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Argentine students protest funding cuts to public universities

BUENOS AIRES (AFP) – Tens of thousands of Argentine university students took to the streets on Tuesday to protest cuts to higher public education, research and science under budget-slashing new President Javier Milei.

Joined by professors and alumni from the economic crisis-riddled South American country’s 57 state-run universities, they rose up “in defence of free public university education”.

Labour unions, opposition parties and private universities backed the protests in Buenos Aires and other major cities such as Cordoba.

Third-year medicine student Pablo Vicenti, 22, told AFP in the capital he was outraged at the Milei government’s “brutal attack” on the system.

“They want to defund it with a false story that there is no money. There is, but they choose not to spend it on public education,” he said.

Milei won elections last November vowing to take a chainsaw to public spending and reduce the budget deficit to zero.

To that end, his government has slashed subsidies for transport, fuel and energy even as wage-earners have lost a fifth of their purchasing power.

Thousands of public servants have lost their jobs, and Milei has faced numerous anti-austerity protests since taking office in December.

Universities declared a budgetary emergency after the government approved a 2024 budget the same as the one for 2023, despite annual inflation approaching 290 per cent and a near 500-per-cent increase in energy costs which higher learning institutions said has brought them to their knees.

“At the rate at which they are funding us, we can only function between two or three more months,” said University of Buenos Aires (UBA) rector Ricardo Gelpi.

As the ire has built, Milei conceded a 70-per-cent increase in funding for public universities’ operating expenses in March, to be followed by another 70 per cent in May and a one-off grant to university hospitals.

Operating expenses exclude teacher salaries, which make up about 90 per cent of a university budget.

An aerial view of a protest march against budget adjustment to public universities in Buenos Aires, Argentina. PHOTO: AFP