As Costa Rica’s economy stagnates, public university budgets have fallen on the chopping block.
The Arias administration has sought to cut $13 million, or 3.6 percent of the budgets of the four public universities, which educate about half of the country’s university students.
The cuts outraged university deans, who said they would undermine public education at a time when students need more preparation than ever to enter an uncertain job market.
Finance Minister Guillermo Zúñiga countered that his hands are tied. A 2004 agreement fixes universities’ funding at 1.05 percent of GDP, and the official estimate for this year’s GDP has fallen by 3 percent since lawmakers approved the budget in November.
At a meeting Tuesday night, Zúñiga agreed to postpone the cuts while he negotiates with the deans, according to Rodrigo Arias, dean of the StateUniversity at a Distance (UNED).
“The conflict hasn’t been resolved, but I think we’re making progress,” Arias said. Education likely won’t be the only sector to see cuts. As growth in tax revenue slows, Zúñiga said he is reviewing the budget to decide where else to trim expenses. Tax revenue in January alone was 10 percent down from January 2008, controlling for inflation.
If tax collection this year remains at 15.3 percent of GDP, then the government will receive $155 million less than it had anticipated in tax revenue. That figure will likely rise once the Central Bank revises down its GDP predictions, as is expected.
When asked what expenses will be cut, Zúñiga said, “We are working on that.” Zúñiga has already asked all government ministries to reduce discretionary spending by 15 percent.
The uproar over school funding began Feb. 17, when Zúñiga wrote the university deans saying they would collectively receive $353 million in 2009, down from an expected $366 million, and that the first deduction in funding would occur in March.
Public universities depend on the government for 60 to 90 percent of their total budgets.
“We understand that income must be reduced, but let’s do it gradually,” said Olman Segura, dean of the National University (UNA). “Not in this brusque and immediate way.”
He added that funding should be reduced beginning in 2010 because universities have already allocated the 2009 money.
University of Costa Rica (UCR) Dean Yamileth González went further, claiming that it was unconstitutional for the Finance Ministry to reduce universities’ income without first consulting the deans.
“We could sue the Finance Minister,” she said.
Deans said the cuts would mean less money for infrastructure, renovations and scholarships. The Technological Institute of Costa Rica (ITCR) would have to delay the addition of three new majors, as well as shelve a project to build a new training center in San Carlos, in north-central Costa Rica.
“The first thing we would do is paralyze construction projects,” said ITCR Dean Eugenio Trejos. “That affects all the firms that provide services to the universities.”
Some deans said the government should be increasing spending on education during a financial downturn, rather than cutting it.
“Education is not an expense, it’s an investment,” Segura said.
But nerves appeared to calm considerably after Tuesday’s meeting. The deans agreed to draft a proposal outlining how much money they could forego and when. Meanwhile, Zúñiga said he would not begin reducing monthly payments in March, as planned. “We have an enormous interest in maintaining a spirit of dialogue,” Zúñiga said. “I studied in a public university. My siblings studied in a public university. My children study or studied in a public university. I’m not interested in mistreating the universities.”