V-c: coronavirus shifting public perception of science in Brazil

Universities are steering the country’s response to Covid-19 in the absence of political leadership, which is helping citizens value higher education, says rector

May 6, 2020
An image of Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro wearing a protective face mask and the phrase Hysteria Damages the Economy is projected on the wall of a building as a protest against the president regarding his handling of the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak
Source: Getty
Out of step: unlike Brazil’s president, universities are trusted, says rector

The coronavirus crisis has helped to improve the public perception of universities in Brazil, according to a leading vice-chancellor, who added that the pandemic had led to “a turning point” in science engagement.

After facing more than a year of university-bashing by the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, higher education was finally beginning to demonstrate its worth to Brazil’s citizens, said Marcelo Knobel, rector of the University of Campinas (Unicamp).

Professor Knobel said that since the Bolsonaro administration took power in January 2019, universities have faced “strong persecution by the government, which said that public universities are worthless, they cost so much and they don’t do anything”.

Mr Bolsonaro’s disregard for science has continued during the Covid-19 crisis, with the president denouncing media “hysteria” over the dangers of the pandemic, undermining social distancing guidelines and, despite a lack of medical evidence, promoting the anti-malaria drug chloroquine as a potential cure for the disease.

As problematic as that is, Professor Knobel suggested that the government’s anti-science stance was having less influence on the public in the coronavirus era.

“Everyone is now confident that the universities and the research will have the response for this pandemic,” he said.

“If we can take a positive side of this crisis, it is that, at least in Brazil, we can now show to society that public universities are really important to the future of the country and the future of the world…This is an important turning point from the political situation we were facing in Brazil.”

He added that “universities should use as much as possible this opportunity to really improve their communication with society”.

However, Professor Knobel said that while Unicamp and other state universities have the autonomy to make institutional changes and determine their own priorities, they are still reliant on the federal government for funding for fellowships, scholarships and research.

“Even in the middle of this pandemic, the government is making very important changes in terms of funding for science. This is really worrisome,” he said, adding that the administration had reduced the number of scholarships and changed how this money was being distributed.

Meanwhile, about 70 per cent of Unicamp’s budget comes from a percentage of the value-added tax levied by the state of São Paulo – an income stream that Professor Knobel said was likely to “drop drastically” as a result of a coronavirus-induced economic slowdown. While shrinking funding is a problem that universities across the world are grappling with, public universities in Brazil have little scope to reduce their costs.

“Every member of staff that we have is a public servant, so we cannot close things or fire anyone. We take care as well of the retired personnel, so we have in our payroll about 15,000 people, and we cannot reduce that,” he said.

“The only way to work is to try to reduce everyday costs and try not to increase the payroll by not hiring anyone and not progressing careers.”

Amid the crisis, Professor Knobel continued, the university was trying to ensure that it did not “leave any student behind” in its shift to online education. Unicamp has bought mobile phone SIM cards with prepaid data for 500 students, while a similar number have been lent computers that have been donated by volunteers or departments at the university.

“The main word here is ‘flexibility’,” said Professor Knobel.

“Students can drop out of their course or cancel the semester without any implications for them. We are trying to make the bureaucracy of the university as flexible as possible in order to accommodate this really weird and unusual situation.”

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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