Cautious optimism in universities greets new president Lula

When Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva was sworn in as Brazil’s new president on 1 January 2023, he found higher education (and many other areas) a devastated and mined field. Former president Jair Bolsonaro perpetuated an enduring attack against Brazilian public universities throughout his four-year term and his influence continues to linger as seen in the recent attacks on government institutions in Brasilia.

On countless occasions, Bolsonaro, his team and his supporters, depicted public universities as nests of leftist movements, perverts and drug dealers, among other unbelievable pejoratives. These epithets were simply headline makers employed by the government to discount universities’ autonomy and academic freedom.

Congress, the media and the Supreme Court, limited the president’s most aggressive attacks. However, Bolsonaro was particularly successful in targeting the budgets of public universities and their internal communities.

To summarise, during the last presidential term, public universities and academic research experienced an excruciating strangulation of resources. As a result, some institutions now face severe problems, including payment of daily expenses such as energy, or even cleaning bills, particularly critical in the ‘post-pandemic’ period.

Given the specifics of federal university governance, budget cuts didn’t affect academic and staff salaries because payroll is part of the broader civil service budget.

It is worth mentioning, however, that the disastrous management of the economy brought back the phantom of inflation, meaning salaries were kept the same but with considerably decreased purchasing power.

Students who rely on scholarships – more than 100,000 across Brazil – faced the most dramatic situation. The value of scholarships has not increased for more than nine years: a master’s scholarship remains around US$285, while a PhD scholarship averages US$380.

Under Bolsonaro, the Brazilian large for-profit private sector benefited from small, but relevant, changes in the overall regulatory framework, easing some public controls. However, the persistent stagnation of the Brazilian economy, worsened by the pandemic, prevented the sector from reaping the benefits of the new regulatory framework.

Some available data deserves attention. The Brazilian Bureau of Statistics estimates that the number of young people aged 15 to 29 who neither studied, nor were employed, represented 25.8% of this age group in 2021. There is no expectation that this percentage will improve in the short term.

In the higher education sector, it is worth noting that the last higher education census indicated that, for the first time, new enrolments in online education surpassed those for on-campus study. In total: almost half of the nine million enrolments in Brazil are now online, most of them in private, for-profit institutions.

High expectations

So, Lula, as the new president is widely called, faces an overloaded agenda when it comes to education. First, there are intense demands for restoring the federal budget for general education.

When it comes to higher education, the new government confronts the worrying situation of high expectations: federal universities expect to restore budget levels through special funds for upgrading campus infrastructure and information technology.

Students, particularly those who have benefited from affirmative action policies since the beginning of the century, expect a new commitment to policies that support them permanently.

The extensive system of public sector graduate programmes expects a significant expansion in the number and value of scholarships, as well as support for international mobility. In addition, the research community, mainly at public universities, expects expanding public support for science through direct investments in research projects and scholarships.

Many organised groups mobilised by identity politics – inside and outside universities – also have expectations regarding the support they will have for outreach activities under the new government.

Different constituencies will fight for a budget inside the education sector, and education will compete with other sectors, such as health, housing, infrastructure and other areas, all of which face funding issues as a result of the last administration and inflation. So, the central question is: how will the new government manage so much need?

Then and now

During Lula’s previous presidential terms – this is his third – the Workers’ Party agenda for higher education was broad and differentiated.

It included expanding access by exchanging fiscal benefits for tuition exemption, a massive programme of subsided loans to cover tuition fees in the private sector, and a significant expansion of the federal sector by launching new universities and building new campuses (that now face complex infrastructure problems).

It also included relevant increases in the values of academic salaries and scholarships, programmes targeting outreach activities and a surge in resources supporting research and innovation.

During the term of Dilma Rousseff (also from the Workers’ Party), the government launched the controversial ‘Science without Borders’ programme, spending billions of dollars to send undergraduate students abroad.

However, this comprehensive and differentiated agenda was only possible under the extraordinary circumstances created by the economic boom sustained by a global bonanza that expanded the international commodities markets.

Unfortunately, this picture no longer fits the national or international situation. Not only do we face the prospect of long-term economic stagnation and unusually high rates of inflation, but the public budget is stretched by the effort to sustain an extensive resource transfer programme to support low-income citizens.

Up to now, the new government has opted not to confront its fiscal limitations, asking instead for an allowance from the parliament to increase an already large fiscal imbalance and expand the public debt. However, this path has its limits.

Reason to hope?

Lula is likely to find himself governing in a more confrontational political environment. The far-right parties emerged stronger from the Congressional elections, and many new governors belong to the opposition.

On 8th January, a week after Lula was sworn in, supporters of Bolsonaro organised an imported copy of the US Capitol riot plot on January 6th, which resulted in a scene of damage that included not only the Brazilian Congress but also the Supreme Court and the Presidential Palace in Brasilia. Thousands of people gathered in Brasilia in a well-funded movement coordinated through social media. The attack was premeditated, and it appears that the police and military, as well as some governors and their secretaries, all strongly supported it.

It was a clear demonstration of strength from the so-called "bolsonarists" and a warning to Lula and his team, despite the fact that the attacks on democracy were strongly rejected by society at large and the media. The primary unanswered questions concern the movement's financing mechanism and the extent to which the ultra-right has infiltrated the corporate headquarters of the organisations that, in theory, are meant to safeguard democracy, rather than the attacks' intended goal, which was to topple the newly elected government. The political ability of the new administration and the effective response of the judiciary will be crucial to undermine any further riots and to ensure calmer days ahead for everyone.

When it comes to higher education, it is clear that even though Lula didn’t offer a specific programme at the time of the election, there is at least hope that basic and higher education will fare better under the new presidency. Public universities have reason to hope for better days since they are part of the new government’s core constituency. How much better? Only time will tell.

Marcelo Knobel was the 12th rector of the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) in Brazil, where he is a full professor of physics. Elizabeth Balbachevsky is associate professor in the department of political science at the University of São Paulo and director of its Center for Public Policy Research (NUPPS).