24 August 2007

You too can be a doctor

From now on, aspiring students won't have to pass a test before entering the Faculty of Medicine of the National University of Rosario. The student center had been demanding this for ages. Now, what does it mean?

The student centers of public universities in Argentina are all actually, and quite plainly, political movements. They're branches of well-known political parties, and they help recruit young members for them and gather people for demonstrations. For example, Franja Morada is a branch of the Radical Civic Union, which was born during the University Reform of 1918, and the MNR (which is currently the dominant movement in most faculties in Rosario) is a branch of the Socialist Party. As in all small and loosely regulated groups of this kind, the actual ideology is unimportant. The leaders stay on top by giving the other members what they want, which is done by organizing them and sending them to demand it before the authorities. The arguments used to support the demands need not be well-thought.

The issue of the entry exam was a casus belli for the university student movements. The exam was a filter. Before becoming a university student, the reasoning went, you should show you'd mastered basic concepts in highschool, and/or were prepared to invest time studying them now in your own time. In that way, you wouldn't be entering university-level classes without preparation.

The movements demanded that there was no exam invoking ideological reasons: the University Reform of 1918 revolutionized universities by advancing the idea that higher education should be public, free of charge, and free of restrictions, for everyone. (This acted as a great equalizer. Even today, despite the horrific state of education in Argentina, our universities continue producing fairly good professionals.) Thus, an exam that left you out of university before even starting it was a violation of the spirit of the Reform.

With the exam gone, everybody will be free to start studying. What's the problem with that? Well, the exam routinely filters out more than 50% of the aspiring students. Where will those extra students fit? Public university classrooms are already uncomfortably crowded, which works against the quality of teaching. Then also, those new students won't be among the brightest. Most will just be victims of a bad system that lets them graduate from highschool without knowing basic elements of basic subjects. But they'll slow down the rest — since the professors will have no choice but to go over what they should already know. You can't teach epidemiology without the basics of statistics, and you can't do statistics if you don't know math.

What does this mean for the political movements that pass for representatives of the student body? For starters, they'll have many more people to recruit from. Those people will be students who are having trouble keeping up with the rest, and they'll have even more incentive to give up study and protest more. (The leaders of university movements must be the worst students. They manage to stay in university until they're over 30 by presenting to one or two exams per year, so as to prolong their course indefinitely. You can't formally be a student leader and have a place in the government of the university if you're not a student.)

The answer is, of course, to have better education in the lower levels, and to show students the alternatives. There are too many doctors and too few nurses, for example. And there should be entry exams in all critical careers. Call me an elitist, but (provided there's a chance) I don't want anybody who isn't the best of the best to handle my health and my life.


  1. Hi, everybody!

    So that explains why Dr Nick is given an Argentine accent in the European Spanish dub of the Simpsons.

    With no entrance exam, students who are not sufficiently prepared will instead be failed at the end of the first year. Everybody’s time and resources will be wasted. Why would anybody want to start a course of study from which they will surely fail?

    One thing is clear, remedial courses need to be offered by universities to students whose high school education is lacking (often through no fault of their own). Also perhaps some career guidance and orientation into the various courses of study and career opportunities should be offered.


  2. Pablo, what do you study in argentine high school? Are there exams at the end at the age of around 18 (ie when school's at an end)?

    In England, we study A-levels which are used as the basis to getting into uni. Only Oxford and Cambridge have a separate entrance exam.

    Each separate university subject at every university has a minimum requirement from A-levels (eg two As and a B) and if you don't get the grades you don't get to study the course of your choice. You'll have to find another course, maybe at the university you chose or at another university (it's normal in England to study as far away from home as possible). Sometimes you'll have to wait a year before starting university.

  3. Today's system is not the one I studied with. Our most wise authorities "modernized" it years ago, and now they're about to turn it back to what it was. What I studied, in the days of yore, was language, math, and other stuff. Language included some syntax (revisiting subject, direct object, complements of time and manner, etc.), text comprehension, reading a couple of books by famous Spanish-language authors, writing compositions. Math was algebra, basic calculus (up to limits and derivatives), etc. I also got a nice background of statistics, economics, accounting principles, biology (oriented towards physiology), very very basic world history, history of Argentina up to WW2, and some notions of law, the Constitution, and so on. I must say, even though I almost didn't study, I learned a lot. My school was a public school that is/was reputed among the very best in the city, though. When I entered uni, I found many of my classmates had no idea what a quadratic equation was, or how an orthogonal coordinate system worked. I'm pretty the situation has only become worse since that time.

    Argentine universities teach careers. Of course you can pick and choose courses on a subject basis, but you won't get anywhere like that. A career is a long fight uphill against bureaucracy and teachers' strikes, and it might take you 5, 6, even 10 years to complete. If you drop out, it's all for nothing.

    As a norm, there are no entrance exams for careers as a whole, least of all for individual subjects. When I began studying, there was a "levelling course", a couple of months long, which you had to attend, and you had to pass a test to get in. But it was an easy test, and you had plenty of opportunities to try again, and I never knew of nobody who had had to wait a year for another attempt.

    Of course, having no entrance test, or just an easy test, meant half the students dropped out in the first semester, and half of the remaining ones never made it to the second year. Some were lazy, some found out too late that university was not as easy as they thought. In my first year I had classes in a room with about 40 students, and there were 15 other classroomfuls of people on the same subject. In the fourth year, a typical subject was taught to only one classroom with 20 or 30 people. The university admitted about 1,200 students per year and churned out an average of two, TWO, engineers in the same period.


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