Higher Ed as Brazil Moves to the Right

Academics fear lack of support for research and for free expression.

October 11, 2018

It was destined to be a presidential election campaign of dramatic outcomes. Celebrating 30 years of democracy, Brazilians took to the polls this week in their millions. But set against a background of economic crisis, mass unemployment and political scandal -- not to mention anger, which culminated in the front-runner being stabbed -- the results of the first round of voting left the Brazilian population more divided than ever.

Right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro -- who continued the last month of his campaign from his hospital bed after being attacked while campaigning Sept. 6 -- took 46 percent of the vote in the first round on Oct. 7 and is the favorite to take the presidency ahead of left-winger Fernando Haddad in the second round on Oct. 28.

A former paratrooper and a self-professed admirer of Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has gained followers for his strong stance on tackling crime and corruption, which he says have “swamped” Brazil. But his failure to give much attention to science or universities in his campaign has left academics reeling -- and preparing for the worst.

Adriana Marotti de Mello, professor of business at the University of São Paulo, said that the current funding situation for Brazilian research was critical. “This year’s budget for National Research Council [Brazil’s major public funding body, known as CNPq] was the lowest in 13 years,” she explained. “Science, technology and education are historically neglected in Brazil, but since 2016 the situation has become dangerous.”

The reason so many in the sector are particularly fearful of a Bolsonaro presidency, Marotti de Mello continued, comes from an agreement made by his party’s finance spokesman to continue to freeze spending -- intensifying the real-terms cuts that are already causing research institutions to close.

According to Fabio Zicker, a specialist in science, technology and innovation in global health at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a biological sciences research institute in Rio de Janeiro, the outlook for science and higher education could be bleak regardless of who wins. There is “not much detail from either of the two leading candidates,” he explained.

While Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party has made reference to stimulating entrepreneurship and privatizing public-sector organizations, including universities, his competitor has made equally vague promises to “recover the level of funding to education and other sectors … by being more efficient,” he said.

But for many, the problems run deeper than financial hardship; Bolsonaro’s lack of commitment to science and research may be concerning, but it is the other policies he has thrown weight behind that raise more questions.

The Schools Without Political Party initiative -- known as the “gag law” by its opponents -- was drafted as legislation in 2016 in response to fear that teachers were abusing their teaching freedoms by spreading political views. The Institute for Development and Human Rights -- a nongovernmental organization with United Nations consultative status -- said at the time that the initiative “attacks basic human rights,” namely the “right to freedom of expression and thought.”

According to Marotti de Mello, Aléssio Ribeiro Souto, the Social Liberal Party’s education adviser and another former military man, last year said that he would censor books that did not tell the “truth” about Brazil’s former military regime. The drafted law is currently being considered in the federal government’s Legislative Assembly and, according to one academic who asked not to be named on account of “what might happen in the next few years,” there is strong consensus that the initiative could be expanded to university-level teaching.

“This is a conservative project with a goal to remove any kind of teaching they consider left leaning, whether it truly is or not,” he said.

Those who remember the country under military dictatorship might be forgiven for feeling paranoid about a return to dictatorship values. But younger generations appear equally worried. Frederico Dourado Morais, professor of pedagogy at the State University of Goiás, said a right-wing presidency would signal not only a “step backwards” in terms of progress, but present barriers to those wishing to access higher education in a country where the social mobility gap is particularly high.

“Higher education in Brazil is still an exclusive and elitist space … Bolsonaro’s government plan, his proposals and his speeches in public spaces show total ignorance of this reality. He represents a backwards step, both in terms of access, retention and graduation [of students] as well as the quality of scientific production in the country,” Dourado said.

For some, the academic career prospects in the country have simply become too bleak. “It is very sad, but I do not see any positive future for Brazil,” said Marotti de Mello. “I have a tenured position, but many students, especially postgraduates, are facing unemployment or looking for jobs below their qualification.”

She added, “I am talking to lots of friends in academic areas who have plans to leave Brazil if Bolsonaro wins and successfully implements his plan. I am myself looking for research projects in Europe.”

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