A looming disaster for HE and Brazil’s development

In Brazil, decisions made by the federal government have historically determined the development of higher education, science, technology and innovation, given its central role in terms of policy, funding and regulation.

Since the 1930s, when the first federal and state universities were created, there has been a prevailing and general understanding among national authorities that the development of a sovereign nation depends on progressive investments in the education of human resources and the promotion of science.

Direct efforts to consolidate a national policy for science date back to the post-war period when the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES) and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) were founded.

Both public universities and funding agencies became fundamental to the country’s development, to the extent that today it would be impossible to imagine that Brazil could meet critical national demands of social and economic growth without the participation of these institutions.

Given this context, the recent declarations by President Jair Bolsonaro since assuming office in January 2019 and measures enacted or proposed by his government have caused great concern and created considerable confusion. This article summarises the main events that have taken place and possible implications for the future.

Uncertainty, controversies and pushbacks

From January to March 2019, the ministry of education under Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez suffered from an “internal war”, resulting in great instability. Vélez Rodríguez asserted that “the idea of university for all people does not exist. Universities should be reserved for an intellectual elite.”

This was considered particularly offensive as enrolment in higher education in Brazil is still the privilege of the elite: according to the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2018 report, fewer than 20% of the segment of the population between the ages of 25 and 34 hold a university degree. His attitude also reversed recent attempts to broaden access and democratise public higher education.

In March 2019, a surprising cut of 42% of the budget of the ministry of science, technology, innovation and communication was announced – while the current government reached the presidency promising increased investments in science, technology and innovation from the current 1.5% of gross domestic product to 3%, which would be comparable to the European Union.

This decision also provoked concern because of its harmful consequences for both universities and society at large. Universities depend on the resources of federally funded public agencies to finance research.

Disrupting the flow of resources will prevent the country from addressing many of its social and economic challenges. In addition, strategic sectors such as health, energy and agriculture will be severely affected if such cuts are not reconsidered.

Public higher education institutions targeted

In April 2019, the economist Abraham Weintraub replaced Vélez Rodríguez at the ministry of education. Immediately following his appointment, President Bolsonaro announced on Twitter that Minister Weintraub was considering cuts to investments in schools of philosophy and sociology, indicating his preference “to focus on fields that generate an immediate return to the taxpayer such as veterinary medicine, engineering and medicine”.

This dismissal of humanities and social sciences reflects the president’s ideological position and his hostility towards public universities and academics, which is a threat not only to the operation of these institutions, but also to academic freedom.

A month after taking office, he announced that three federal universities – University of Brasília (UnB), Fluminense Federal University (UFF) and the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) – would face budget cuts for allegedly promoting turmoil and for poor academic performance. According to Weintraub, “homework needs to be done: scientific publishing, up-to-date assessments, good positions in rankings”.

Ironically, these three institutions are among the best in Brazil, according to national rankings measuring teaching quality and international rankings measuring research productivity, raising doubts about the actual motivations behind his decision.

Budget constraints quickly spread to the entire federal system and all federal universities and institutes are facing cuts in their 2019 operational budgets, putting into question their viability to get to the end of the academic year.

In addition to the cuts themselves, what was very disturbing was the effort to minimise public criticism. In a weird attempt to explain the measure, the minister stated that the cut represents “only” 3.5% of the federal higher education budget.

As pensions and salaries cannot be cut, the proposed budget reductions will have an even more significant impact on the daily operations of universities. Given what public higher education institutions represent for Brazil, these cuts effectively “cut the government’s own throat”.

Additional concern arose in May 2019, when the CAPES agency stopped more than 3,000 scholarships for graduate students without prior notice. The agency stated that these were only cuts to “idle” scholarships, which did not make sense.

One third of those scholarships were restored after protests from the universities. However, in June 2019, CAPES changed the criteria for providing graduate programmes with scholarships, which resulted in an additional cut of 2,500 scholarships; and in September, the Government froze another 5,000 scholarships for masters, doctoral and post-doc researchers, as result of a significant reduction in CAPES’ annual budget.

Also, from June 2019, concerns were raised about political interventions in the administrative autonomy of public universities. For the first time in two decades, the ministry of education broke with the tradition of approving the appointment of rectors based on who had won an election held by the university community. So far, six federal universities have been affected.

The ‘Future-se’ programme

In July 2019 the Brazilian Ministry of Education proposed a programme called Future-se (which can be loosely translated as “Take care of your own future”), a government policy focused on public federal universities and institutes and aimed at “strengthening their autonomy”. Three themes – management, governance and entrepreneurship; research and innovation; and internationalisation – define the programme.

Future-se is intended to encourage the financial autonomy of public federal universities and institutes by means of partnerships with social organisations, private associations or NGOs that receive a state grant to provide services of relevant public interest, such as health and education.

The rectors of institutions that would be affected by the new policy are seriously concerned about its consequences. Overall, they see Future-se as a means for a massive state divestment from public universities that would lead to privatisation and threaten the idea of higher education as a public and social good, with undetermined consequences for Brazilian society.

Individual institutions, including the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, the largest in the country, have joined the broad-based rejection of this policy.

The Forum of Public Higher Education Institutions of Minas Gerais State (IPES-MG), composed of 19 universities and institutes, argues that rectors “had no prior knowledge of the programme’s content and were not invited to participate in its construction […] Besides, it was launched at a time of great difficulty in respect to the 2019 budget […] Thus, it is hard to talk about the future if the present is still uncertain”.

The National Association of Higher Education Institutions' Leaders (ANDIFES), composed of all federal universities and institutes in the country, shared these concerns, emphasising that, by signing a contract with a social organisation, the autonomy of administrative, academic and scientific activities at federal institutions would be deeply affected and that the programme would conflict with the autonomy guaranteed by the federal constitution. They concluded that “there is much to debate, much to clarify”.

So far, 54% of the 63 federal universities have decided not to support the plan, while the others are still waiting for more information about how it will work.

Implications for internationalisation

Bolsonaro’s agenda for higher education will probably affect attempts to internationalise the system through its impact on at least three important national programmes: the Programa de Doutorado Sanduíche no Exterior (CAPES–PDSE), which funds international mobility for doctoral researchers; the Programa Institucional de Internacionalização (CAPES–PrInt), which supports internationalisation at higher education institutions; and the Programa Idiomas sem Fronteiras (IsF), which promotes foreign language capacity among university communities.

In the Future-se programme, the internationalisation axis proposed has the objective of “promoting federal higher education institutions abroad and raising their position in international rankings and indices such as the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and Web of Science”.

Up to this point, the proposals related to this axis have been generic and mean it is difficult to provide a detailed analysis of its intended goals, but the inclusion of internationalisation with a policy that aims to encourage universities to raise funds for their own survival and that emphasises international reputation as its main objective signals a complete immersion in an economically oriented paradigm that is highly competitive and tends to reinforce inequalities at all levels.

In a country like Brazil, already marked by historical and profound social inequalities, the risks are even greater. If Future-se is approved, other forms of international integration for higher education aimed at shaping a more inclusive and sustainable future will probably be even more restricted.

In addition, while national government initiatives for internationalisation have mostly focused on study in the United States and Europe, individual universities have more broad-based initiatives.

Truths that need to be told

Government criticism against Brazilian higher education is not substantiated. For example, the president claims that public higher education institutions are not productive – yet, while they represent only 12.1% of the national system, they are responsible for 95% of national research productivity and their social role goes beyond research to reach Brazilian society in many important ways.

Another unproven assertion is that public universities are populated with ‘leftists’ and ‘Marxists’, while these institutions actually reflect broader society in terms of political positions.

Finally, even though public universities, traditionally, have been elitist, they have become more democratic in recent years.

For example, a 2018 survey of the socio-economic profile of students at federal higher education institutions shows that 70% of undergraduate students at these institutions come from families with a monthly income of up to BRL1,500 (about US$362).

There are also quotas for graduates of public high schools and minority groups that contribute to diversity and help curb the country’s great social inequality.

Although the allegations of the president and his minister of education and the austerity measures they propose are met with public disapproval and attract international attention and protest, we believe that these are just initial steps towards a potential disaster for science and higher education in Brazil.

With specific regard to Future-se, the chances of success of a programme that was designed without any discussion with universities or other institutions are remote.

Furthermore, there is a natural apprehension concerning a programme launched by a government that has been so critical of public higher education.

The Brazilian higher education community is mature enough to discuss changes in the system and the federal government must concede the importance of including the sector as a partner in the development of national policies, especially considering their socioeconomic and cultural importance for Brazilian society.

This article was updated shortly after first publication on 28 September.

Marcelo Knobel is rector of the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP) and full professor at the Gleb Wataghin Institute of Physics, UNICAMP, Brazil. E-mail: Fernanda Leal is a PhD candidate at the Universidade do Estado de Santa Catarina (UDESC), Brazil, and a visiting scholar at the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE), Boston College, United States. E-mail: This is an updated version of an article that was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.