A Bolsonaro win in Brazil could endanger higher education’s equity gains

Boosts to numbers of poor and black students entering university overseen by Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad could unravel if right-wing populist becomes president, writes Stephanie Reist

十月 25, 2018
Museum Paulista in Sao Paulo
Source: iStock
The University of Sao Paulo's Museum Paulista

Since becoming the presidential candidate for Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT), Fernando Haddad has made much of his role as minister of education during most of Lula da Silva’s two terms.

Before reforms enacted by Haddad, who more recently served as mayor of São Paulo, access to Brazilian universities – and the prestigious federal universities, in particular – fostered and symbolised the vast socio-economic and racial inequality that has long characterised South America’s largest nation.

According to census data, less than 2 per cent of public university students came from the bottom fifth of households in 2004. Similarly, only 2.2 per cent of black and mixed-race Brazilians held a university degree in 2000, compared with 9.3 per cent of whites.

This reflected the fact that wealthier parents were able to pay for expensive courses to prepare their children for the gruelling, two-day entrance exam known as the “vestibular”, which was required for each major at each university they sought to enter. The inequality was also a symptom of Brazil’s underfunding of public primary and secondary education, which prompted richer parents to send their children to private secondary schools instead. These better prepared students for Brazil’s 148 free public federal universities – whose inaccessibility to swathes of the population was compounded by their concentration at the centre of principal cities.

To redress all this, the Workers’ Party expanded or created another 126 federal universities between 2003 and 2010, primarily in rural areas and urban peripheries. The numerous vestibular exams were also replaced with a revamped, standardised national high school exam (ENEM), which has since been adopted by many private and public, state-level universities.

Recognising that private for-profit universities also play an important role given the historic lack of access to public universities, Haddad also established federal grants that cover between 50 per cent and 100 per cent of tuition costs for low-income students at private universities. Those at federal universities can apply for “permanence grants” to cover the cost of books, rent and other expenses, in an attempt to reduce high attrition rates at these institutions.

During Haddad’s final year as minister of education, under Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, the national congress followed the lead of several state-level university systems and adopted admissions quotas in federal universities. These are primarily socio-economic, requiring each discipline to reserve half its places for students who completed their entire secondary education in public schools. Half those seats must be reserved for students from low-income households, and the entire quota must reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of the state in which the university is located.

According to the Higher Education Census, black and mixed-race students now represent more than 50 per cent of students at federal universities, making them the most representative of all Brazilian universities. Moreover, from 2010 to 2014, the proportion of federal university students from households earning the monthly minimum wage increased from 8 per cent to 13 per cent, and those from households earning up to three times the minimum wage rose from 41 per cent to 51 per cent. Friar David Santos, founder of the NGO Educafro, which prepares black and low-income students to take the ENEM, calls this a “silent revolution”.

But racial quotas are vehemently opposed by Haddad’s opponent in the 28 October run-off election, the inflammatory, far-right former army captain and long-time congressman Jair Bolsonaro. He states frankly that he “didn’t enslave anyone” and that quotas benefit only black students from well-off families. He vows to maintain socio-economic quotas, nevertheless.

The Workers’ Party’s reforms have been in jeopardy since Rousseff was impeached in 2016. One of Michel Temer’s first acts upon assuming the presidency was to pass a constitutional amendment that restricted spending increases on health and education to the rate of inflation for the next 20 years, sparking mass student occupations of secondary schools and universities. Federal universities are now struggling with deep budget cuts and could even face privatisation under Bolsonaro.

The catastrophic fire that destroyed the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro-administered National Museum in September has come to symbolise the potential future of free, federal public higher education in Brazil if, as predicted, Bolsonaro wins Sunday’s vote.

Stephanie Reist is a freelance writer and a postdoctoral researcher in education policy at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro. She has a PhD in Romance studies from Duke University.


Print headline: Election puts equity on the line



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