Nicaragua approves education reform seen as move to destroy university autonomy

ALBA group representatives gather in Havana
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega attends a two-day meeting with ALBA group representatives at the Revolution Palace in Havana, Cuba, December 14, 2021. Alberto Roque/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

MANAGUA, March 31 (Reuters) - Nicaragua's Parliament, dominated by President Daniel Ortega, on Thursday approved reforms that educators warn will weaken the autonomy of universities amid new rules that strengthen the government's control over curriculums, programs and chairs.

The law establishes the National Council of Universities (CNU) as the main governing body, overruling the groups of academic experts from each institution that held those powers.

The rule was approved with 75 votes in favor and 14 abstentions.

"This reform kills the autonomy of universities that cost so much blood in Nicaragua. The government now controls the CNU, which until now was only an advisory body to universities," said academic Ernesto Medina, former rector of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, the country's largest university.

The pro-government deputies argued that the reform seeks to strengthen higher education and the role of the CNU as a governing body of universities.

The reform also cuts public funding to the Jesuit Central American University (UCA), a critical institution with the government and cradle of the nationwide anti-government protests that broke out in the Central American country in 2018.

The UCA was included in the CNU and granted public funding some months before Ortega's Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party left power in 1990.

The UCA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It has said that in 2018 the state granted the university $8.1 million for its operations, an allocation that has been reduced through the years and dropped to $38,000 in 2022.

"It is a revenge against the UCA for the role its students played in the rebellion of April 2018," said constitutional law professor Maria Asuncion Moreno.

The reform incorporated into the CNU three universities created by the government in the last weeks and expelled UCA, where Ortega and three of his children studied.

The Nicaraguan Parliament has closed 14 private universities in the last few months, stating they failed to fulfill their obligations to the governing body, while the opposition has said it is a government's attempt to take control of universities critical of Ortega.

Reporting by Ismael Lopez; Writing by Valentine Hilaire; Editing by Leslie Adler

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