In Brazil, the college is in Jair Bolsonaro’s crosshairs

For four years, Jair Bolsonaro’s government has multiplied budget cuts in favor of Brazil’s public universities. Education is one of the far-right leader’s favorite goals, which he likens to a “communist den.”

With the announcement of a cut of more than 450 million euros in the budget of federal universities on October 5, just three days after the first round of the presidential election, Jair Bolsonaro set the powder on fire.

On October 18, demonstrations took place in almost 70 cities in Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro, students, teachers and national education workers’ unions marched from Candelária Church to Cinelândia Square in the city center.

“We’re here because education is Bolsonaro’s worst enemy,” said Jessica Pinheiro, a 19-year-old social sciences student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). Big glasses on her nose, the youthful face, Jessica is part of the student association “Juntos UFRJ”, which she joined a year ago right after her studies. “We come to block these cuts,” Jessica continues. Jair Bolsonaro’s government is the one that has attacked universities the most.” The “Bolsonaro out” signs and slogans castigate the far-right president and his crusade against education.

Given the scale of the mobilization, the government was forced to scale back the budget and freeze it until December, Jessica says with satisfaction: “When people take to the streets, they manage to change things! Every time we demonstrate, we manage to make a difference to the government, whether on the streets or on social media.

Jessica Pinheiro Social Sciences student at UFRJ, Student Union "UFRJ Juntos" in Rio de Janeiro on October 18, 2022.
Jessica Pinheiro Social Sciences student at UFRJ, student association “Juntos UFRJ” in Rio de Janeiro on October 18, 2022. © Julia Courtois

Federal universities in agony

But will freezing the education budget be enough? According to the National Association of Directors of Federal Universities (Andifes), previous budget cuts are threatening the ability of universities to function and making it difficult to pay their staff.

This steady decline in federal university budgets, which began with the presidency of Dilma Rousseff (Labor Party) in 2015, accelerated under that of Jair Bolsonaro.

The country’s 68 public federal universities are in agony. According to Eduardo Raupp, UFRJ finance secretary, “between 2019 and 2022, the budget fell by more than 13 million euros, not counting inflation.”

For example, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), top-ranked in the country and third-ranked university in Latin America (EduRank 2022), has suffered a decline in funding over the years that has profoundly damaged its buildings and operations.

Located in the heart of the city, on Largo São Francisco de Paula, the UFRJ Institute of Philosophy and Social Sciences is a sight to behold. Dirty toilets, broken furniture, dilapidated walls, water leaks, broken elevators… Built more than 120 years ago, this former psychiatric hospital only retains its wooden staircase from its former glory.

“The university can no longer afford to pay the cleaning staff. The numbers are smaller. As a result, there is a lot of neglect,” explains Ligia Bahia, a professor at the UFRJ School of Medicine and a public health researcher.

Beyond the university aspect, the entire education system is at risk. Thousands of grants and fellowships have been cut since the pandemic began. Ligia Bahia, who signed an appeal to elect left-wing ex-president Lula on Sunday October 30, stresses that scientific production faces major difficulties in crucial areas such as biodiversity, public safety or even virology. “Brazil is already at a small stage of scientific and technological research. [Avec ces coupes]the country will not be able to be the origin of innovations and will lag behind the international scientific community,” she regrets.

The Ministry of Education in crisis

Budget cuts, unsanitary buildings, unpaid wages, desperate research… And the Ministry of Education in crisis. Since 2019, the ministry has been plagued by a series of scandals, causing ministerial waltz and mounting instability.

In June 2022, Brazilian police arrested Milton Ribeiro, then President Jair Bolsonaro’s education minister, who was accused of corruption and tampering with the allocation of public funds. In March, the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper unveiled a recording in which the minister said he was giving priority to grants to schools in congregations run by “friends”, including two influential pastors, at President Bolsonaro’s request. According to the Brazilian press, one of the suspected pastors even asked a mayor for a kilo of gold in order to receive subsidies. After this scandal, Milton Ribeiro resigned. He faces two to five years in prison for influence activities and two to twelve years for corruption.

A total of five education ministers followed each other during Jair Bolsonaro’s tenure. This catastrophic management, in addition to the Covid-19 crisis, has deeply weakened the Brazilian education system.

Access to university is at stake

In this context, a few days before the parade in the streets of Rio, the student association “Juntos UFRJ” met under the trees in the courtyard of the Institute of Philosophy and Social Sciences. Sitting in a circle, the microphone goes from hand to hand.

“For me, mobilization is a necessity. My family is black. Only two or three of us managed to go to university. For me it is a conquest. worried Jessica.

Dulce Silva, a history student, begins her intervention under banners “Out with the racists” and posters with a picture of Lula. With a big smile and a carrying voice, she reminds the riveted assembly that “every year it’s the same story, we’re told the university is about to close”. And to add, not entirely agreeing with Lula but feeling that he is a better option than Jair Bolsonaro. “Lula did a great job for the university… thanks to him, so many people got into the university,” says Dulce Silva.

For both students and teachers, the government actually wants to privatize the administration of the universities, which it perceives as an enemy of power. “For Jair Bolsonaro, universities bring together intellectual elites in which anti-racist, feminist ideas and gender ideologies develop … He sees universities as places that destroy the religious and conservative values ​​that he defends,” analyzes Ligia Bahia.

Dulce Silva (left) and Jessica Pinheiro (right) during the plenary session at UFRJ.
Dulce Silva (left) and Jessica Pinheiro (right) during the plenary session at UFRJ. © Louise Raulais

Student mobilization in support of Lula

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, president from 2003 to 2011, facilitated access to education for disadvantaged students in 2005 by launching the “University for All” (Prouni in Portuguese) program, which established a scholarship system for low-income students. The number of enrollments in higher education has thus doubled under the presidencies of Lula and Dilma Rousseff, rising from 3.5 million in 2002 to over 7.1 million in 2014, according to the pedagogical Anísio Teixeira of the National Institute of Studies and Research.

During the very virulent first televised debate between the two rounds, former President Lula did not fail to recall his record against Jair Bolsonaro. Twice Lula had asked him how many universities and technical institutions he had opened under his presidency. Unable to answer, Jair Bolsonaro had blamed the Covid-19 crisis. In the event of victory, the left-wing candidate has promised to make education and university access a priority.

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