San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Students March for Increased Funding

William Cuadra wants a scholarship, and joined Tuesday’s university march to show it.

The 19-year-old computer engineering major at the Costa Rican Institute of Technology (TEC) said that the extra aid would help him pay the ¢10,000 (almost $20)per credit hour for the degree he hopes will guide him toward opening his own software company.

Yerlin Araya thinks her marine biology group from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) should be afforded more trips to conduct field studies and collect samples. “We need research opportunities and we need scholarships,” the 26-year-old UCR student said.

Just behind Araya, Cuadra and four of his classmates carried a large white sign with a message written in English.

“Power Comes From Knowledge; Knowledge Comes From Education,” it read. The banners and students and professors kept coming.

In lines and rows stretching for more than a kilometer, the mass of students wrapped around corners and shut down highways for most of Aug. 17.

They marched, roughly 10,000 strong, from their respective universities to Casa Presidencial. Most had different needs, but they all shared the same demand: more money.

“Costs keep growing and it is very hard for us to keep up with the small amount that we are given,” said Carlos Morera, vice rector of research at the National University (UNA). “The UNA is doing important research in all areas of Costa Rican society and we need to keep doing this research.”

President Laura Chinchilla’s administration has offered a 4.5 percent increase for the Special Fund for Higher Education (FEES) for the next five years.

But the public universities want more – almost 120 percent more.

“Eleven percent is very feasible,” said Isabel Arroyo, coordinator of the UCR’s School of Business Administration. “It’s just a matter of sitting down with the government and going over the numbers.”

At Casa Presidencial on Tuesday, no one from the Chinchilla administration met with the demonstrators.

But from a 6-foot-high stage and through loud speakers pointed directly at Chinchilla’s office, Yamileth González, director of the National Council of University Rectors (CONARE), had a clear message for the president.

“To defend public education is to defend the basis for the right to solidarity, to democracy and to liberty,” she said. “To invest in education is to invest responsibly in democracy and development for the good of all the inhabitants of our generation.”

Chinchilla’s government gave Costa Rica’s four public universities ¢226 billion ($532 million) in 2010 for the special fund, a legally binding endowment that helps fund scholarships and research.

The government has proposed a 4 percent increase for FEES for 2011, and a 4.5 percent annual increase from 2012 to 2015.

This offer has been rejected by the public universities.

CONARE is proposing an 11 percent annual increase, plus adjustments for inflation for the FEES budget from 2011 through 2015. If the government and the rectors don’t reach an agreement before Aug. 31, the budget will be handed over to the Finance Ministry, which will make the final decision on FEES budget increases.

University officials hope to strike a deal before this deadline, since the Finance Ministry will likely choose a figure that aligns closely with the Executive Branch’s offer.

Proponents of the 11 percent yearly hike declined an invitation on Tuesday to meet with the vice minister of the presidency, Mauricio Boraschi.

But on Wednesday, university rectors accepted a personal invitation from Chinchilla to sit down and discuss the issue.

Steven Ramírez, press officer for Casa Presidencial, told The Tico Times that the president is interested in reaching a deal with the rectors before the Aug. 31 cut-off-date, but noted that the government cannot forget about the country’s plethora of other pressing issues.

“Doña Laura has been very emphatic that we can’t exaggerate the budget for the public universities because the country has other necessities to cover,” Ramírez said. “I don’t know what the final budget will be, but what I can guarantee is that the president is interested in having a dialogue with the rectors.”

The rectors have demanded two full days of negotiation before reaching an accord with the president.

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