As election heads to run-off, HE stagnates in survival mode

On general election day last Sunday in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro seemed nervous, suggesting again that the Brazilian voting system could not be trusted.

His most serious opponent, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was applauded by his supporters but protected by the federal police.

Four years ago, the current president was relatively unknown at the beginning of the campaign, was stabbed at a campaign stop, and then went on to win the election with support for an extreme, right-wing, populist programme.

At that time Lula da Silva, his opponent then as well, was in prison on corruption charges. It is too long a story to elaborate here, but the charges against Lula da Silva were dismissed and it became clear that there was bias on the part of the prosecution and judge in the case against him.

In short, the current campaign was launched in an already polarised country with incidents of politically inspired violence, attacks on the press and great uncertainty about the future.

Over the last year, Brazil has endured a period that has undermined human rights, the environment, trust in science and technology and support for culture, the arts and education.

Higher education institutions, particularly the public system of federal universities, were a favourite target of the Bolsonaro government and the right.

Attacks against public universities took several forms, including threats to academic freedom, disregard for university autonomy, ideological persecution and serious budget cuts, making effective institutional operation almost impossible.

These assaults included the denial of scientific evidence on climate change and the risk to public health caused by COVID-19 as well as the negation of satellite data showing Amazon deforestation.

Today the country mourns almost 700,000 deaths resulting from COVID-19, with an anti-vax president proud of not having had the shot. Brazil faces both economic and political crises, with a high inflation rate, corruption scandals and huge debts to be paid in the next year.

The presidential elections

The 2 October election did not provide decisive results, leading to a second round. With 48.4% of the votes, Lula fell short of the 50% of votes needed to avoid a run-off. Bolsonaro did better than predicted in the polls, with 43.2% of votes cast.

Also worrisome are the results of the Congressional election that reflect a further move to the right. The results mean tense weeks ahead for the country during the next phase of the campaign.

On the one hand, the number of votes cast for Lula in the first round demonstrates that a large segment of Brazilian society is not happy with Bolsonaro´s political conduct.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that right-wing populism came out stronger than expected, indicating that ‘Bolsonarism’ has planted deep roots in Brazilian society. Indeed, a considerable number of governors, deputies and senators who support his extreme political views were elected, including a vast number of former or current ministers from his government.

It will not be easy for anyone to govern in the growing turmoil, taking into account the current national situation, the uncertain international environment, a war in Ukraine and an unstable energy market.

Survival mode

In higher education, federal universities and research institutes have struggled even to pay water and electricity bills, deferring other expenses for infrastructure maintenance that will soon need urgent attention.

Institutions are operating in a sort of ‘survival mode’. Faculty and staff salaries along with graduate scholarships have not been increased in years and the purchasing power of wages is lagging.

In the private sector, the crisis has led to huge dropout rates and many higher education institutions are shifting towards online education as a cost-saving strategy with uncertain results.

Operating in survival mode has postponed many important discussions and actions, including issues relating to quality assurance, massification, curricular reform and internationalisation.

The country has been observing a growing ‘brain drain’ trend, with the loss, in particular, of young talent opting for a more promising future academic career abroad.

On the flipside, the high cost of living in Brazil, the increase in violence, the reduction of available scholarships and an apparent lack of future academic opportunities have combined to drastically reduce the influx of students and post-doctoral scholars to Brazil, even from other Latin American countries.

What comes next?

It is clear that the next several years will be difficult. The situation needs to change, but the fear is that it will remain the same or, worse, deteriorate even further. It will not be easy to rebuild Brazil’s higher education system. It will be essential to re-establish trust at many levels and between sectors.

Brazil, and indeed the world, has reached a complicated crossroads and the choices voters make throughout the world during the next few months will determine the kind of societies in which we live in the future.

Hopefully, we will choose a path towards greater social justice and a sustainable future for the planet, with a more equitable path to prosperity for all. And build a society that values the fundamental role of science and education.

Marcelo Knobel was the 12th rector of the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) in Brazil, where he is a full professor of physics.