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Incompetence or Political Project? How Funding Cuts On Brazilian Federal Universities Impacts Science And Students’ Futures

“For me, the cuts on public and federal universities is a plan. There’s no question that the government is doing this unwillingly or through incompetence. This doesn’t even cross my mind. It’s a very well articulated and architected plan to end everything,” is what student Igor Mascarenhas, 21, thinks about the government’s neglect of federal universities in Brazil.

Igor Mascarenhas and Nayara Avelar are, respectively, president and vice-president of the Simão Mathias Academic Center, a student movement of Diadema campus’ Chemistry course of the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP). The institution, as well as the other 68 Brazilian federal universities, has been suffering with funding cuts. According to data from the National Association of Directors of Federal Institutions of Higher Education (Andifes) released in May 2021, in the last 11 years, the budget for universities has been cut by 37%.

Budget Cuts: What It Means To National Universities And Its Students

Nayara points out that the impacts of the cuts have been felt by UNIFESP students for a few years now. As they have not been attending the university campus since 2020, when face-to-face activities were paralyzed due to the pandemic, she says she cannot tell how the current situation of the institution’s infrastructure is, but recalls that sometimes basic items were missing: “There was even a lack of water filter, so we had no water to drink. We had to go out to buy gallons, and sometimes we didn’t even have toilet paper to wipe our hands.”

Igor completes the speech of the vice-president of the academic center by telling that the infrastructure of the campus where they study is inferior to the others at UNIFESP, and sometimes, because of cuts, the university didn’t have money to pay the permanence scholarship for some students – which led to strikes – as well as having paralyzed the operation of the college bus and the university restaurant, essential for the commuting and feeding of students, especially those in more vulnerable financial situations.

Overhead view of Students In Class
Photo by Mikael Kristenson from Unsplash

The budget cuts amount to more than a billion reais, which, added to the large number of students enrolled in the institutions – today, the 69 institutions have the same budget as the 51 that existed in 2004, but at the time they had 574 thousand students whereas now they have 1.3 million – may make it impossible for some of these universities to function, as is the case of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP), the Federal University of Goiás (UFG), and the University of Brasilia (UnB), still this year.

About the possibility of closing UNIFESP, the students say that it is very frustrating, besides being a disregard for all those who depend on the university: “It is already difficult to get into the university, and now we don’t even know if we will be able to finish the course. I think it is very worrying, we have students who could continue their studies in private institutions, for example, but, for most of them, this is the only opportunity they are having,” says Nayara. And Igor adds that, even though he is at the end of his undergraduate studies, he is also concerned about the direction of federal universities: “I care a lot about public universities, because it was the only opportunity I had to have a better future, and so should everyone else.”

The Threat On Brazilian Science
person putting liquid into test tubes
Photo by Louis Reed from Unsplash

At a time when so much is said about the appreciation and importance of science for society, the cuts can result in the regression of technological and scientific advancement in the country. The same Andifes survey also indicates that, in 2021, there was an 18.39% cut in the budget for basic expenses – such as electricity and water – of all 69 federal universities in the country, which could affect more than 70 thousand ongoing researches, 2 thousand of them related to the pandemic.

Igor Mascarenhas finds the precariousness of science very worrying, especially when it is most needed: “Without research there is nothing. Everything is part of research, from a bicycle to a Coca Cola. For me, research is everything, I am fascinated by it. Stopping research is stopping your development, if you don’t invest in research, you don’t invest in development. It is from universities that great ideas come out, from laboratories in all areas. To me it’s sad, that kind of situation should never happen.”

Nayara Avelar also highlights the seriousness of the denialist and anti-vaccine speeches made by public figures, such as president Jair Bolsonaro, who, during the entire pandemic, advertised ineffective drugs to fight Covid-19, besides ignoring 81 emails from Pfizer – emails that offered, at half price, immunizers from the pharmaceutical company to the country: “The president is the mirror of society, there are people who believe in him, how many people will not take the vaccine because of an anti-vaccine speech? It is the ignorance and indifference of this government that ends up influencing many people who take everything too seriously and don’t filter what is said. It’s very worrying; everyone’s life is at risk. The scientists are working, proving that the vaccine is efficient, while he says publicly that it is not and people listen”, she concludes.

“They Don’t Want People Who Think. That Bothers Them A Lot”
Woman holding \"Save Our Future\" sign
Photo by Markus Spiske from Unsplash

Both the president and the vice-president of the Simão Mathias Academic Center consider that the scrapping of federal universities is not an accident, but a governmental project. “They don’t want people who think. That bothers them a lot. They want people to simply bow their heads and accept what they are doing,” says Nayara, and Igor concludes: “He [the president] doesn’t want us to be critical, he wants us to be ignorant. Education is a right by constitution, but they have been trying to scrap everything possible because they think that privatization is the solution for everything.”

On May 29, 2021, demonstrations against the president’s management during the pandemic took place all over the country, gathering thousands of people in every state. On that occasion, university students also protested against the cuts and in favor of institutions and science. However, Igor points out that, in the case of the academic center he presides over, they do not attend these acts as an entity, they only publicize when and how it will happen and the importance of people’s mobilization.

Because of the pandemic, the organization and mobilization of in-person events is not feasible, many people are afraid of getting infected and don’t show up, so they keep the activities remote, dialoguing and debating with other student organizations, but Igor guarantees that, as soon as the pandemic is over, the academic center will mobilize more effectively: “When things go back to being in presence, the acts will be much bigger, we have always articulated even when there was no imminent risk of the university closing, it won’t be different now.”

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The article above was edited by Isabella Gemignani.

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