One hundred days of Bolsonaro and not much has changed

The academic persecution originally feared when Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil never materialised, but neither did his promised investment into science and research, says Justin Axel-Berg

April 23, 2019
Brazil congress

When political outsider and far right firebrand Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil last September, after riding a wave of revolt against the country’s languishing economy and political classes, the warning signs for the higher education sector were many and obvious. 

An unrepentant admirer of the brutal military dictatorship that persecuted, exiled, tortured and murdered university professors as part of an ideological war against a perceived Marxist threat, Bolsonaro being elected was a chilling moment for many older academics who had assumed that this past, which had been consigned to memorials on campuses, was coming back for a new generation. 

At the same time, he promised to raise spending on research and development from 1 per cent to 3 per cent of GDP.

With the first trimester of Bolsonaro’s government finished, and a government in disarray, we can say that none of these predictions has come true. The fears of a new era of oppression proved unfounded, but the old problems of incompetence, mismanagement and stripping of higher education and research budgets continue.

The movement’s intellectual “guru”, self-proclaimed philosopher and astrologer Olavo de Carvalho, famous for his YouTube diatribes against leftism, formal higher education and his eccentric interpretations of Isaac Newton, was given three ministries to populate in return for his endorsement: education, citizenship and foreign affairs. 

He selected as minister of education Colombian conservative theologian Ricardo Veléz Rodriguez, a man with strong ideological opinions on the supposed spread of cultural Marxism throughout Brazil’s education system, but no experience of educational management at any level.

A number of worrying challenges to academic autonomy hit the headlines, from reports of police invasions of university campuses to interrupt classes and meetings, to an anonymous denunciation hotline inviting students to film “leftist” professors and an extraordinary plan to introduce an “ideological test” to ensure that only conservative students would be able to access study abroad scholarships – all under the pretext of combatting the ideological infiltration of Brazilian universities.

While the initial moves by the new ministry were long on rhetoric and threats, and managed to fill the ministry with Carvalho’s acolytes, the new appointees were notably short on any type of relevant education, management or public policy experience.

This means that over the three months, not only has Veléz’s ministry failed to achieve any of his lofty goals, he failed to even produce working plans or projects for them. Whenever a new plan was proposed, it was brought down again just as rapidly for either legal or practical reasons. 

The ideological fury of the early days of government has rapidly given way to mismanagement and incompetence. This was brought into sharp relief by Tabata Amaral, with a PhD in astrophysics from Harvard and a first-time congresswoman elected to campaign on educational topics, who excoriated Veléz for his lack of basic competence, planning and strategy in a video that went viral across the academic community. Veléz was sacked the following week. 

Because higher education, research and funding of federal public universities is decided on the basis of an annual budget, the same sectoral vulnerabilities that have affected public higher education expose it to an even greater risk today. 

From a federal budget for the Ministry of Science and Technology that was already the lowest in 14 years, R$5.1 billion (£99 million), the government has frozen 42 per cent, meaning that the entire sector has just R$2.9 billion (£57 million) for the year. 

The Brazilian National Research Council and CAPES, the funding body for young scientists and researchers, are projected to run out of funding in July.

If this situation is not reversed, the consequences for Brazilian science will be catastrophic, leading to the cessation of a huge number of the country’s most ambitious research projects, and potentially setting science and research back years. 

Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, said in a public address, “I have never seen cuts of the magnitude proposed recently. They are extremely heavy cuts, and if they are not reversed, will destroy Brazilian science. These cuts represent a serious attack on development and on national sovereignty itself.”

This all points to a longer-term structural problem for Brazilian higher education; when budgets are fixed and declared on a year-to-year basis, higher education becomes a pawn of political decision-making in which it is not an active participant. 

Drastic year-on-year changes make it difficult or almost impossible to plan for the future in an ambitious way. The only exception are the São Paulo state universities whose budgets are fixed into law and have access to an autonomous funding organisation. 

While the scare stories about the attack on academic autonomy have not proven as serious as feared, the old problems of a lack of financial autonomy persist, and are worse than ever.

Justin Axel-Berg is associate researcher in higher education policy at the University of São Paulo.

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