São Paulo rector sees no end in sight to Brazil’s turmoil

Dramatic cuts to public funding and an exodus of talent in the midst of an economic crisis endanger country’s position as a leader in Latin American higher education

June 10, 2018
Protest

The leader of Brazil’s biggest public university fears that upcoming elections will do little to end the instability and funding shortages that plague the country’s higher education sector.

Vahan Agopyan, rector of the University of São Paulo, told Times Higher Education that the likely consequence was a decline in scientific output and a continuing exodus of academic talent to more stable economies.

Political instability was “a huge threat to the future of education and public services in Brazil”, said Professor Agopyan.

“Everything depends on these elections and the new government,” he said. “We have a large number of candidates from both left and right but I am not confident [about any of them] prioritising higher education.”

Brazil has fallen into its worst recession on record and public services have largely been put on hold until October’s general election. With jailed former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva barred from running, right-winger Jair Bolsonaro currently tops the polls.

Meanwhile, federal funding for science and technology is at its lowest level in recent history, prompting nationwide protests. Last October, Brazilian scientists delivered a petition with more than 80,000 signatures to Congress, demanding a reversal of in-year budget cuts of 44 per cent.

These cuts have left many universities and research institutions insolvent, and in some cases forced them to close – something that Professor Agopyan called “very dangerous and problematic” for the development of Brazil as a knowledge economy.

“The biggest difficulties for Brazilian universities always lie in lack of financial support,” he told THE. “But right now, we are not in normal times. Political uncertainty is driving students and faculty members abroad more than ever and our salaries remain very low, which makes it all the more difficult to keep them.”

Professor Agopyan’s position is unusual in that he leads one of only a handful of universities in the country that are autonomous from both the state and the church. This allows USP some “protection in the ability to decide salaries and plan ahead”, he said, a luxury that other state institutions do not have. USP’s autonomy is its “most important quality”, according to Professor Agopyan, but in the current economic climate even the more independent institutions are at risk.

“In São Paulo, we have a state foundation of support for research that is very stable so we haven’t suffered as much as others, but we have a reduction of federal government scholarships, which is a major problem for our graduate programmes and it affects our future,” he warned.

In Brazil, just 28 per cent of all students attend public universities. Private institutions have grown dramatically in recent years – having received an unexpected push from the ousted left-wing government – but this is often accepted in economically poorer countries as a method of boosting access and taking the strain off public funding.

Professor Agopyan said that he was very concerned about the motives behind the apparent privatisation of the sector, however.

“These are for-profit businesses and the quality of education they produce is low,” he said. “I wonder [whether], the more private universities we have, the less the federal government needs to worry about paying in[to public services]. And where does that leave us?”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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