Bolivian Students Clash with Police

On April 21, 2004, thousands of students from the Bolivian University federation took to the streets to demand a budget increase from the government of President Carlos Mesa to fund programs.

About Bolivia

A landlocked country in west central South America, Bolivia straddles the central Andes Mountains. Nicknamed the “Rooftop of the World” because of its high elevation, it is bordered by Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Peru. La Paz is the capital and largest city. It is well endowed with natural resources, but the high costs of production, lack of investment, inadequate internal transport and a landlocked location have limited its development. Average annual family income is one-third less than the rest of Latin America. Only Haiti’s average is lower in all of the Western Hemisphere. Spanish is the official language.

Bolivia Map

Bolivia became a republic in 1835, gaining independence from Spain. It is named for Simon Bolivar, the liberator of South America. Civilized cultures have lived in the area for more than 1,000 years. The ancient Tiahuanaco civilization developed along Lake Titicaca around AD 600 and left impressive stone monuments. Little is known about the origins of this group. In about 1300 the Quechua-speaking Incas, who came across the lake from present-day Peru, overran Tiahuanaco. The Spaniards arrived in the early 16th century and took advantage of civil strive and division among the Inca to conquer the empire.

Education in Bolivia

Teaching mission from Belgium arrived in the early 1900s and, over a 30 year time, accomplished a foundation for rural primary education. In 1931 Elizardo Pérez founded a large nuclear school near Lake Titicaca. Smaller satellite schools in nearby settlements supplemented the nuclear school’s offerings. This arrangement became the image for rural education in the Andes.

A Literacy Class
A Literacy Class in the Andes

Primary education is nominally free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6 and 14. the public schools, although increasing in number, do not meet the needs of Bolivia. The nation’s literacy rate is 96%. In 1996 almost all children were listed in primary schools. Only 42% of secondary school-aged children attended school.

Enrollment in institutions of higher education was 25%. Bolivia has ten universities: in Sucre, La Paz, Cochabamba, Llallagua, Oruro, Potosí, Santa Cruz, Tarija, and Trinidad. San Francisco Xavier University, in Sucre, is one of the oldest in the Americas. The University of San Andrés, in La Paz, is the largest university in Bolivia, with a student enrollment of about 37,100.

Chronic political instability hindered the development of general education throughout Bolivia’s history. In the colonial era, education was limited to a few clergy acting as tutors for the sons of elite families. Little effort was made to teach the Indians beyond the bare necessity to convert them. Independence brought a series of ambitious decrees calling for universal, compulsory primary education and a public school system; nonetheless, little was accomplished. By 1900 schools existed primarily to serve urban elites. No vocational or agricultural institutes existed in the country. Only 17 percent of the adult population was literate.

A teaching mission from Belgium arrived in the early 1900s and, over a thirty-year period, established a foundation for rural primary education. In 1931 Elizardo Pérez founded a large nuclear school (a central school with five to eight grades) near Lake Titicaca. Smaller satellite schools in nearby settlements supplemented the nuclear school’s offerings. This arrangement became the prototype for rural education in the Andes.

Overall, however, little real expansion of educational opportunities occurred. A 1947 law calling for an end to illiteracy drew attention to the government’s limited capacity for action in this area. It required that every literate Bolivian teach at least one other to read and write and levied fines for adult illiteracy. On the eve of the 1952 Revolution, less than one-third of the adult population was literate.

Legislation in 1956 laid the foundation for the public education system in force in the late 1980s. The government established a six-year primary cycle followed by four years of intermediate schooling and two years of secondary school ending with the baccalaureate degree. Laws in 1969 and 1973 revised the curricula and instituted a five-year primary cycle, theoretically compulsory between the ages of seven and fourteen, followed by three years of intermediate school and four years of secondary education. The first two years of secondary instruction consisted of an integrated program that all students followed; the second two-year cycle permitted students to specialize in the humanities or one of several technical fields. All courses led to the baccalaureate degree, which was a prerequisite for entering the university.

An Aymara Woman
An Aymara Woman.

Higher education consisted of the University of Bolivia and a variety of public and private institutes. The University of Bolivia – a consortium of eight public universities and one private university (the 1,500-student Bolivian Catholic University)–was the only postsecondary school that awarded degrees. At least four other private institutions were operating without legal authorization in 1989. Other schools offered technical training in the fine arts, commercial arts, and technical fields, as well as in teacher training.

The University of Bolivia, which enrolled more than 100,000 students in 1989, was embroiled in a bitter conflict with the Paz Estenssoro government over what academic leaders feared were government plans to make drastic cuts in publicly financed higher education. The government acknowledged its plans to promote private institutions in an attempt to reverse a general decline in academic standards resulting from wide-open admission policies. The impasse over university finances led to student protests in 1988, with police intervening in the country’s largest university, the 37,000-student San Andrés University in La Paz.

The Ministry of Education and Culture organized adult literacy classes. By the mid-1980s, approximately 350 centers and more than 2,000 teachers were dedicated to adult literacy programs. More than half were in the department of La Paz, where less than one-third of the population lived. The program had little impact, however; improvements in the adult literacy rate, which stood at 75 percent in the mid-1980s, primarily resulted from increased primary school enrollment. From 1973 to 1987, the percentage of school-aged children enrolled in primary schools climbed from 76 to 87 percent.

Most educational expenditures went for operating budgets, especially personnel costs, leaving little for capital programs and expansion. Spending remained skewed in favor of the urban areas. Approximately 60 percent of Bolivia’s 59,000 teachers were employed in urban schools. The economic crisis that beset the country in the early to mid-1980s had a severe impact on educational spending. Analysts estimated that real education expenditures in 1985 were less than 40 percent of the total recorded in 1980. Over the same period, the percentage of the gross domestic product devoted to education dropped from 3 percent to less than 2 percent.

Bolivian Students Clash with Police (Reuters/David Mercado)
Bolivian students throw stones while clashing with police during a strike in downtown La Paz, April 21, 2004.

Although the education system recorded some progress in enrollments in the 1970s and 1980s, serious problems remained. The number of secondary school students grew twice as fast as the population of that age-group; the university student population grew more than four times faster than the total population of eighteen- to twenty-four-year olds. Still, secondary education remained beyond the grasp of most Bolivians; only 35 percent of the eligible age-group attended secondary school. Significant disparities also existed between male and female enrollment rates. Efforts to increase female attendance ran up against the harsh economic realities faced by poorer families who relied on their daughters’ help with chores and childcare.

Dropout rates also remained extremely high. Only one-third of first graders completed the fifth grade, 20 percent started secondary school, 5 percent began their postsecondary studies, and just 1 percent received a university degree. Dropout rates were higher among girls and rural children. Only about 40 percent of rural youngsters continued their education beyond the third grade.

Finally, Quechua- and Aymara-speaking children faced special problems. Bolivia had no national program of bilingual education. There were a few moderately successful pilot programs; in addition, Indian teachers often translated lessons while instructing their classes. In general, however, Spanish was the language of instruction at every level. Critics blamed the absence of bilingual education for the high dropout rates among rural Indian schoolchildren.