A change in leadership for education in Brazil offers little hope for academic freedom, with fresh scandal surrounding president Jair Bolsonaro’s administration having the potential to impact on the sector, scholars have warned.
The right-wing authoritarian leader marked the end of his first trimester in power this month by sacking the former education minister Ricardo Vélez and replacing him with an economist with ties to government.
Mr Vélez, a known supporter of militarising the school system, faced a public showdown in congress in March, where he was criticised by opposition members for his failure to draw up any proposal or policy plan.
Posting on Twitter this month, Mr Bolsonaro announced that Abraham Weintraub, a political adviser and former economics professor at the Federal University of São Paulo, would replace Mr Vélez with immediate effect.
The departure of Mr Vélez – who was also accused of “whitewashing” the teaching of Brazil’s 1964 military coup – has been widely celebrated. However, academics have told Times Higher Education of fears over the new minister’s equally controversial approaches.
“We continue to have a minister who has no idea of his role, is unaware of the real problems of Brazilian education and has a fanciful ideological discourse,” said Frederico Dourado Morais, professor of pedagogy at the State University of Goiás. “The difference in Vélez is the economistic bias.”
“The threat [to academic freedom] is really overwhelming,” said Adriana Marotti de Mello, professor of business at the University of São Paulo. She added that Mr Weintraub "has the same dangerous ideas about ‘cultural wars’, ‘cultural Marxism’" as his predecessor.
The comments follow reports of clashes between university educators and supporters of the Bolsonaro party, who have pledged a crackdown on “corrupt, leftist ideologies” they say are taught in universities.
Earlier this year, rumours that scholarship candidates would be forced to take an “ideology” test provoked alarm, but were later denied by Brazil’s federal postgraduate funding body.
Like his predecessor, Mr Weintraub is a vocal follower of Olavo de Carvalho, a conspiracy theorist favoured by Mr Bolsonaro and known for his provocative YouTube videos championing military rule and flat Earth theory.
Mr Weintraub, who previously worked in the financial sector, made headlines last year for arguing that crack cocaine had been deliberately introduced to Brazil as part of a communist plot.
His close acquaintance with the president’s head of staff has also enraged some in the sector, who have alleged that many ministerial appointments are nepotistic.
“Bolsonaro was elected promising that these appointments would be technical and not political,” said Fernanda Esteva, associate professor at the São Paulo School of Economics. “Given their lack of knowledge in the area, it is hard to believe they are technical. My guess is that he is trying to please his right-wing supporters and his sons, who seem to be involved in many of these choices.”
In a recent radio interview, Mr Bolsonaro once again made clear his dissatisfaction with the public university sector, fuelling further outrage among the academic community. Speaking on Rádio Jovem Pan on 8 April, the president defended a 43 per cent cut to Ministry of Science and Technology budgets by suggesting a number of individual institutions had squandered public funding over time.
“We have 68 universities that spend half the budget. Few universities have research,” he said.