Brazil’s public universities are in crisis

Following the fire at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro on 2 September 2018, a collective exhibition entitled "We are the National Museum" was held to highlight the work of researchers and to show in pictures the museum collections that were lost in the fire. (Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil)

It’s the night of 2 September 2018 and Brazil’s National Museum is burning. Jean-François Evran, professor of anthropology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), which operates the museum, rushes to the scene without really knowing what to do. “By 11:30pm, the museum was a giant torch. It was horrible.” The following day, the news had already spread around the world and the country woke up in shock. Outraged students, professors and local residents gathered in front of the museum’s gates. The previous day, the fire brigade had run out of water to fight the fire that consumed Brazil’s memory and heritage. “This is the worst tragedy for scholarship that we’ve ever seen. It’s as if the Louvre burned down,” explains a visibly frustrated Maurício Santoro, professor at the Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ).

This isn’t the first tragedy of its kind to hit Brazil. Since 2008, around ten different public institutions have been destroyed by fire. Some professors and civil servants no longer sleep for fear of burning to death. Last year, the building where architects were studying went up in smoke. These fires are the most visible symptoms of a crisis that continues to cripple Brazil’s public infrastructure.

Funded by the state of Rio de Janeiro rather than the federal government, UERJ is one of numerous local public services hit with a crisis caused by falling oil prices coupled with widespread corruption. In recent years, local governments have based their spending on anticipated revenue from newly discovered offshore deposits before drilling had even begun, which has resulted in many costly policies, particularly in preparation for the 2016 Olympics. When the price of oil dropped to US$25 a barrel, the state’s main source of revenue collapsed.

Like many other civil servants, professors and employees of the UERJ went several months without pay. This was previously unheard of, even during the worst crises in a country that has seen many. “No one was prepared for this, neither financially nor psychologically. One of my colleagues collapsed into tears during a meeting because he can no longer afford to feed his family. Another colleague went begging for money at a street corner. Many of us have experienced depression,” explains Santoro.

Student scholarships have also been suspended. A pioneer in the policy of racial and social quotas later instituted throughout Brazil, the UERJ has many students from low-income families, a third of whom receive scholarships.

Eduardo Torres, a researcher in parasitology at the university, recalls the impact of the cuts on both students and civil servants: “How can you punish them for not showing up if they can’t afford bus fare? How can you tell them to work if they can’t afford internet access?”

The university hospital has also fallen victim to the crisis. Built to house 500 patients, it has been forced to reduce its capacity to 80 beds. Physician training has also been affected. “The children of cleaning ladies and workers who receive scholarships have no access to internships at our hospital. If they can’t find internships, they can’t train as physicians,” explains Torres, who adds that this also negatively impacts patients, who mostly come from the low-income neighbourhoods near the hospital, located in the north of the city.

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“Medicine is one of the areas most affected by the crisis due to the cost of equipment and daily operations. Take animal research for example,” adds an exasperated Torres. “If we can’t feed them, if the air conditioning goes out, then we’re done. We have to cancel the experiment because the conditions have changed.”

Researchers have been able to mitigate the damage thanks to good organisation; but without money to feed the animals, they have had to significantly reduce their stocks and thus limit their research. Torres takes Equal Times on a tour of the area where the animals are housed, followed by a large room housing a massive electron microscope, which has been out of operation for a year. Purchased for €400,000 during a prosperous period, the university no longer has the necessary budget to maintain it.

Austerity and privatisation on the horizon

Jean-François Evran denounces what he sees as the political exploitation of the crises that have rocked Rio since 2015. “The crisis is real, but it has become the political justification for drastic measures. An alternative vision of society is emerging based on the logic of privatisation. The way this is currently playing out in the field of healthcare does not bode well for the university.” This presents a paradox when a large part of the middle-class can no longer afford private schools or overpriced health insurance. “[President] Michel Temerused his unpopularity to his advantage to push through extreme measures, including a constitutional amendment that puts a 20-year cap on public spending, even in the most vital sectors.”

In the event that far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro is elected president, the process of disinvestment from public education will likely be stepped up. Bolsonaro’s economic advisor Paulo Guedes is a vocal supporter of privatisation. Torres fears privatisation more than his colleagues do; as parasitic disease research is not very profitable and is of little interest to the pharmaceutical industry, his work depends heavily on public investment.

During the years that the Workers’ Party (PT) was in power, academics welcomed an increase in resources and quality of education, as well as the democratisation of access to universities. Between 2005 and 2015, the proportion of the country’s black population with access to higher education increased from 5 per cent to 13 per cent “All of the professors have doctorates, which was not the case when I started out,” notes Santoro.

The PT’s current candidate for president Fernando Haddad, himself a former academic, can boast a positive record during his tenure as Minister of Education from 2005 to 2012. While he failed to reduce the problem of mass secondary school dropouts, he did triple the budget allocated to education and expand scholarship programmes for technical and university courses.

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He also helped establish 14 new public universities, primarily in the country’s north and north-east. Though the state of basic schooling in Brazil remains poor, the quality of higher education and research has greatly improved, with the country moving from 23rd to 13th in the world in production of scientific content.

But these developments, which must be sustained over the long term, are now under threat, particularly by the austerity measures put into place under Temer’s government. “We received only a quarter of the planned budget without any prior notice,” says Evran, who complains about cancelled conferences, delayed scholarship payments and the moribund state of research funding agencies. Some projects that have been approved have yet to receive funding.

A bleak political outlook

The financial crisis has played a significant role, but the problem is, first and foremost, a political one. Though education is one of the primary concerns of voters, the subject has hardly been addressed during a presidential campaign characterised by ad hominemattacks and the spread of fake news. Bolsonaro, who has refused to debate his opponent, has signalled his intention to abolish quotas and ban the political “indoctrination” and “early sexualisation” of children that he alleges occurs in Brazil’s public schools. He also plans to downgrade the Ministry of Culture to a simple administrative department.

While standing in front of the burned-out museum, Evran is confronted by opponents of former president and iconic figure of the PT, Lula. People driving by in cars hurl insults at the public servants. The day following the tragedy, politicians attacked academics, implying that the public sector was unable to properly manage an institution. Some of the accusations made were entirely fabricated.

In the days leading up to the second round of the election, which will take place on Sunday 28 October, the daily newspaper Folha de S. Paulo reported that several university sites have been raided by the police. Various events and demonstrations “in defense of democracy and public universities”, organised by students were considered by judges to be contrary to the Electoral Law. The academic community is concerned about these practices. “Social relations are extremely polarised and the fire is part of this tense political situation,” Evran observes.

The presidential candidates quickly moved on and the fire was forgotten. As Bolsonaro put it: “It already burned down, what do you want me to do about it?” Despite the policies of the PT, universities remain reserved for a small minority and are not very politically advantageous. Santoro predicts a complicated future: “Whichever candidate wins, it’s going to be difficult for universities.”

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