It was the most daunting Google Meet of my life.
On Wednesday, at half past eight in the morning, I presented my thesis research to a panel of three academic experts. They asked me questions, and I answered as best I could.
Half an hour later, that was it. I had my master’s degree.
I had been preparing for this moment for years. In 2018, following a stint in Cochabamba, Bolivia, I came to Argentina to study political and social theory at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA). When Argentines learn this, they often respond with bemusement: I’m a Brit. How did I end up in grad school on the other side of the world?
Partly, I had wanted to stay in the region after two years in Bolivia. But I was also drawn to Buenos Aires for reasons that had nothing to do with its seductive charms and vibrant culture: Argentina’s public education system meant that I could afford to live here while pursuing an advanced degree.
Unlike public undergraduate education, which is free for everyone in Argentina regardless of nationality, I had to pay for my masters. But the fees were comparatively affordable: I paid eight quotas equivalent to between US$60-100 per month, depending on inflation, plus a semesterly inscription fee of around US$120.
A one-year masters in a similar topic back in the United Kingdom would have set me back around GBP18,000 at University College London. At Oxford, it would have cost GBP28,310 — more than I used to earn in a full year as a reporter.
My course at UBA was a demanding two-year program that required dozens of essays on texts and topics that were, at times, hermetic beyond belief. My coursemates were passionate, academically brilliant students, and many are now doing doctorates. At the end of it all came the dreaded thesis: a 40,000-word piece of research that required a plan, a supervisor, a conceptual framework, a research problem, and enough angst to fill the Río de la Plata.
The process made me a sharper and more astute analyst, and I bring those skills to my job as managing editor of the Herald every single day. This is the course of study that brought me to Argentina. I wouldn’t be in the country today if it weren’t for public universities like UBA.
The proposal has been lost in a morass of dictatorship denial, dead dogs, and threats to dynamite the central bank, but Milei has said that he would axe public education and replace it with a voucher system if elected president. We cannot allow this to happen.
It would be foolish to deny that there are problems with public universities in Argentina. After years of economic crisis and under-investment, lecturers have to cobble together income by hopping from one university to another and competing for precious positions in CONICET, Argentina’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council.
By the same measure, making university education free is not, by itself, enough to compensate for the myriad socioeconomic barriers that poor young people face when it comes to continuing their studies. Many of those who start their degrees never finish.
Given the paperwork involved, the system sometimes feels like a series of forms interrupted by the occasional essay. And students sometimes stumble across professors who stymie their progress by running specific modules as their personal fiefdom — as they do, incidentally, in the private sector too.
But these are arguments to strengthen the system, not to destroy it. Argentina is filled with the stories of people who became the first university graduates in their family because they had the chance to study for free.
‘I owe it everything’
Last month, feminist collective Mujeres que no fueron tapa (Women who didn’t make the cover) asked their social media followers what public education meant to them, and the responses are moving. As one respondent wrote: “I’m the daughter of old rural workers. My father didn’t go to school because they just didn’t exist in that area. My mom studied until the fourth grade. I have a post-graduate qualification… I owe [public education] everything I am.”
There are other reasons to worry about privatizing education, too. When universities treat students as paying customers, the fundamental mission of education becomes distorted. Some argue that turning higher education into a market creates incentives for universities to improve. But who decides what qualifies as an improvement?
Academia brings learners into contact with challenging ideas whose true value may not be immediately apparent. Professors have to grade work with integrity to do justice to their disciplines. Academia demands that students do things they believe will be impossible, only for them to grow by rising to the challenge.
We can’t trust the market to incentivize experiences that are humbling, frustrating, and stressful. There are excellent private universities in Argentina, but it would risk the integrity of Argentine education if they were the only option.
If it weren’t for Argentina’s public university system, I might have gone to Ecuador, or Mexico, or stayed in Bolivia. But I wouldn’t be here, in Buenos Aires, editing the Herald, if it weren’t for Argentina’s public university system. We must defend it.