Evolving National Policy for Brazilian Federal Universities

The chances of success of a program that was designed without any discussion with the universities or other institutions are remote.

August 27, 2019

In previous blogs, we expressed concerns about the future of higher education in Brazil under President Jair Bolsonaro’s agenda, especially in regard to how the recent budget cuts for science, technology and higher education would prevent Brazilian universities to operate at minimum levels of quality. As we noted, public universities were the primary targets of government initiatives in progress. However, up to that point these initiatives were isolated and erratic as no comprehensive reform had been announced.

In July 2019 the Brazilian Ministry of Education presented a program so-called Future-se (translates loosely 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; internationalization–define the proposal. In this essay, we present an overview of the Future-se program, focusing on the perspective for internationalization that it endorses. 

Future-se: Three axes

Future-se is intended to encourage the financial autonomy of public federal universities and institutes by means of partnerships with social organizations: private associations or NGOs that receive a state grant to provide services of relevant public interest such as health and education. According to the scarce material made available for public consultation, the first axis of Future-se—management, governance and entrepreneurship— targets the reduction of expenses allocated to staff salaries; establishes external audits; creates a ranking of institutions to reward the most economically efficient; stimulates union real estate and fundraising through concessions, investment funds; encourages public-private partnerships; supports initiatives to motivate university departments to increase their own resources; and authorizes “naming rights” on buildings and campuses in order to allow maintenance and modernization of facilities with support of the private sector. 

The second axis, is research and innovation,focuses on installing research and innovation centers and technology parks; ensures a promising business environment to create and consolidate technology-based startups; brings university institutions closer to companies to facilitate access to private resources; and rewards the most innovative projects. 

Finally, the third axis, internationalization, aims at stimulating student and faculty mobility in the field of applied research; validating foreign degrees from “high performance” universities; facilitating access and the promotion of distance learning; establishing partnerships with private institutions to promote international journal publications; and providing scholarships for the international mobility of Brazilian students with high academic and athletic performance. 

The rectors of institutions affected by the new policy are seriously concerned about its consequences. Overall, they see Future-seas a means for a massive state divestment in public universities that would lead to its privatization and threaten the idea of higher education as a public and social good with undetermined consequences to the Brazilian society. Individual institutions, including the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, the largest in the country whose university council unanimously decided to reject Future-seas presented to society, have joined the broad 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 program’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 the same concern, emphasizing that by signing a contract with a social organization, the autonomy of administrative, academic and scientific activities at federal institutions would be deeply affected and in conflict with the autonomy guaranteed by the federal Constitution and concluding that, “there is much to debate, much to clarify”. 

What kind of internationalization? 

In the available text, internationalization is directed towards “promoting federal higher education institutions abroad and raising their position in international rankings and indices such as Times Higher Education and Web of Science.” Up to this point, the proposals related to this third axis have been generic and limit the possibility of a detailed analysis of its intended goals. In addition, the policy is subject to public consultation until August 15ththat may lead to changes. In any case, the available material suggests that the policy reflects a hegemonic perspective on internationalization that is directly linked to specific economic interests.

The inclusion of internationalization with a policy that aims to encourage universities to raise funds for their own survival and that emphasizes 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. 

The chances of success of a program that was designed without any discussion with the universities or other institutions are remote. Furthermore, there is a natural apprehension concerning a program launched by a government that has been so critical of public higher education. The higher education Brazilian 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.


Fernanda Leal is a visiting scholar at the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE), Boston College, and a PhD. candidate at the Universidade do Estado de Santa Catarina (UDESC), Brazil. She is also an executive assistant at the International Office of the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (UFSC).

Marcelo Knobel is rector of the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp) and professor in the Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute. 

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