On 1 January, former army captain and until then unsuccessful far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro assumed Brazil’s presidency, having won the most polarised election in the country’s recent history.
One of his main promises was to fight corruption and crime – a big issue in a country with 32.4 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017; Bolsonaro himself was stabbed at one of the rallies while surrounded by thousands of supporters.
The cornerstone of his campaign, nonetheless, was to position himself as an alternative to the leftists, who were in charge of the country from 2003 to 2016.
Education was not a central subject for the presidential hopeful. Bolsonaro’s government plan promoted children’s education “without indoctrination” – a stab at what Bolsonaro’s first education minister, Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez, referred to as enforcing “Marxist ideology” in schools.
After beginning his term, the president reaffirmed the priority he placed on primary education. Now, a set of budget freezes to the country’s federally funded universities has provoked the first mass protests against the newly elected government.
Vélez Rodríguez, a Colombian philosopher and professor, did not last long in office. He assumed his post with the intention of focusing on municipal education, adopting the motto “More Brazil, Less Brasilia”, referring to the country’s capital.
Access to higher education is a big issue across the country as Brazil has lower indexes of secondary schooling compared to neighbours like Argentina and Chile, for example.
However, following a string of controversies – such as suggesting that schools should film students during the singing of the national anthem or that “not everyone should go to university” – and the failure to produce any significant results, Vélez Rodríguez was dismissed just three months into his tenure.
The president appointed Abraham Weintraub, an economist and professor at the Federal University of São Paulo, as his replacement. In his first speech, the new minister stated that “it is time to calm the mood” and “respect different opinions”.
But despite this initial conciliatory tone, Weintraub did not take long to produce a controversy of his own. On 30 April, the minister said that universities with low performance ratings are a “shambles” and would have their federal budgets cut.
When questioned about what he understands a “shambles” to be, the minister was reported as saying: “The Landless Workers’ Movement [a social group which advocates for agrarian reform] on campus, people naked on campus.”
Initially, the 30% budget freeze affected three of the most prominent federal universities: the University of Brasilia (UnB), Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) and Fluminense Federal University (UFF).
The minister has said that it is essential to focus on academic publications and rankings. However, according to Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings, UnB and UFBA have improved their performance compared to the previous year and UFF has maintained the same position.
Rankings produced by Brazil’s leading newspaper, the Folha de São Paolo, show the three institutions cited by the minister have ranked among the 20 best universities in the country since 2012.
So, within two days of the initial announcement the cuts were extended to all government-funded higher education institutions in Brazil: 69 federal universities and 39 federal institutes.
The minister of education was called to the parliament to explain the cuts and stated that “the priority is preschool, elementary school and technical school”. However, federal institutes, of which Brazil has some 640 and which offer mainly technical courses, were also affected by the measure.
The US$1.8 billion cuts correspond to 3.4% of the total budget, but if we only consider non-mandatory expenses, which include water, electricity, internet and other services, universities will have around 30% less money.
Weintraub says the measure did not constitute a cut, but rather a budget freeze. According to the minister, the institutions could receive the full amount if the government financial accounts improve.
Weintraub has blamed previous administrations, calling them “a disaster” and has linked the cuts to a possible reversal of the freeze on public pension reform, which the opposition called a “blackmail tactic”.
The announcement has caused great concern in the Brazilian educational community, primarily because, in the past four years, the amount invested in the sector has fallen by 54%.
Based on the current and previous cuts, the deans of federal universities and institutes affirm that there is no way to further cut costs. Some institutions like IFES, UFPE, IFPI, UFPel, among others, say they only have enough money to operate until October.
On 15 May, tens of thousands took to the streets of more than 200 cities around the country, protesting against the cuts. The country has not seen national demonstrations on this scale since the 2016 impeachment protests against Rousseff.
Bolsonaro predictably did not react well to the first wave of mass protest against him, calling the demonstrators “useful idiots” and “imbeciles”.
The president went on to defend the cuts as necessary, given that his government is making a broader effort to decrease public expenditure.
In recent weeks, Bolsonaro has shared on Twitter his intention to cut public funding for sociology and philosophy courses. The postgraduate research agency, CAPES, has also declared the suspension of new grants and fellowships to masters and PhD students.
In addition to the cuts, Bolsonaro has been one of the biggest supporters of the School Without Party – a project which began as a conservative movement against what it considers to be the spread of left-leaning thinking in schools and universities. Educators, on the other hand, consider the initiative to be a form of censorship and an attempt to pit students against teachers.
Due to its controversial nature, the project, whose ideas were put before the country’s parliament in 2015, has been abandoned. However, the government rhetoric, combined with its latest actions, creates an impression that education and those who provide it are enemies of the Bolsonaro administration.
These contentious education reforms will no doubt contribute to a further slide in Bolsonaro’s popularity. In March, he had the lowest approval ratings for the first three months in office for a newly elected president since the mid-1990s. More than that, the freezing of the education budget has brought condemnation from some of Bolsonaro’s allies, like the Ceará state member of Parliament, Wagner Gomes.
The proposals have met with widespread criticism. First of all, federal universities’ autonomy over their budgets is mandated by the Brazilian Constitution. It is a fact that Brazil needs to improve education, whether primary, secondary or higher.
Some of Bolsonaro’s ideas on education do have supporters, such as linking public investment to performance to boost achievements. Even though it is controversial, the approach of prioritising elementary school to the detriment of higher education also has many defenders.
It is true that previous presidents have also made cuts or frozen education budgets. However, cutting funding and creating what has become an open war with public institutions, which are responsible for 95% of all research in the country, doesn’t seem the right way to improve the education system.
Difficult days ahead
In the midst of such attacks and decreasing investment, millions of Brazilian students are concerned about the effects of this political wrangling. The messages coming from the president and minister of education are not currently cause for optimism among the education community.
The protests were subsidised by students and education associations. Although there were leftists’ flags during the demonstrations – a fact exploited by Bolsonaro and his supporters – the majority of protesters were not connected to any political party.
If there is an ideological proximity between the education sector and the left, the strikes faced by former leftists presidents Lula da Silva in 2005 and 2006 and Dilma Rousseff in 2012 show that this affinity is not as strong as Bolsonaro makes it out to be.
The Bolsonaro government continues to argue in favour of the cuts, despite the protests and internal dissatisfaction. For both students and educators across Brazil, it looks as if there are difficult days ahead.
Lenin Cavalcanti Guerra is a Brazilian professor and researcher in Latin American politics. He has a PhD in public administration. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. This article was first published in The Fair Observer.
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