In previous articles, including in University World News, we summarised critical policy changes in Brazilian higher education since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019.
We referred to the uncertainties, controversies and hurdles to which the sector has been subjected; budget constraints imposed on science and public higher education institutions; and the president’s ideological bias against humanities and social sciences as well as the ‘Future-se’ Program, a proposal from the Ministry of Education with a neoliberal perspective intended to force more financial autonomy at federal public higher education institutions while intensifying mechanisms of production control at these institutions.
Here, we continue this reflection, presenting what we call “a chronology of tragedies”, a summary of events that have taken place in Brazilian higher education since September 2019.
These events reveal the ways federal policies have continued to threaten university autonomy, even when the public higher education sector has proven to be fundamental to fighting the current COVID-19 pandemic.
More uncertainties, controversies and pushbacks
One of the remarkable effects of Bolsonaro’s policies for higher education has been the instability that the sector has endured. Many of the new government’s measures were imposed without any dialogue with rectors, university communities or representative associations, resulting in strong resistance and initiatives being cancelled or postponed.
In addition, the third minister of education was replaced in July 2020. Abraham Weintraub’s administration was the second (after the disastrous period of Ricardo Vélez Rodriguez at the very beginning of the term) and longest (from April 2019 to June 2020), but he left the sector a very negative legacy.
After more than a year of controversies, due to his ideological positions and hostility toward public universities specifically and academics in general, Weintraub left office. His racist biases and his threats to members of the Supreme Court progressed to the point where the president could no longer justify keeping him in his position.
Perhaps one of the more egregious moments was when Weintraub showed up at a small pro-government demonstration in Brasilia in June 2020 – in the middle of one of the worst public health catastrophes in modern history – without a mask. He greeted demonstrators and proclaimed: “I don’t want more sociologists or anthropologists. I don’t want more philosophers with my money.”
Economist Carlos Alberto Decotelli da Silva was nominated to follow Weintraub. However, due to several inconsistencies regarding his academic qualifications, he was not appointed. These concerns included accusations of plagiarism in his masters thesis as well as inaccurate information about a PhD and postdoctoral qualification.
In July, Presbyterian priest Milton Ribeiro assumed the ministry, provoking new concerns following statements such as suggesting that being homosexual is a matter of education, values and principles. The minister has adopted an extremely low profile, avoiding public appearances and bombastic declarations. But, unfortunately, the situation for higher education and science is not improving at all.
More budget constraints
Budget constraints directed at public universities and science funding have continued since Weintraub’s administration and are expected to reach greater levels in 2021.
At the beginning of 2020, the federal research funding agency CAPES announced a new model for granting research scholarships to graduate students, prioritising technological areas to the exclusion of others.
Similarly, the federal agency the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) excluded humanities and social sciences from priority research projects to be funded from 2020 to 2023. This was justified in the interests of “the acceleration of the country’s economic and social development”.
CAPES and CNPq are the main funding agencies for research scholarships in Brazil. CAPES and the Ministry of Education are also responsible for the assessment and accreditation of graduate programmes so that the restriction of research funding to a few ‘priority fields’ potentially puts the development of many areas as well as academic freedom itself at risk, with serious consequences for critical thinking and wider social analysis.
Successive budget constraints on public higher education and science over recent years will be magnified as federal universities and institutes are expected to face an additional cut of 18% (approximately BRL1 billion or US$183 million) in 2021 for discretionary expenses (payments, investments and student assistance).
This situation will be worsened by the approval of a project that reallocates approximately BRL1.4 billion from the Ministry of Education to infrastructure in November 2020. This, ANDIFES and CONIF – two associations of federal higher education institutions – argue, will prevent teaching, research and extension (outreach) activities, with a direct impact on Brazilian society.
As the president of CONIF, Professor Jerônimo Rodrigues da Silva, argues: “This means that we won’t be able to effectively work next year. How can these institutions possibly function with the same budget allocated in 2014 in 2021?”
More threats to administrative autonomy
Given the rejection of the ‘Future-se Program’ by the vast majority of public federal higher education institutions, the federal government has searched for new ways to interfere in the administration of these institutions.
In June, the president published a provisional measure that would give the Ministry of Education the authority to designate a replacement if a rector’s four-year term at a federal higher education institution ends during the COVID-19 pandemic, deviating from the long and established tradition by which university leaders are elected by faculty, administrative staff and students.
As the federal government has shown very little concern with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, this measure appeared to be simply a means to interfere in the autonomy of these institutions – overriding a principle set in the Brazilian Constitution – and to make implementation of the Future-se Program more likely.
Indeed, the assertion that it is not possible to vote for new rectors during the pandemic is absurd as most activities have continued remotely and technology makes safe elections at a distance possible. Fortunately, the Senate overturned the decision two days later as it deviated from the Brazilian Constitution.
The constitutional process starts with an internal institutional vote. The Higher University Council then sends the president an ordered list with the three top nominees, typically based on the results of the institutional election.
The practice, since the return to democracy, has been that the president nominates the first name on the list, respecting the choice of the academic community. However, this has not been the case under this administration. Since 2019, the president has nominated rectors following 27 university elections, dismissing institutional choice in 10 of them.
In one case, the president’s choice was not even in the list of the top three candidates.
Even though there is no obligation to choose from the university’s list, accepting the academic community’s preference is not only a tradition, but an important expression of the autonomy, democracy and legitimacy of a sector that suffered from a lack of those qualities during the military dictatorship.
The administration of a complex university by a person who was not chosen by a majority of the community only exacerbates tensions within the academic environment.
Another issue of concern is the federal government’s aim with regard to the expansion of distance learning at public federal higher education institutions on a permanent basis. In October, the president established two working groups to present strategies on this aim.
The COVID-19 pandemic situation that has led these institutions to find ways to provide remote learning as an emergency measure has proven to be a convenient way to promote a model that has dominated the private, for-profit sector (the 2018 Higher Education Census shows 9.2 million new places were opened for students at private institutions, of which 5.8 million were for remote learning).
Issues such as quality and student access to necessary technology need to be focused on and discussed in depth with the participation of higher education institutions and representative institutions.
As Brazilian public higher education institutions have broadened access over recent years, more students from low-income families have enrolled. Therefore, the risks of digital inequality cannot be disregarded and higher education institutions must be able to think through all the implications before attempting a major shift to this type of education.
Paradoxically, despite the chronology of tragedies to which the Brazilian public higher education system has been subjected, the current moment might be considered an opportunity for these institutions to reinforce their value to society by getting closer to the communities that surround them.
After years of relentless attacks, the pandemic has opened more space in the media for faculty members to be heard and to emphasise the importance of research for tackling critical public issues, such as fighting the virus.
Indeed, public higher education institutions are responsible for 95% of the country’s research and their combined voices are an essential counterpoint to the denial of the seriousness of the virus and to the suggestion that ‘science is fiction’, a view propagated by the Bolsonaro administration.
The attempts to silence academics and control universities puts democracy, development and social well-being at risk across the country and damages the achievements that arise from university autonomy and academic freedom worldwide.
Marcelo Knobel is rector of the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP) and full professor at the Gleb Wataghin Institute of Physics, UNICAMP, Brazil. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Fernanda Leal is an executive assistant for the provost of people development and management at Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Brazil, and was a visiting scholar at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States. E-mail: email@example.com