000 books as donations in that year. This situation persisted with some variations during 1984 and 1985. In 1986, CNES plans to buy 600,000 texts that will be distributed in the study centers and in bookstores for sale to the public. This has been made possible by the collaboration of the Cuban government, which has agreed to print them at a minimal cost. The texts, by authors of various nationalities, will mainly cover the prioritized subjects.

This problem has profound effects on the quality of teaching, limits the capacity for research and slows the development of the future transformations. The situation is similar in the areas of experimentation and research. Laboratories that are only partially functional and the lack of spare parts and raw materials have affected higher technical education. Complex investigations have been modified in favor of projects that are less ambitious and have fundamental applications in the service area. For example, studies done on cotton pests have contributed to a substantial reduction in the use of chemical pesticides and to considerable foreign exchange savings.

Another factor imposed by the war is the disruption caused by the draft. The institution of military service in 1983 because of the war of aggression imposed by the United States has affected the university. Many draft-age students have had to fulfill this patriotic duty, temporarily abandoning their studies. There’s no statistical data to indicate the number of students mobilized in military service, but university enrollment has dropped from 36,151 in 1983, the highest enrollment ever, to 29,141 in 1985.

In November 1985, the first contingent of men and women who had completed their two years of military service was demobilized. Many were university students called up before finishing their degrees. The search for alternatives to somehow make up for the time they were out of the classroom has been a primary concern of the educational authorities. Several proposals have been discussed, including special accelerated courses to replace the lost semesters in a few months.

Implementing this system in practice, however, has proven unfeasible. The demobilized students are all in different stages of different programs, and responding to each of these would mean creating a duplicate system that would further tax the already scarce economic and human resources in the present system. The authorities opted for another possible solution; to set up refresher courses for the returning students, seeking to bring them up to date in the fundamental courses. These courses were offered in all universities beginning in January and in March when the school year begins the students will be integrated into the semester they were enrolled in when they were mobilized.

Fundamental challenges and problems

The essential challenge facing the Nicaraguan universities today is the consolidation of its transformation: to overcome what it inherited from the elitist past and be a bulwark in the creation of a future that benefits the people. Given this task, there are four important problems impeding the consolidation:

1. The low level of academic performance: The reality of this problem was recognized by university education specialists, professors and students, and was the focus of an open debate in 1985. The war and its consequences, the lack of materials for research, scarcity of didactic and bibliographical material and the multiple demands placed upon students in this emergency period seem to be the immediate causes of this deficiency. More generally, the reasons lie in poor secondary school preparation and the accentuated lack of good study habits that students and not a few professors bring to university work.

The following are indicators of this poor performance. In 1983, only 48.4% of the 4,751 university level students in agricultural sciences were promoted. In the same year, only 35.5% of 6,386 students in technological studies were promoted (unofficial CNES data). In 1984 at the Managua campus of UNAN, only 30 of the 2,540 students who took the entrance exam passed the math section (Nuevo Diario, 1-13-84). At the end of the semester in July 1985, 70% of the university students had to take make-up exams (Barricada, 7-4-85).

2. Bureaucracy and lack of coordination: The university is not exclusive in this defect. It has been denounced in all the ministries and an effort has been made to overcome it. In the university this problem could have greater consequences in the long run, not only because of the time now wasted in paperwork and list-making that directly accompany each course, but also because it underlines the danger of converting the whole educational process into a formalism that’s content with well-formulated ceremonies and lists.

The integration of the different educational subsystems from pre-school to higher education has been deficient. With unified coordination, it will be possible to improve academic performance as long as coordination doesn’t become a new source of bureaucracy.

3. Labor indiscipline: The fundamental work of the university for students and professors is study and research to throw light on Nicaragua's present situation, with an eye towards consolidating the revolutionary project. Absenteeism, tardiness and progressive abandonment of work, as much among professors as students, has been noted by many as one of the greatest problems today. There are many opportunities to avoid work: celebrations, student elections, administrative meetings and unpostponable tasks in the barrio, the countryside and the city. To the extent that these opportunities are multiplied, a decrease can be expected in enthusiasm and productivity in a community that has already been depleted by the necessary defense mobilization.

4. Bad habits of an elitist mentality: The traditional view of higher education as the best way to gain social recognition has not yet completely disappeared. The Nicaraguan university can’t be used as a springboard for greater personal prestige and higher income.

The definitive point of reference for the university has to be a people working at all levels for the traditionally impoverished majority.

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