Brazil’s public universities facing crisis as cuts deepen

Federal institutions vow to fight back against Jair Bolsonaro’s restrictive policies

October 27, 2019
Professors and students protest against cuts to federal spending on higher education planned by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing government in Brasilia in May 2019
Source: Reuters
Professors and students protest against cuts to federal spending on higher education planned by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing government in Brasilia in May 2019

Brazil’s public universities are facing a difficult and uncertain future, as brutal cuts instituted by the government of Jair Bolsonaro take effect.

After almost a year under the Bolsonaro government, academics told Times Higher Education that public institutions were reeling from staff cuts, a limited ability to conduct research and restrictions on student resources.

In April this year, Bolsonaro’s right-wing government announced that it was cutting the non-salary budgets for federal universities by 30 per cent and halving the budget of the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communication. At the same, Abraham Weintraub, the minister for education, threatened to withdraw funding from sociology and philosophy departments in universities in favour of subjects that “generate immediate return to the taxpayer”.

The announcements prompted thousands of students, teachers and academics to take to the streets of more than 200 Brazilian cities in protest in May

Frederico Dourado Morais, professor of pedagogy at the State University of Goiás, said that “this first year of the Bolsonaro government has confirmed the predictions we had”. Because salary and pensions are protected, the cuts have severely affected the day-to-day operations of universities. “The university day has already been affected,” he said. “[We have experienced] staff cuts, reduction of research grants, cancellation of academic activities, late payment of suppliers and there is a possibility that activities at universities may be halted before the end of the semester.”

Fernando Leal, a PhD candidate at Santa Catarina State University, agreed. “Higher education in Brazil is very unstable now and every day we are – negatively – surprised with the minister of education’s declarations and proposals,” he said.

In May, the Ministry of Education also announced that it was freezing funding for postgraduate scholarships this year. Thousands of scholarships have been cut already, and academics fear that more are on the way.

Then, in July, the government announced a national policy, Future-se, a new financial model for universities that would apparently bring about better autonomy for federal institutions by encouraging them to increase their resources and boost entrepreneurship. However, the policy has faced widespread criticism for encouraging the privatisation of education and outsourcing of management.

One rector called it an “ideological attack” on higher education. In August this year, Brazil’s largest federal university, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, announced that it would not join the Future-se programme, and it was swiftly followed by the majority of other federal universities.  

As the crisis deepens, more protests have sprung up. Last month, students at Santa Catarina went on strike and demonstrations have been organised in dozens of cities.

Marcelo Knobel, rector of the State University of Campinas, said that the problems were getting worse. “Every day is a surprise. Every day we are worried about what will happen next,” he told THE.

However, Professor Knobel said that he and other rectors were trying to combat the anti-higher education sentiment among government politicians, by getting them to come and visit their universities.

“I want them to understand the role of the university, what our research does for society,” he said. “We are trying to improve our communications as well. It is actually a problem all over the world: we [universities] are failing to show what we really do for the development of society.”

Professor Morais also added that the academic community had begun to organise itself “to explain to society the consequences of the budget cuts”.

However, Professor Knobel warned that “this takes time and we are under attack right now”.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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