COVID-19 is a wake-up call for Brazil’s universities

In his book The Cruel Pedagogy of the Virus (A cruel pedagogia do virus in Portuguese), sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos reignites the debate on the circumstances that make it possible to know the truth about and the quality of institutions in any given society, whether at normal times or in times of crisis.

Specifically referring to the current coronavirus crisis, he asks: “What potential knowledge will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic?”

It is indeed important to ask what the current pandemic has to say about the Brazilian public university, in particular the university within a capitalist world system which devastates those in the ‘South’. Distanced from its autonomy and social function, including social outreach, the university and its capitalist productivist logic has little to contribute to the issues which are relevant to the society in which it is embedded.

Capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy

Despite the prevailing idea that the current pandemic does not discriminate, its effects do not affect all lives in similar ways nor to similar degrees of intensity. The social groups that make up the ‘South’ are those which the coronavirus has treated in the most merciless way.

The ‘South’, here, is detached from its geographical character. It is a relational concept, which invariably refers to an inequality relationship. It embraces those subjects oppressed by the injustices caused by the main modes of domination since the 17th century, precisely: capitalist exploitation and racial and sexual discrimination.

The ‘South’ is the space-time that designates a historical condition of subalternity; the ‘zone of not being’, as stated by Frantz Fanon, or the hidden face or darker side of modernity, as argued by Walter Mignolo. Because of the hypervisibility of the ‘North’, the ‘South’ simply disappears as reality.

Sousa Santos refers to some of the social groups that make up the ‘South’ in a coronavirus crisis context, that is, those who, in many different ways, are most vulnerable to the pandemic: women; informal and street workers; homeless people; the residents of peripheries and slums; displaced populations and those in refugee camps; the disabled; and the elderly.

Such groups are located in the ‘South’ not by chance, but because they have been the main targets of the permanent state of crisis in which the world, immersed in a pattern of colonial power and currently subjected to the logic of neoliberalism and the financial sector, finds itself. Therefore, the pandemic is not blind; it only aggravates and makes explicit latent and historically constituted inequalities.

The ‘cruel pedagogy of the virus’

The Brazilian public university has been playing an important role in the fight against the coronavirus. Roberto Leher and Marcelo Knobel argue that the current moment has even contributed to a positive change from the ‘legitimacy crisis’ which higher education found itself in before.

Indeed, public institutions are responsible for 95% of research in Brazil. In addition, they act as a counterpoint to political denials of the seriousness of the virus and the idea of ‘science as verbal fiction’ propagated by the federal government.

But the Brazilian public university is and can be more than that – precisely, through the enhancement of one of its fundamental missions. The historical complicity of higher education in the perpetuated expansion of capitalism makes it difficult to conceive it beyond the dominant rationale.

While modernity/colonialism propagates the idea that there are no other ways of knowing and being, the ‘cruel pedagogy of the virus’ – which reveals the inability of institutions subjected to the logic of capital to respond to emergency situations – reveals that, perhaps, the aspects that have been strongly neglected by the university capitalism rationale are those on which society depends the most in the current crisis.

I refer here, specifically, to the importance of the ‘social outreach role’ of the Brazilian public university, which is often silenced by the various ‘quality’ measurements in higher education, be they international, national or institutional.

In a broad sense (as imagined for Latin American universities by the Córdoba student movement of 1918), outreach enables a direct association between quality and relevance; it questions contemporary trends such as the relentless pursuit of international prestige; precarious employment contracts; the uncritical submission of research themes and teaching curricula to the demands of the capitalist world market; and the idea of students as clients.

Overall, social outreach is associated with the contextualisation of university activities in society; it acts as an engine of university practice and fosters a dialogue between scientific and popular knowledge, permeating and transforming teaching and research. It springs from the diverse and shared interests between academia and society.

In the context of the coronavirus crisis, outreach projects conducted by Brazilian public universities have contributed significantly and impacted different fields of our social life, highlighting both the importance of these institutions for the country as well as the relevance of outreach activities as a fundamental mission for Brazilian higher education.

Some examples include:

• Providing general clarification and instructions for local governments and communities about the virus and the pandemic;

• Conducting studies and reports on the socio-economic effects of the pandemic on Brazilian families, prisons, indigenous communities and in different regions;

• Helping local populations and minority groups to face the various challenges posed by the pandemic (such as students from public schools who don’t have access to or are not familiar with remote education, help for students who are mothers or people who suffer domestic violence, etc);

• Providing direct assistance to immigrants and-or refugees during the pandemic; and

• Promoting remote cultural activities to help those facing social isolation.

Projects of this nature suggest that, for the Brazilian context, the coronavirus pandemic might be an opportunity to reimagine the university; to envision new possibilities for it, distancing it from the historical patterns of power that characterise extractive relations, while strengthening its capacity to combat the effects of those patterns.

Attacks on public universities

It’s important to emphasise that, since President Jair Bolsonaro assumed office in January 2019, Brazilian public universities have been the ‘main targets’ of austerity and political measures imposed by the federal government. This includes budget cuts, false declarations and encroachments on their administrative autonomy.

It also covers the Future-se programme, which proposes a massive state divestment in federal institutions, threatening the idea of higher education as a public social good, with undetermined consequences for Brazilian society.

On 9 June, the president published a provisional measure that determines that if the four-year mandate of a rector at federal universities finishes during the COVID-19 pandemic, he will designate a rector to lead the institution. This represents a change to the tradition by which university leaders are elected by faculty, administrative staff and students.

As the federal government has been little concerned with the pandemic itself, COVID-19 might be interpreted as an excuse to interfere in the autonomy of these institutions and advance the president’s aim to weaken their social function.

In addition, the minister of education has changed for the fourth time since Bolsonaro assumed office. They include Abraham Weintraub (the minister from April 2019 to June 2020) who left following controversies involving racism and threats to ministers of the Supreme Court; Carlos Alberto Decotelli who was nominated but didn’t take up his post due to controversies over fake academic qualifications; and most recently, Pastor Milton Ribeiro.

Given this instability and denials about the seriousness of the virus, the capacity of Brazilian public universities to work for the populations worst affected by the virus, through extension and its related missions, seems to be directly linked to their capacity to be as autonomous as they can from the current federal government’s view of higher education.

The coronavirus crisis demonstrates the fragility of the capitalist economy and the fight against its discriminatory effects must take place through actions that promote social transformation, including the transformation of higher education institutions.

Fernanda Leal is an executive assistant at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Brazil. She has a PhD in administration from the Universidade do Estado de Santa Catarina, Brazil, and was a visiting scholar at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States, from August 2019 to March 2020. E-mail: