As the first university founded in the Americas in 1551, the National Autonomous University of San Marcos (Universidad Nacional Autónomo de San Marcos--UNAM) has had a long and varied history of elitism, reform, populism, controversy, respect, prestige, and, especially since the mid-1980s, conflict and confusion born of political divisions and broad social unrest. Although it remained the largest university in the nation, it had lost much of its former prestige by 1990. In the 1970-90 period, several smaller private institutions, such as the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (Pontífica Universidad Católica del Perú), located in Lima, have gained more stature. The major public universities are the specialized National Agrarian University (Universidad Nacional Agrario--UNA) in Lima's La Molina District and the National Engineering University (Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería), also in the Lima area. The most prestigious medical school is the private Cayetano Heredía in Lima.
Lima has captured most of the resources of higher education. Universities in Lima, which had 42 percent of all students, employed 62 percent of all faculty in the late 1980s. Nevertheless, there are universities in all but four of the departments. Although many of these are newly founded and poorly equipped, the demand for access to advanced study has provided them with a growing stream of students. The abandoned colonial University of Huamanga (Universidad de Huamanga) in Ayacucho is one of these, having been reopened in the late 1950s to fill an educational void for students drawn from impoverished and isolated Ayacucho Department. Although initiated on its modern course with high hopes, it has suffered from budgetary inadequacies, frustrated plans, and disgruntled students impatient for social change. During the late 1960s, it became the home to embittered revolutionaries, who emerged as the leaders of the SL movement.
The public schools have long been deeply influenced by political factionalism, which has divided the constitutionally established governing bodies of universities. Internal politics at San Marcos and other universities have involved complex alliance-making among administrators, staff, faculty, and the student body, as well as partisan political forces that crosscut these sectors with their own agendas. Thus, APRA, various communist factions, and other groups have played out their strategies, often with negative consequences or even little direct reference to the mission of education as such. APRA, however, did play a role in establishing the University of the Center (Universidad del Centro) in Huancayo and Federico Villareal in Lima, now the second-largest university. The present organization of the public universities was originally conceived as a result of the Latin American-wide university reform movement of the 1920s and 1930s which attempted to democratize the traditional, colonial-style elite traditions. What has evolved, however, has led to constant problems of paralytic conflict, student strikes, slogan mongering, and, often, closure of a university for one or more semesters at a time. As a result, the private universities, such as those tied to the Catholic Church and various segments of the upper-middle classes, have emerged as the most stable and best staffed institutions during the last twenty-five years.
Out of this milieu, one can begin to understand the political role of teachers and their organizations, such as the Trade Union of Education Workers (Sindicato Único de Trabajadores de la Enseñanza del Perú--SUTEP), the national teachers union. Most teachers attend teaching colleges before entering the classroom with their certificates, and many of these colleges, such as La Cantuta outside of Lima, have long been centers for radical politics. With teachers earning less than the average beginning police officer, discontent has run high among teachers for many years. Thus, given the importance and role of teachers in district schools nationwide, it is not surprising that SUTEP has been a strong voice in expressing its social and economic discontent or that the SL and MRTA had succeeded in recruiting followers from the ranks of SUTEP.
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