All you need to know about Iberian America

The Autonomous Universities of Latin America

Published January 11, 2022 in Miscellaneous Information - 3 Comments

A few odd years ago, I was seeing briefly this one Peruvian chick in Mexico City.

Funny enough, her name was “Maryann” or that’s what she told me anyway.

Not sure if she’s one of those Latinas whose parents wanted to give her a foreign sounding name or if she changed it herself.

Or shit – maybe Maryann is a common name among Peruvians?

I have no idea but I’ll you all inform me anyhow if that’s a common name or not over there.

Anyway, we saw each other probably over the course of a few months at most.

Never dated formally but it almost got there.

On one of those moments where we hung out, it involved going to the south of Mexico City to see some movie near UNAM.

What is UNAM?

The National Autonomous University of Mexico.


Why autonomous?

Who knows.

Over the years here living in Latin America, I have noticed that various countries like to have universities that they call “autonomous.”

Back home in the US, I never noticed any university calling themselves “autonomous.”

Granted, given all of the colleges and universities that the US has, I’m sure some do put the word “autonomous” into their official university name.

But I have simply never noticed any university or college back home doing so.

It’s a small detail to life down here – universities or colleges calling themselves “autonomous.”

Why are they autonomous?

What does autonomous even mean?

To tell you the truth, I don’t know the answer to either question as I type this literally right now.

But, given the free time on my hands, I figured I might as well research the issue out of curiosity.

A curiosity that was reignited the other day when I took the metro in Mexico City and saw some poster advertising some “autonomous” university.

So, having admitted that I’m not an expert on the topic, just realize I’m learning with you.

Why do they call themselves autonomous?

Let’s find out quickly based on the information I can find online with some examples included from various Latin American countries.

Definition of Autonomous Universities

Based on what I could find out online, apparently this is the definition of autonomous university from this source here.

“An autonomous university typically refers to a university that exercises independent control over its day-to-day operations and curriculum, as opposed to a university in which the government or a government agency controls the academic programs.”

On top of that, you have other information online about the concept of autonomous universities in Latin America.

From what I can tell, the idea also usually includes the universities providing security and comfort for the student body.

Now, as we’ll see, the security aspect and also the independent control over the curriculum make sense to make given the brief historical examples that I have just read online about what pushed certain Latin countries to create autonomous universities.

Let’s get to some of those examples next to understand why many felt that having autonomous universities was necessary.

Argentine University Reform

First, let’s bring up the interesting example of Argentina.

As you can read here, Argentina implemented university reform in 1918 due to the pressures of a University Reform Movement in the Argentine city of Cordoba.

Ultimately, the idea of autonomous university was recognized because of that.

However, there were examples of military governments trying to violate university autonomy in the decades to come.

For example, in the 1966, there was an event known as the Noche de los Bastones Largos that you can read about here in which a dictator known as Organia tried to annul university autonomy.

in the years after that, successful efforts have been made to respect university autonomy again in Argentina.

For example, starting in 1983, the public universities in Argentina became autonomous again and the concept of university autonomy became guaranteed in the Argentine constitution in 1994.

Evolution of University Autonomy in Mexico

From my understanding, the first autonomous university in Mexico was the Michoacan University of San Nicolás de Hidalgo on October 15, 1917.

Some odd years after that by 1929, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) obtained its autonomy in 1929.

The granting of autonomy to UNAM also influenced the establishment of Students Day on May 23, 1929 in Mexico.

That is because the students at the university went on strike demanding university autonomy, freedom of thought and academic freedom.

On that day of May 23rd, the students were attacked by the police on the campus itself.

Due to how bloody that attack was, people then demanded that May 23rd be remembered as Students Day.

Six days later, university autonomy was achieved.

You can read more about the history of that here.

Efforts for University Autonomy in Venezuela

Between 1949 and 1951, there was numerous conflicts that happened surrounding the lack of university autonomy in two Venezuelan universities: University of the Andes as you can read about here and the Central University of Venezuela as you can read about here.

from my understanding, there were conflicts in other universities also but those two were some of the most notable ones apparently.

Then, in 1958, a law was passed that recognized university autonomy.

However, that was violated soon after in 1969 by the government of Rafael Caldera who raided the Central University of Venezuela in Kangaroo Operation as you can read here.

A few decades later, university autonomy was recognized in the constitution by Hugo Chavez in 1999.

However, neither Hugo Chavez nor the president after him, Nicolas Maduro, have respected university autonomy very well as you can see here.

“El ex régimen de Maduro intenta socavar el sistema educativo de Venezuela dictando quién dirige las universidades y cómo funcionan.

Las universidades autónomas venezolanas, importantes centros de libre pensamiento y aprendizaje, son independientes del Estado, según la Constitución venezolana. Pero el Tribunal Supremo de Justicia, alineado con el régimen, pronunció un fallo que entró en vigor el 27 de febrero que cambiará la forma en que se celebran las elecciones en las universidades autónomas.

En caso de que las universidades cumplan con el fallo del tribunal ilegítimamente regido, Maduro controlaría las instituciones académicas controlando quién dirige cada universidad, una flagrante violación de la constitución de ese país. Según el artículo 109 de la constitución, “El Estado reconocerá la autonomía universitaria como principio y jerarquía. ….  Las universidades autónomas se darán sus normas de gobierno, funcionamiento y la administración”.

Anyway, while university autonomy isn’t looking too good in Venezuela currently with some of its challenges it is facing, let’s hope things get better.

Campaigning for University Reform in Peru

The history of university autonomy in Peru is a little complicated also.

It was obtained in 1920 due to a student movement.

In the 20th century, you basically had plenty of students and professors using the university as a place for protests.

Many of the protests focused on things like university reform, agrarian reform, the right to education for everyone, worker and indigenous rights, etc.

One noticeable example was the student protest in 1909 against Peruvian President Augusto Leguia at the University of San Marcos in Lima.

In 1916, a student organization known as the Peruvian Student Federation was formed to be in charge of future student protests and expanded in 1918 due to being inspired by the success for university reform in Argentina.

At any rate, the previous guy mentioned, President Augusto Leguia, actually stopped being President in 1912 but then became President again from 1919 to 1930.

Right after he became president again, the University of San Marcos was ultimately given its autonomy and other university reforms were passed.

However, a year after he became president again, he closed that same university down and removed the chancellor because the students were protesting the fact that he was abusing human rights.

To keep a long story short anyhow, university autonomy was apparently annulled several times until it was guaranteed in the constitution in 1979.

For more information on this, here’s a interesting source here.

Final Thoughts

So, as you can see, there has often been moments where authoritarian governments would commit acts of violence or coceron onto certain universities.

For that reason, from my limited understanding, there was then a push for autonomous universities in certain areas of Latin America.

Of course, I’m sure the history is much more complex than that and there are likely other influences that contributed to the adoption of autonomous universities in certain areas of Latin America.

And, as you have noticed, obviously there are many more countries we could have looked at. These were just a few to demonstrate the common themes I have seen when briefly looking into the history of university autonomy in Latin America.

In many other countries, you have seen similar student protest movements and violation of university autonomy in many cases until the issue was resolved.

Anyway, I’m new to understanding the topic and felt like providing a simple basic introduction out of curiosity on my end to learn more and to cover briefly another interesting topic on life in Latin America.

It was simply a topic that I felt like looking into when I randomly asked myself “why do universities down here call themselves autonomous?”

I imagine that I’ll probably learn even more about it if I ever happen to start a family down here and the kids go to some “autonomous” university or whatever in the years down the road.

Anyway, if you got anything to contribute, drop a comment below in the comment section.

And follow my Twitter here.

Thanks for reading.

Best regards,



Dazza - January 12, 2022 Reply

I think ‘autonomous’ also means free of religious influences from the Catholic church as well. I know in Peru the Catholic church has a big hand in the running of one of the most prestigious universities in the country PUCP (known as La Catolica) and the university in Piura is an Opus Dei run outfit – very scary!

Dazza - January 12, 2022 Reply

Don’t know anyone called ‘Maryann’ to be honest, all of my family members have good traditional, Spanish names!

    Matt - January 12, 2022 Reply

    Thanks for the comment on being free of religious influence. That’s actually a bit of a surprise to me. Wouldn’t have guessed that they’d keep the Catholic influences out of it. I wonder if that’s true also in more religious countries like Guatemala. Also, even if a country make it by legislation that there should be no religious influence, I wonder if that’s actually enforced in practice across the board? Based on the examples you gave, I guess not always.

    Lol, I was confused at first about your comment about Maryann. I wrote this article over a week ago and forgot I mentioned her.

    Yeah, it’s definitely a weird name. I’m not too familiar with Peru but, in other Latin countries I’ve seen, there is that one oddball from time to time who has a foreign sounding name usually because the parents chose to name their kid that or they changed it themselves (Johnny, Bryan, Raleigh, etc). Not sure how common that is in Peru. Out of all the Latin countries I’ve been to, I’d actually say it’s a tiny more common in Mexico (probably due to the greater American influence) but still not too common.

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