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Protests in Brazil against 30% Cuts in Universities Budget

Gabriel Huland, PhD Media Studies

 At the end of April, the Brazilian government announced it would freeze 30% of the 2019 national universities budget as part of an austerity plan to reduce public spending. The cuts totalise BRL2 billion (U$500 million) and will affect discretionary spending in all 63 federal universities in the country. The measure met fierce opposition from different segments of the educational community. According to ANDIFES (the Brazilian National Association of Federal University Chancellors), it will affect more than 1.3 million students, as well as pose a direct threat to almost 400,000 university places and 5000 degree programmes

The announcement of the cuts triggered a robust protest movement involving students, lecturers, teachers, and administrative staff of secondary schools and universities.

The cuts will not hit mandatory spending such as salaries and pensions, but they will have a tangible impact on scholarships, research projects and outsourced services such as cleaning, catering, and security. Public universities carry out around 95% of the country’s scientific research. In a country as large as Brazil, hosting 15-20% of the world’s biodiversity, the need for scientific research is tremendous. For instance, each year, scientists discover approximately 700 new animal species in the Amazon rainforest. There are also a considerable number of tropical diseases that are at risk of maturing into epidemics, especially in low-income areas, as new viruses develop systematically. 

In 2015, however, the country invested only 1.28% of its GDP in research, in contrast to 2.79% in the US, 3.29% in Japan, and 4.23% in South Korea. Private research, on the other hand, is practically non-existent, amounting to less than 1% of the total research funding. The number of published scientific papers has risen in the last decade, although the National Union of University Lecturers (ANDES-SN) argues that the quality of this research is questionable.

The announcement of the cuts triggered a robust protest movement involving students, lecturers, teachers, and administrative staff of secondary schools and universities. On 15 May hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in more than 200 cities across Brazil. Jorge Almeida, professor at Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), said that the protest was important because it was formed mainly by students and young people new to politics. He stated that they were among the largest demonstrations since June 2013, when millions went to the streets to protest high public transportation fares.

The educational crisis, however, cannot be understood as an isolated issue; instead it needs to be analysed in the context of a wider and much more complex economic crisis, namely the worst that the largest Latin American economy has ever faced. Since the beginning of the year, the International Monetary Fund reduced the forecast for economic growth from 3.5% to 1.5%, and some economists say this projection could go further down. The government has been incapable of approving any substantial measure to tackle the crisis. The number of unemployed people rose in the first three months of 2019 to 13.4 million (12,7% of the working population). Another 5 million are described as discouraged workers – those unemployed who are not actively seeking a job. The minimum wage in Brazil is slightly below BRL1000 (U$250) and half of the Brazilian labour force earns an average of 15% less than that, as reported by the news outlet G1

Furthermore, Bolsonaro’s flagship economic policy – a controversial pensions reform – is stalled in Congress, as the government struggles to organise a support basis among lawmakers. The relationship with Congress has been chaotic from day one. The Economy Minister Paulo Guedes has given assurances that the government will save BRL1 trillion (U$250 billion) in ten years with the reform. The business and the financial sectors support the bill, arguing that it is the only way out of the economic deadlock. Most of the mass media, conservative politicians, and neoliberal academics agree with this view.

Society, for its part, is extremely polarised around Bolsonaro’s pensions reform. Academics, progressive politicians and unions strongly oppose it, saying the reform is a mechanism to transfer resources to financial institutions, as it privatises the social security system. In their opinion, it puts the weight of financing the pensions mostly on the backs of low-wage workers. The current proposal sets the minimum age of retirement at 62 (for women) and 65 (for men) and the contribution time of private workers at 40 years – if the worker aspires to retire receiving 100% of their average salary. Brazil’s life expectancy in 2016 was 75 years.

“The policy option of the current government is to cut down the social rights of the most impoverished layers to reduce the tax burden of large business owners and keep tax exemption policies intact,” argued Eduardo Fagnani, Professor at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), in an interview to the independent news source Outras Mídias. He added that if the government reduced tax exemptions to big corporations, prosecuted companies evading taxes, and audited the public debt (which consumes more than 40% of the country’s yearly budget), a total of BRL1 trillion (U$250 billion) could be saved in one year. The Brazilian trade unions called a general strike on June 14th against the pensions reform.

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