Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Students ignite democratic university reform in Cordoba, Argentina

In the winter of 1918, a group of students at the Universidad de Cordoba, in Northern Argentina, launched a movement that would have vast consequences for the entire continent. The 1918 Reform was the result of a student movement for university and societal democratization, and constituted a grand emancipatory epic that opened a heroic era in the development of Latin American universities. At that time, the student movement was advocating the secularization and democratization of universities, which up to that point formed a very elitist, traditional system. Student leaders criticized the previous model as a school of castes, and proposed to organize a self-governing, autonomous university, able to establish solid linkages with the community. Reformists expressed a passionate commitment for democracy, both within and outside of the university, and perceived themselves as the moral conscience of society.

Student leaders of the 1918 Reform asserted that the solution of educational problems should be related to the solution of the national problems, and proposed a profound economic and political reform. They were explicit about the ideal relationship between the university, the state, and society, and allied themselves with workers' organizations. Indeed, the Cordoba movement was rapidly endorsed by labor unions, leftist political parties, liberal groups, and important newspapers, while opposition was based in the church and conservative institutions. The prevailing ideology of the 1918 Reform was rooted in leftism and progressivism, with a strong anti-private, anti-military, and anti-imperialist tendency. For instance, the 1920 manifesto of the Federacion Universitaria Argentina (the national organization representing students enrolled in all Argentinean universities) was the first public condemnation of imperialism issued by an organized group in Latin America.

The most important features of the Reform can be summarized as follows:

a) institutionalization of student participation in university councils, joining professors and alumni in a three-party system known as co-governance.

b) a linkage between student politics and national politics in order to mobilize the university toward the solution of economic, social and political problems.

c) an emphasis on university extension, particularly courses for workers that would lead to the development of fraternal bonds with the proletariat.

d) tuition-free education and open admission to all academically qualified applicants, in order to replace the elitist and archaic 19th century university with a democratic, modern and mass university.

e) a defense of institutional autonomy with respect to the state .

f) institutionalization of mechanisms to protect academic freedom, including the implementation of "free teaching" (docencia libre) to ensure academic pluralism and to break the monopoly of teaching enjoyed by senior professors (catedráticos).

g) promotion of new ideas, innovative methods of teaching, changes in exam systems, optional classroom attendance, original research, and a rejection of dogmatism, all leading to the replacement of theology by positivist disciplines.

h) selection of faculty through open, competitive examinations in order to counteract nepotism and patronage, and promotion of professors on the basis of merit and achievement rather than seniority.

i) the enlargement and diversification of professional training through the establishment of new professional schools.

j) an understanding of university life as a truly communitarian experience, therefore encouraging the development of a population of full-time professors and full time students.

By securing cost-free and open access to the universities, the 1918 Reform constituted an unequivocal pledge for university democratization, both in quantitative and qualitative terms. In the five year period after the reform, enrollment grew by approximately 80% relative to the previous period. During the same period, graduation rates increased 244%. The success of the reform was not fortuitous. It was the result of a variety of social, political, and economic forces operating at the international, national, and institutional levels. At the international level, three major events--World War I, the Mexican Revolution, and the Soviet Revolution--had important repercussions on the political and cultural attitudes of Argentine students. The war created disillusionment with Europe and shifted students' attention towards their own region. The Mexican and Bolshevik Revolutions represented a new age of equality and social justice, a triumph of workers and young intellectuals over a decadent oligarchy. As a result, reformist students attempted to shape the university in tune with the new social forces, rebuilding it as a democratic and modern institution that would lead the way to national progress.

At the national level, the 1918 Reform represented the political aspirations of an emergent middle class, eager to access positions up to then exclusively enjoyed by the high bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. Hence, the Reform was inextricably linked to the rise of Modernism and the Welfare State, marking a period of optimism and progress for the burgeoning middle class. At the beginning of the century, two thirds of the Argentinean middle class emanated from the working class, and this rapid expansion was reflected in government reform in a variety of areas such as universal franchise, a progressive income tax, shorter working hours, liberalized retirement benefits, the abolition of child labor, and the formal separation of church and state. As a matter of fact, the Radical government, headed by President Irigoyen, provided vital support to the student movement, even when this support led him to be confronted by prominent politicians and university authorities.

At the institutional level, reformists recognized early on the feeling of alienation among university students, and were very skillful in articulating demands for scholastic relevance and social activism. The reform was the result of a mismatch between an obsolete, archaic, and authoritarian post-colonial university, and the aspirations for a more democratic and positivist model, better in tune with the requirements of industrialization. It was spearheaded by a student body that perceived itself as the vanguard of a libertarian, urban, scientific, and rationalistic modernity.

Gabriel Del Mazo (1957), one of the leaders of the Cordoba movement, contended that the reform constituted a demand of all American students for knowledge, democracy, justice, and emancipation. He argued that students resisted both a superficial and predatory civilization in which intelligence was not guided by ethics, and a university community without social commitments. He pointed out that, since "the school is for the student, and not the student for the school," the reform put students at the center of university life. In his vision, students were to become citizens with full political rights in a university republic whose autonomy should be respected by a democratic state.

The objectives of the 1918 Cordoba Reform were promptly adopted by many student organizations, and one by one, from Argentina to Mexico, Latin American universities experienced unprecedented uprisings. The same year the reform statutes were enacted into law at Cordoba, they were extended to the University of Buenos Aires and later to other Argentinean universities. Its principles were included in the 1920 manifesto of the Federacion Universitaria Argentina, and subsequently endorsed by the International Student Congress on University Reform held in Mexico City in 1921, with the participation of delegates from Latin America, United States, Europe, and Asia. In 1924, when Haya de la Torre, leader of the university reform in Peru, founded the Popular Revolutionary American Alliance, the original student demands evolved into a vigorous and ambitious political, social, and economic movement. The Cordoba Reform had a tremendous impact in most Latin American universities, and would even inspire the leaders of the 1960's student movement in industrialized countries.


Brunner, Jose J. (1990). Educacion superior en America Latina: cambios y desafios. Chile: FCE.

Del Mazo, Gabriel (ed.) (1957). La Reforma Universitaria y la Universidad Latinoamericana. Universidad Nacional del Nordeste.

Levy, Daniel (1986). Higher education and the state in Latin America. Private challenges to public dominance. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Mollis, Marcela (1990). Universidades y estado nacional: Argentina y Japon 1885-1930. Buenos Aires: Biblos.

Perez Lindo, Augusto (1985). Universidad, politica y sociedad. Buenos Aires: Eudeba.

Tunnermann, Carlos (1990). La universidad lationoamericana. Managua: Universidad Centroamericana.


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