CARACAS, VENEZUELA — Nicolás Bianco, vice rector of the Central University of Venezuela, sat under a wall of framed academic honors, gazing out his office window. The sprawling institution founded in 1721 once teemed with students. But the 74-year-old was silent as he surveyed the near-empty campus outside.
"How do you explain to students what real college life is supposed to be like?" said Bianco, an alumnus of the university, the country's largest. "They'll never know."
Venezuela's economic and political crisis has sparked food and medical shortages, the world's highest inflation rate and allegations of a power grab by the ruling socialists. But it is also threatening the country's future by ravaging higher education.
Universities here — especially the Central University of Venezuela, or UCV in Spanish — have long ranked among Latin America's best. As recently as 2010, Venezuela was rated sixth in the region in the production of academic research. UCV's faculty members in particular were recognized internationally — among them the award-winning poet Rafael Cadenas.
That national preeminence is now in jeopardy. Under the worsening financial pressure, students at some universities are dropping out in droves and many top-level teachers have joined a broader exodus of emigrating professionals.
Campus violence is also surging, as the country's economic desperation reaches epic levels. Severe budget shortages, meanwhile, have resulted in a rash of unlit classrooms, broken toilets, leaking ceilings and cracked floors.
Not all schools are affected equally, however. At least some of the problems appear to be by official design — with President Nicolás Maduro's government taking aim at top public and private institutions it sees as bastions of the wealthy elites it often depicts as enemies of the state.
Outspoken professors and students have been targeted. In February, Santiago Guevara, an economics professor at the autonomous University of Carabobo in Valencia, was jailed after he publicly denounced the government. In May, Jorge Machado, a philosophy professor at UCV, was jailed for four months on terrorism charges after he served as an adviser to the opposition.
At the same time, the government has appeared to divert its increasingly limited resources away from the elite universities and toward a crop of 26 institutions of higher learning that began to pop up under President Hugo Chávez, Maduro's late mentor. Directly controlled by the Education Ministry, these "Bolivarian universities" are designed to churn out professionals schooled in "21st-century socialism." One, for instance, offers a major in "agro-ecology" for those seeking to "act in accord with the development policies" espoused by the government.
Even before Chávez died in 2013, the majority of the national education budget was shifted to those schools, which educate 2.6 million students, compared with 875,000 taught at the nation's 10 largely autonomous public universities. But as the economic crisis has worsened, critics say, the imbalance has widened.
This year, UCV received just 28 percent of its requested annual funding, down from 44 percent in 2014. School officials say they expect the figure to drop to 18 percent next year.
Given the shortfall, only 2 percent of UCV's 2017 budget went to research. Perhaps not surprisingly, the school has slipped dramatically in the latest international rankings of Latin American universities, falling 10 spots to No. 28 in one year.
"The government has tried to create an education system from preschool to postgraduate studies that consolidates the ideology of its socialist revolution," said Amalio Belmonte, secretary general of UCV. "The mere existence of autonomous universities . . . is a threat to that project."
The government has taken various steps to reinforce its control over the autonomous universities, which critics say are among the few outlets left for free intellectual thought in Venezuela. In 2010, funding of university research by private companies was banned. Since that year, no new majors have been approved. Internal elections to choose new rectors have also been prohibited.
"Critical thinking is under threat," said Ligia Bolívar, a sociology professor at Andrés Bello Catholic University, a private institution in Caracas.
The Education Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. In September, however, Hugbel Roa, the Maduro-appointed minister for higher education, said that university enrollment had increased in recent years while condemning what he characterized as anti-government rabble-rousing on some campuses.
"No authority should permit universities to become trenches for chaos or destruction," Roa said.
If enrollment has gone up, as Roa claims, the rise appears to be confined to pro-government universities. The student body at UCV, for instance, has declined from 51,000 in 2008 to 44,000 this year, according to officials there. Over the same period, the number of its professors shrank from 5,600 to 2,600 — half of whom have become part-timers.
With monthly salaries for professors at autonomous universities now ranging from $6 to $25, many instructors who remain are taking side jobs to survive.
"You don't have the energy left to do research or engage with students," said Nelsón Freitez, a tenured sociology professor at Lisandro Alvarado Central Western University, an autonomous public school 235 miles west of Caracas. "We're living a sad process of intellectual obliteration."
At the University of Carabobo, 80 percent of the medical students dropped out last year. The education faculty now has more teachers than students.
Many students are quitting their studies to work. Luis Zambrano, 21, had one year left of law school at Andrés Bello Catholic University when he moved to Ecuador in September to teach elementary-school English. His salary there — $480 a month — is 52 times Venezuela's minimum wage.
"What my mom earned as an accountant wasn't enough for us to live on," he said in a phone interview from Manta, Ecuador. "I've been here for just a month, and soon I'll start sending her money."
Zambrano said his university's deterioration, before he left, was shocking. But for many schools, degrading infrastructure and emptying halls have become the new normal. At Simón Bolívar University, a highly ranked science-focused public institution in Caracas, only nine of 36 campus buses are functioning. Four hundred employees, from faculty members to service workers, have quit in the past two years. Last year, 25 percent of the students dropped out.
Robberies at the university have increased by more than 50 percent in three years, said Daniel Ascanio, president of the student body.
"Students here just go to their classes and leave, because after 6, it becomes as dangerous as the mouth of a wolf," Ascanio said. "From the lack of toilet paper to food scarcity to dark classrooms and dying gardens."
On a recent afternoon, few students roamed the unlit halls of the UCV main campus, a UNESCO World Heritage site of vast buildings, sculptures and botanical gardens. Some computer rooms had no computers. Empty classrooms had broken windows. Restrooms were out of order. Dozens of laboratories had been shuttered.
Bianco, the vice rector, pointed to a portrait of his father on his office wall.
"He was once the rector of this university," he said, turning back to the window. "Look at this place now. Listen to the silence, the solitude. If things stay this way, Venezuela will lose. We shall stall and stop growing. We will be lost."
Faiola reported from Miami.