Polymath boys from Brazil

March 5, 1999

Cardoso's cabinet is full of ministers with one foot in business and another in academia. Robert Ward reports.

Fernando Henrique Cardoso, re-elected president of Brazil last year, is once again surrounded by academics in his cabinet. He needs all the best brains he can muster as he struggles to keep Brazil's economy on track.

Apart from Pedro Malan, the impressive finance minister, who has a PhD in economics and is a visiting professor of economics at the Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro, there is a plethora of other academics earning their keep in the capital, Brasilia.

A heavyweight hitter has been added to the list in the person of Celso Lafer, the 57-year-old former Brazilian ambassador to the World Trade Organisation, who has been made minister for development. Lafer was professor of philosophy and international relations at Sio Paulo University from 1971 to 1988, took a doctorate in political science at Cornell University and has 21 academic books to his credit.

Fernando Celso Garcia de Freitas, who lectures at the GetNolio Vargas Foundation and Catholic University, said: "Fernando Henrique is the first president of Brazil from an academic background and he is the first one seriously to try to change education.

"Never before have we had so many academics running the country. Before Fernando Henrique, education was at the bottom of the pile of priorities, now it is rising. The budget for education has been increasing every year at every level and this is despite the overall government expenditure decreasing."

Cardoso, who was Simon Bolivar professor at Cambridge University (1976-77), and also taught at Stanford University (1972) and in Paris (1980-81), still lectures occasionally at his alma mater, Sio Paulo University, which has 6,000 students and more PhDs than any university in Brazil.

The country has 68 public universities with 571,608 students and some 73,797 lecturers. This compares with 59 private universities, with 34,3 lecturers and 463,118 students, according to the latest government figures. With a population of 161 million and expected to grow to 190 million by 2010, and living standards and expectations rising, even more student places are needed.

It costs a student R$8,300 (Pounds 2,500) to study at public universities such as Sio Paulo University but only about R$1,000 more at top private universities, such as Rio's GetNolio Vargas Foundation and the Catholic University. The average salary for a lecturer is R$3,000 per month.

One small snag for higher education is that President Cardoso is placing a greater emphasis on primary and secondary education than on post-16 education.

A long strike last year by federal university professors highlighted the dilemma facing policy-makers - higher salaries for academics against a reallocation of public resources from universities to primary and secondary schools.

Cardoso first became president in October 1994, but his influence was felt before that when, as finance minister, he devised the Real Plan, which helped the country conquer inflation - it was raging at 2,400 per cent a year in 1992 but is now in single figures, although that could rise after January's devaluation.

And it is not just the influence of Cardoso that permeates the Brazilian government and makes education such a priority. There can be few countries in the world where so many ministers of state and key decision-makers are academics or ex-academics.

Planning minister Paulo de Tarso Almeida Paiva is also an economics professor and lectures at the Catholic University once a week. Luiz Carlos Bresser Pereira, economics professor at the Vargas Institute, Sio Paulo, has been made science and technology minister.

And one of the main exponents of the "foot in both camps" philosophy is Antonio Rocca, who was the head of the trade department in Brasilia in the 1970s but is now professor of economics at Sio Paulo University and president of Mappin Megastore (a huge domestic appliances retailer). There are dozens more examples in the house of deputies and senate, which make up congress.

It is very much a tradition in Brazil for academics to float effortlessly between academia, government and business circles.

One academic spends his mornings working at SindusCon, a huge Brazilian construction conglomerate, as an economic assessor. Then in the afternoon he travels over to the Vargas and finishes the evenings at the Catholic University.

His day starts at 9am and on average finishes at 9pm, sometimes 11pm, with five weeks' holiday a year, like most academics in Brazil.

What would United Kingdom and United States academics make of that routine? Students have similarly heavy work/study loads. To pay for their studies many students take on full-time jobs and study in the evenings (from 6.30-10pm three to five days a week) and Saturdays.

These strong links between the economy, academia and government have their roots in the period after the second world war when the former president and dictator GetNolio Vargas tried to modernise the state and industrialise the country and needed well-educated, trained cadres to do it.

He founded the Brazilian Institute of Economics in Rio de Janeiro in 1950 to form this cadre force. It changed its name to the GetNolio Vargas Foundation after Vargas committed suicide in August 1954.

Vargas believed in the power of the technocrats to transform the country and improve the lot of the very poorest. The present government has inherited the same task many decades on.

Robert Ward is a writer on trade and shipping with a special interest in Central and South America.

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