1.5 million protest against Bolsonaro’s university cuts

Thousands of Brazilian students and teachers took to the streets all over Brazil on Wednesday 15 May repudiating government cuts to federal university budgets.

Some 1.5 million students, teachers and administrative personnel from higher education institutions rallied in the capital, Brasilia, in Belo Horizonte, Salvador, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and cities in many other states in the first massive protest since extreme right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro took office five months ago.

Brazilians were spurred into action by the announcement that some US$1.8 billion – that pays for inputs for research, electricity and water bills, purchase of basic lab equipment, research scholarships, housing for foreign students and others – would be cut from university budgets.

The cuts amount to 30% of the total ‘discretional’ budget. It amounts to 3.4% of total annual budget spending, according to the Ministry of Education. ‘Obligatory’ spending such as salaries and pensions was untouched.

The marchers for education were joined by others who were protesting against the pension reform and a recent decree that makes it easier to own weapons.

From Dallas in the United States, Bolsonaro claimed on national strike day that “most of the protesters are militants; their heads are empty. If you asked them for the formula of water, they do not know it; they are useful idiots and imbeciles manipulated by a minority…”

Bolsonaro may have been venting his anger at the massive scale of the protests.

“It seems that Bolsonaro… has managed to stir up conflict in the education sector and awaken a civil society opposition that had been lethargic since the start of his rule,” Eduardo Grin from the Getulio Vargas Foundation was quoted as saying in an article in the Chilean daily El Mercurio.

Disruptive universities punished

According to Brazil’s Vice-President Hamilton Mourão, the federal universities’ budget has only been frozen as part of nationwide budget cuts. Depending on income, he said on the day of the demonstrations, the cuts “could be unblocked in the second half of this year”.

But that education was a particular political target became clear from the words of Education Minister Abraham Weintraub when announcing the cuts.

These were needed, he told the press, because the centre-left governments of Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff that preceded the Bolsonaro government had expanded university access through scholarships and quotas for blacks, poor and indigenous people, staging a “tragedy” because many of them were now unemployed.

Weintraub first restricted the cuts to three universities: the Federal University of Bahia, the University of Brasilia and the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Niteroi in Rio de Janeiro state. He did so after accusing them of “promoting disruptions” and “staging ridiculous events” instead on focusing on academic excellence. After the uproar that ensued, Weintraub extended the “punishment” to all federal universities, 63 in all.

Many teachers and students believe the cuts are in retaliation for the stance by some federal university students against Bolsonaro during last year’s presidential campaign, when they hung large antifascist banners on university premises to ‘alert’ against a victory of the extreme right.

It’s the ideology

“The university cuts are not only about economics; it is something ideological. This is why he [Bolsonaro] started with a few universities he wanted to restrain,” Fabiana Amorin, linked to the National Union of Students, told the Spanish daily El Mundo.

Bolsonaro, an ex-military captain and long-term parliamentarian, is a declared critic of education in Brazil. The Spanish daily El País reminded its readers that during the electoral campaign Bolsonaro proposed instituting “long-distance education to help combat Marxism” and eradicate from classrooms “cultural Marxism” and “the gender ideology”.

Last April his suggestion via a tweet to redirect the sociology and philosophy budgets to areas that give an immediate return such as veterinary, engineering and medicine, provoked a strong international reaction.

Some 800 institutions and 17,000 people around the world signed an open letter urging the Brazilian government to carry on funding sociology and philosophy studies because “the purpose of higher education is not to produce immediate returns over investment”. The objective must always be to “create a well-educated and enriched society that reaps the benefits of the collective effort to create human knowledge”, the letter said.

Simon Schwartzman, a social scientist and international education advisor, thinks that the president’s real target was the social sciences, since the number of philosophy and sociology students in Brazil is tiny – less than 10,000 out of around 8 million university students.

“The predisposition manifested by the government against social science seems to stem from an ignorance about the numbers and the nature of social studies linked to an ideological preconception – that sociology and philosophy would be centres of Marxist ideology that need to be extirpated,” Schwartzman wrote in his blog.

However, he thinks the two disciplines are safe for the time being. “If the government could, it would close the sociology and philosophy departments in universities… but for that they would have to intervene in the universities, and we are very far from that,” he told University World News.

Many students believe that the final aim of the government’s attack on universities is to privatise them since, they argue, they are coveted by private investors because many Brazilian public universities have a lot of prestige plus the largest demand.

Schwartzman thinks privatisation of higher education institutions is unlikely, as “75% of enrolment in higher education in Brazil is already in private institutions, thanks to a large extent to the subsidies granted by previous governments, particularly a student loans programme”.

“They [the government] really don’t know what to do,” he said. “They have a short budget constraint problem, no long-term project for education and are now facing a political storm.”