New trends in the student activism

In early 2013, a transportation fee hike in São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, became the catalyst for a series of large street demonstrations, not only in São Paulo, but also in other urban centres in the country. The leaders of the movement and most of the participants were young adults, many of them college students.

The demonstrations rapidly expanded to become a movement that embraced the poor quality of other public services, such as health and education. They also targeted politicians, whose massive spending on infrastructure and facilities ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics were perceived as a waste of public resources.

Meanwhile, corruption was increasingly becoming a major issue. It is worth noting that frequent outbreaks of violence, typically orchestrated by small groups of well-organised, masked demonstrators, caused the wider public and the media to be critical of how the movement was evolving.

The level of discontent among the younger population caught most political analysts by surprise. The Brazilian economy had grown steadily for most of the previous decade and educational opportunities, particularly at the tertiary level, were also increasing. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of admissions to higher education institutions tripled, from 900,000 to 2.7 million.

On another front, most public universities and many private ones had adopted affirmative action policies to expand access for traditionally underrepresented groups – namely Afro-Brazilians and graduates of public high schools.

Finally, the government had developed policies for expanding funding for students in private institutions, who account for nearly 75% of all tertiary enrolment in Brazil.

Raised expectations and budget cuts

So where was all the discontent coming from? One possible explanation is that young adults were not really benefiting from the positive trends in both the economy and education. For example, the share of 18-24 year olds enrolled in higher education actually decreased from 32% in 2004 to 30% in 2013, while the proportion of those who were neither working nor studying, known as NEETs, increased slightly, from 23% to 24%.

At the same time, the government had raised expectations among young Brazilians by touting the expansion of higher education as a guaranteed pathway to better jobs, in political campaigns and in institutional advertising.

In 2014-15, Brazil headed into one of the worst economic recessions in the country’s history. As a result, public universities faced major budget restrictions: planned infrastructure investment was delayed or cancelled, new recruits and promotions were postponed, wages were frozen and student support slashed.

Unsurprisingly, student activism increased significantly across the country. For example, students seized on salary negotiations which occur every year at São Paulo’s state universities to push their own agendas.

In one case, in 2016, students at the University of Campinas occupied the building that houses the president’s office for almost two months, only leaving after extensive negotiations.

In fact, many in the campus community were surprised by the level of violence employed by some groups participating in the demonstrations, which included blocking access to classes, disturbing teaching activities and even threats and physical confrontations.

A different kind of student leader

The underlying reasons for the more extreme manifestations of students within universities are not yet fully understood, as they are likely to be multifaceted. Student leaders have usually been tied to national political parties in Brazil, but recently new actors are appearing on the scene. These include organised groups within civil society that are armed with more focused agendas and, of course, the power of social media.

In 2018, Latin America celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Córdoba Reforms in Argentina, which marked a turning point for higher education in the region, including in Brazil, as universities began to be established there.

Led by a strong student movement, the 1918 reforms envisioned universities as progressive and autonomous institutions, capable of transforming society. The key concepts outlined in the Liminar Manifesto, including university autonomy, co-governance, tuition-free education and the importance of community outreach, helped shape a new identity for the Latin American university.

The higher education community still faces the challenge of proving that it is committed to fundamental democratic principles and academic values and practices, to ethical behaviour and to a sustainable future. Debate on the public character of universities has become commonplace in Brazil, as in many countries, and public universities must be held accountable for how they are using public funds, how they are advancing the public interest.

The voice of students must be heard and understood and the spirit of 1918 should provide insight that is relevant to our times. In fact, recent developments pose a big challenge for university administrations, who must stimulate a deeper dialogue among members of the community, in a context of extreme polarisation, and try to stay one step ahead as possible sources of conflict emerge.

Universities are not isolated from society, but rather are affected by national and international trends, particularly increasing intolerance and authoritarianism, both of which are related to the current nationalistic mood that has emerged across the globe.

Intolerance is definitely a threat to academic freedom and autonomy, which are central parts of the university ethos, and should be countered wherever it is found.

Marcelo Knobel is professor of physics at the Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute and Renato HL Pedrosa is associate professor in the department of science and technology policy, both at the University of Campinas, Brazil. Knobel spoke on this theme on 17 November at the New Nationalism and Universities Conference hosted by the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley, United States.