For the last several months, the Brazilian federal universities have been paralyzed by strikes, and, in an independent development, last week the Congress approved legislation requiring that 50% of the vacancies in these institutions should be destined to students coming from public schools, and distributed according to race.
There are 99 federal institutions in Brazil, enrolling about 940,000 students, and also 108 state institutions, enrolling 600,000 students. The private sector is much larger, with 2,100 institutions and 4.8 million students enrolled. Federal universities are fully subsidized by the national government, academics and administrative personnel are civil servants and their salaries follow a single scale for the whole country.
During the mandate of President Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva, as the country’s economy grew thanks to the expansion of international trade, the government increased the number of civil servants and provided them with regular salary increases above inflation, which also benefited the university employees. In 2012, however, the economic outlook has deteriorated; the public deficit is threatening to run out of control. The government refuses to continue to add benefits for the civil servants and is now facing strikes at universities and also from several other public agencies, including the federal police.
The strikes in higher education are also related to the expansion of the federal system that took place in recent years. In 2008 the government transformed 35 technical schools into Federal Institutes of Technical Education, granting them the same status and salary levels as universities, created a program called REUNI, which provided extra money for federal universities that expanded enrollment, particularly in evening courses, and created several new universities and university campuses by decree, opening them up for admissions before providing them with appropriate infrastructure, facilities and faculty. This accelerated expansion of the federal system has become an important item of the Laborer’s Party’s propaganda when the Minister of Education is running as a candidate for mayor of the city of São Paulo, that has been always controlled by the opposition. The strikes are not led by the traditional political opposition, however, but by unions controlled by radical movements on the left that resent what they perceive to be the more conservative policies of President Dilma Rousseff’s government.
The effort to expand the federal system was coupled with the adoption of affirmative action policies that culminated in the recent bill approved by the Senate. These policies tended to facilitate access of students coming from public schools (which are of lower quality and shunned by the middle and upper class) and “blacks”—in Brazilian parlance means those that declare themselves to be back (“preto) or of mixed blood (‘pardos”) in the Brazilian census—who account for about 50% of the population. Since race, so defined, and poverty are strongly correlated, many have argued that a means tested affirmative action would be less controversial and less open to gaming, but there is strong pressure from militant groups and NGOs to put emphasis on race, and a recent decision of the Supreme Court declared that positive discrimination based on race is legal.
The government is negotiating with the unions to end the strike, and it is likely that they will reach some agreement, but the expenditure per student in the federal system, currently about 10 thousand US dollars a year, is likely to go down. This, combined with the expended influx of students with low academic qualifications, and the lack of clear policies by the universities to deal with this more diverse public, may put in risk the best teaching and research programs in these universities.
In such a scenario, high quality higher education is likely to be confined to the public universities of the State of São Paulo, that have not been affected by these policies and represent most of the advanced graduate and research programs in the country, as well as a growing segment of the private sector (particularly in fields such as business and economics) that are already competing successfully with the public universities for the best students.