Over the past four years, the government of President Jair Bolsonaro has made major budget cuts to public universities in Brazil. As the second and final round of the presidential elections approached, his government announced a new freezing of funds, again provoking student anger. The fields of education, culture and environmental studies have been favorite targets of the far-right president, who has declared these institutions to be leftist hotbeds.
By cutting more than 450 million euros from the budget of federal universities on October 5 – just three days after the first round of presidential elections – Bolsonaro caused a new outpouring of anger. On October 18, protests against yet another budget cut took place in nearly 70 cities across Brazil.
In Rio de Janeiro, students, teachers and other education union members marched from Candelária Church to Cinelândia in the city center. “We are here because education is Bolsonaro’s worst enemy,” said Jessica Pinheiro, 19, a social science student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Jessica is part of the Juntos UFRJ student union, which she joined when she started university a year ago. “We came to stop these cuts,” Pinheiro continued.
“Jair Bolsonaro’s government is the one that has targeted universities the most.”
Signs and slogans “Out, Bolsonaro” condemn the far-right president and his crusade against education. Faced with protests, the government was forced to backtrack temporarily, freezing the budget until December.
“When people take to the streets, they can change things. Every time we demonstrate, we manage to push back the government, whether on the streets or on social media,” Pinheiro said.
But according to the national association of directors of federal establishments of higher education (Andifes), the situation remains disastrous. Successive budget cuts are already jeopardizing the functioning of universities and making it difficult to pay staff.
Federal universities in distress
Federal university budget cuts began in 2015 when Dilma Rousseff (of the Workers’ Party) was president, but accelerated under Bolsonaro.
The country’s 68 public federal universities are now in dire straits. According to UFRJ finance secretary Eduardo Raupp, “the UFRJ budget has decreased by more than 13 million euros between 2019 and 2022, without taking inflation into account”.
The 102-year-old Federal University of Rio de Janeiro is the best and largest in Brazil – with 67,000 students, 4,200 teachers, 1,500 research laboratories and 45 libraries. It is the third best university in Latin America, according to the 2022 EduRank ranking of universities in Latin America. It is a national and international reference for education and science, arts and culture.
But over the years, declining funding has deeply damaged buildings and operations. Located downtown on Largo São Francisco de Paula, UFRJ’s Institute of Philosophy and Social Sciences is hard to spot. In this former psychiatric hospital, built more than 120 years ago, all that remains of its past splendor is its wooden staircase. Today you find dirty toilets, weeds, broken furniture, crumbling walls, leaks and broken elevators.
“The university can no longer afford to pay the cleaning staff. The workforce is smaller. As a result, there is a lot of neglect,” explained Ligia Bahia, a professor at UFRJ’s faculty of medicine and a public health researcher.
Since the start of the pandemic, thousands of scholarships and fellowships have also been suspended. Beyond physical infrastructure, the entire education system is in danger.
Bahia, who signed a call to vote for Bolsonaro’s challenger and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, pointed out that scientific study is in serious trouble in crucial areas such as biodiversity, public safety and even virology. .
“Brazil already has a low level of scientific and technological research. [With these cuts], the country will be left behind. We will not be able to be there at the start of innovations and we will be behind the international scientific community.
The Ministry of Education in crisis
Since 2019, the Ministry of Education has been affected by a series of crises caused by polemics and rapid turnover. In June, Brazilian police arrested Milton Ribeiro, then Bolsonaro’s education minister, for bribery and influence peddling in the distribution of public funds.
In March, the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper published a recording in which the minister declared that he was giving priority to granting subsidies to schools in municipalities run by “friends”, in particular two influential pastors, at the request of the President Bolsonaro. According to news reports, one of the pastors asked a mayor to give him a kilo of gold in return for approving his application for school funding.
Ribeiro resigned following the scandal. He faces a sentence of two to five years in prison for influence peddling and two to twelve years for corruption. Brazil has had five education ministers in quick succession during Bolsonaro’s tenure. This state of affairs, coupled with the Covid-19 crisis, has greatly weakened the Brazilian education system as a whole.
Access to university at stake
A few days before the protest march in Rio, the student union Juntos UFRJ met under the trees in the courtyard of the Institute of Philosophy and Social Sciences. The microphone went around the circle where they were seated.
“For me, protest is necessary. My family is black. Only two or three of us made it to college. It’s a feat for me. And I come back knowing that it could close”, worries Jessica.
Under banners proclaiming “Racists, out! and posters bearing the likeness of Lula, history student Dulce Silva speaks. With a broad smile and a powerful voice, she reminds the captivated audience that “every year it’s the same story, we are told once again that the university is in danger of closing”. While she says she doesn’t fully agree with Lula, she sees him as a better option than Bolsonaro: “At least Lula isn’t going to attack us like Jair Bolsonaro’s government is doing. Lula managed to do great things for universities. So many people managed to go to university because of him.
Many students and teachers believe that the Bolsonaro government wants to privatize the management of universities because it sees them as a threat to its grip on power. “For Jair Bolsonaro, universities bring together intellectual elites where anti-racist ideas, feminism, gender ideology develop. He sees universities as places that destroy the religious and conservative values he stands for,” Bahia said.
Pro-Lula student activism
In 2005, Lula’s government facilitated access to education for disadvantaged students by introducing the University for All program (University program for Todos, in Portuguese), which has set up a system of scholarships for low-income students. As a result, higher education enrollment more than doubled under the Lula and Rousseff governments, from 3.5 million in 2002 to over 7.1 million in 2014, according to the National Institute for and educational research Anísio Teixeira.
During a first vitriolic televised debate between the two rounds of voting, the former president did not fail to recall his record in education compared to that of Bolsonaro. Lula asked him twice how many universities and technical schools he had opened under his presidency. Bolsonaro did not give him a figure and blamed the Covid-19 crisis.
The leftist former president has promised to make education and college access a priority if he wins on Sunday. And for many UFRJ students, voting for Lula is an obvious choice.