Brazilian HE’s huge progress on racial equality is under threat

President Bolsonaro’s education cuts and opposition to racial quotas will hit current policies, says Marry Ferreira

September 23, 2019
Tattered Brazilian flag
Source: iStock/Derek Brumby

This year, the proportion of black students at Brazil’s federal universities has reached a historic high of 51.2 per cent. That compares with a mere 2 per cent as recently as 2002.

In addition, according to the National Association of Leaders of Federal Institutions of Higher Education (Andifes), 70.2 per cent of all currently enrolled Brazilian students are from low-income families.

These achievements come in the 16th year of the so-called Quota Law, which reserves 50 per cent of places in public universities for black, indigenous, low-income or disabled students. In what has been described as a silent revolution by educators, the law has overturned the previous near monopolisation of places by middle-class Caucasians; in 2005, only 5.5 per cent of black youths of college age attended a university.

The transformation has also been driven by the University for All Programme (ProUni). Introduced in 2009, it offers scholarships at private institutions for low-income students, increasing their enrolment to 28.1 per cent of the total by 2016. This provides at least some redress for Brazil’s history of slavery and racism.

However, the democratisation of the country’s higher education system needs to go much further. There is still not enough funding to ensure that poor and black students complete their courses. About 43 per cent of students have a monthly income below Brazil’s official poverty line of R927 (£185), but only 30 per cent benefit from the National Student Assistance Plan, which offers scholarships, food aid, transport and housing. At the University of Brasília (UNB), for instance, 69.1 per cent of students are from low-income families, but only 27 per cent have scholarships.

According to Andifes, almost 30 per cent of students report financial difficulties; and nearly one in 10 has taken a leave of absence because of financial issues. According to UNB’s undergraduate dean, Brazil must spend more on student assistance and housing if it is to cut its dropout rate. Further room for improvement is suggested by the fact that 23 per cent of Brazilian students do not live in the city where they study and 54 per cent of those who commute between 10km and 50km say that the travel has made them consider dropping out.

Equality also requires addressing the fact that richer students, with university-educated parents, are significantly more likely to enrol on courses offering high prestige and robust financial returns. Black students make up only 28 per cent of medical students and 30 per cent of engineering students, compared with 60 per cent of those on social work programmes and 55 per cent of those in teacher training.

Why? According to a recent study, black and low-income students often lack the confidence, funding and educational background needed to apply for competitive programmes: “While choices are made by individual students themselves, the opportunities they encounter are not their decisions because they depend on conditions of life and opportunities that they do not choose,” the report says.

This has wider social effects. In Brazil, 70 per cent of the users of the public health system are black, but racism affects the quality of care they receive. Even official government reports suggest that more black medical students and physicians would promote a broader debate on how to address this.

Yet far from pushing for more advances, Brazilian education is struggling to maintain even its present position. The Bolsonaro government’s reduction of education spending and submission of draft laws revoking racial quotas will directly affect current policies. There are already irregularities in scholarship payments; for instance, at Fluminense Federal University, there has been an increase in informal commerce on campus, with students selling cakes and coffee to supplement their scholarship support.

In May, thousands of people protested in 222 cities against the funding cuts. But for those committed to preserving public universities and free education, that is likely to be just the beginning of a long and difficult struggle in the current political climate.

Marry Ferreira is a Brazilian journalist and a master’s student in public media at Fordham University in New York City. Her research is focused on social inequalities in Brazil, gender-based violence and racism in the media.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Towards a less equal society

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