Brazil funding cuts ‘threat to democracy’, global scholars warn

Open letter signed by more than 1,500 academics worldwide urges Brazilian government to shelve proposals to withdraw philosophy and sociology in public universities

May 3, 2019
Brazil money

Academics from across the globe have called on the Brazilian government to cancel savage cuts to university funding that target specific institutions and subjects – a move they say could have a devastating effect on the country’s democracy.

An open letter published by scholars in Canada, Germany and the Netherlands gained more than 1,500 signatures within 24 hours, according to its authors. In it, academics condemn a proposal by President Jair Bolsonaro to withdraw public funding for philosophy and sociology in favour of subjects that “generate immediate return to the taxpayer”.

At the same time, Brazil’s Ministry of Education announced that it would cut funding to federal universities found to promote campus unrest – for instance by allowing “political events”, “partisan rallies” or protests – at the same time as slipping in their academic performance.

Education minister Abraham Weintraub, who was brought in to replace Ricardo Vélez after he was sacked in April, said that three universities – the University of Brasília, Fluminense Federal University and the Federal University of Bahia – would all have their annual budgets reduced by 30 per cent, effective immediately.

He later backtracked on targeting the individual institutions after evidence was presented of their successful assessment results, opting instead to cut 30 per cent of “discretionary” (non-salary or pensions-related) funding to all 63 federal institutions.

Academics have labelled the move an attack on university autonomy and have accused the minister of introducing “gag laws”, however.

Adriana Marotti de Mello, professor of business at the University of São Paulo, said that targeting universities to curb public spending was “totally unacceptable” and signified that “democracy, not just academia, is under a terrible attack”.

“We really need the support of the international community on this,” she told Times Higher Education.

Sergio Tenenbaum, a Brazilian native who is now an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, co-authored the open letter in defence of his subject after the budget announcements.

He concurred that the right-wing government’s proposals “could seriously endanger not just philosophy and sociology, but academic life in general, with broader social and political consequences”.

“I am very concerned about Brazil’s fledgling democracy,” he told THE. “Such attacks on universities, and particularly on the humanities and social sciences, are attacks on a society’s capacity for self-understanding and critical thinking, and thus their capacity for improving and maintaining its democratic institutions”.

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