Nationwide protests erupted across Brazil recently after sweeping spending freezes and cuts to higher education.
Tens of thousands of protesters congregated in 200 cities across Brazil last week to protest the widespread higher education cuts proposed by President Jair Bolsonaro.
The far-right government’s Ministry of Education said it would freeze nearly a quarter of discretionary spending due to the country’s financial crisis, representing a cut of around $1.8 billion or 3.4 percent of the total annual budget for Brazil’s universities.
His controversial Education Minister, Abraham Weintraub, blamed the previous government’s policies and stated that, “there are no cuts, only contingencies,” and that all funds could be reinstated if the economy sees growth. Appointed just last month, Weintraub has courted controversy in the past for promoting right-wing conspiracy theories.
So where does this leave Brazil’s higher education sector?
Cuts or contingencies: What does this mean financially?
Wondering why President Bolsonaro has denied that the government is cutting education spending?
It’s due to the way the budget for universities in Brazil is determined. It’s broken down into two areas, mandatory expenses (like salaries and pensions) and discretionary expenses (like maintenance work and water and electricity bills).
Celso Napolitano, president of the Federation of Teachers of Sao Paulo (FEPESP), argues that these cuts will deal a fatal blow to scientific research and production in Brazil.
“The minister says the cuts only regard water and electricity bills, considered ‘non-mandatory’, but a university cannot run without water or light. Because those expenses have to be covered, and the council of deans have said this, they will have to end up cutting their financing for scientific research.”
This was compounded by the announcement last week that the payment of Masters and Doctorate scholarships in the sciences and human sciences would be suspended.
These developments are the latest in a series of funding cuts for Brazil’s universities, with more than 90 percent of federal universities experiencing budget reductions since 2013 with an average decline of 28 percent.
Weintraub believes that priority should be placed on preschool, elementary school, and technical school funding. “A scientific, technical, number-based, efficient, and managerial approach is vital to save this country from the economic stagnation of the last 20 years that we are living.”
However, lack of funding isn’t an issue restricted to higher education. Education investment across the board has been an ongoing debate for the country with images of schools with no electricity, cracks in their walls, and holes in their roofs shared on social media.
Where does Brazil’s higher education rank now?
Despite these systematic issues, Brazil is still a major higher education force in Latin America.
Brazil has 22 universities in the QS World University Rankings, of which 19 are public and three are private.
Their public universities are considered leaders in research outputs, with the top ten Brazilian universities in the Latin American Rankings boasting nine public universities and one private university.
Brazil dominates these Latin American Rankings with a total of 90 institutions, compared to Mexico (63), Chile (40), and Argentina (39).
However, Brazil is still struggling to follow the growing pace of other BRICS nations, especially when it comes to internationalization.
Educational activism: Fighting for Brazil’s future
Students, teachers, and researchers aren’t giving up without a fight, with classes suspended and demonstrations held across 17 of Brazil’s 27 states last week.
Protesters carried signs that stated: “my weapon is my education,” and “education is not an expense, it is an investment.”
One protest turned violent in Rio de Janeiro when unknown rioters set fire to a bus and shot fireworks at police, with security forces then firing tear gas into the crowd.
This so-called “education tsunami,” which trended across social media last week, isn’t receding anytime soon and represents a growing wave of educational activism against government cuts.