Texto originalmente publicado no blog do projeto Enterprise U, que congrega as reivindicações do atual movimento de greve na University of Sydney, Austrália, desde março deste ano. Clique aqui para acessar o texto no original.
Click here to access the original version of the text below.
The recent wave of protest that I have witnessed – and in a certain way participated in – at the University of Sydney (USyd) during my six month research visit to Australia reminds me of a series of debates on the political scene of the Brazilian higher education system over the last few years, particularly at the University of São Paulo (USP) where I have been enrolled since 2007. In spite of each country’s particularities, many of the challenges are similar. The necessity of international solidarity in the struggle for a public, free and democratic education for all becomes evident.
In many respects, USyd and USP are similar, and amenable to superlatives: the oldest, the largest and among the wealthiest. Yet Australian universities have more tradition, many founded during the colonial era. USP, on the other hand, was founded 79 years ago as a project of São Paulo’s elite. Despite being the largest in Brazil, with around 80,000 students, USP is only one university in an educational system still under construction and expansion.
The fact that until 1930 about 70% of the Brazilian population was illiterate is an indication of how recent the education system in Brazil is. Our higher education system only began to massively incorporate students in the 1990s when the nation started to breathe after 21 years of military dictatorship. During Lula’s Labor government (2003-2010), 14 new federal universities were constructed. In the last decade, Brazil has gone from three to seven million young people enrolled in higher education.
However, this portrait is very far from ideal. Since the beginning, it was the private colleges which grew at much higher rates and were responsible for the incorporation of young people at this educational level. Now, they correspond to 75% of the enrolments in higher education. The Brazilian higher education system can be described by the following features: it is composed of mostly private, user-pays, profit-making, evening colleges located on multiple campuses and not accredited as universities. Every year, thousands of places are offered at small faculties (which basically work like ‘diploma producers’), while thousands of other places are withdrawn by the Ministry of Education for not meeting the minimum standards of quality.
Public universities, in turn, do not keep pace with enrolment rates for our population. Despite having higher quality and totally free education, as well as good social assistance for students, the competition for one of their places gives the public universities, which supposedly should assist the society as a whole, an elite character. This context produces an interesting and complicated phenomenon in the Brazilian education system: middle- and upper-class students, who can pay for private schools in primary and secondary education, take the public university places, while those from working-class backgrounds, who study in public schools (with all their severe educational problems), attend the private colleges. This is a striking example of the reproduction of social inequalities.
Inside the public universities, the scenario is not immune from criticism. An expansion in the number of places sponsored by the Labor Party without an improvement in work conditions led to a three month strike in almost all of the federal universities (more than fifty). In USP, historically considered a centre of political and ideological resistance, the ostensive presence of the military police was permitted by the management for the first time a couple of years ago. While during the dictatorship the police were not permitted to enter the University, they have now become a permanent feature of campus security. Since 2009, we have witnessed two violent conflicts between police and students. This has happened in the context of several reforms – and resistance – undertaken in our universities in the attempt to construct a neoliberal agenda.
Brazilian public universities have not been privatized in a literal sense. However, processes of commodification in the Brazilian education system have been occurring gradually, in the face of weaker staff unions and a disorganized student movement. Participation of private companies in research funding, high investments in web-based teaching, pressure from large-scale assessments, and even threats to discontinue courses with ‘low economic impact’ are some of the common scenarios in the current educational debate. Even the right to free education, a right we are very proud of, has been questioned. Since the right-wing Fernando Henrique Cardoso government (FHC, 1995-2002), postgraduate programs in public institutions have been allowed to charge fees – this hasn’t happened yet due to internal resistance.
As I stated earlier, Brazilian education is still under construction and we do have reason to celebrate. The strength of the Black Movement succeeded in implementing, for the first time, a policy of social and racial quotas nationally (in a country that, nowadays, can be considered black majority, though they are under-represented in higher educational levels). The number of students enrolled in higher education has never been so high, and political disputes around new bills have been promising in regard to, for instance, substantial increases in funding for schools and universities.
It is partly true that Brazil, and also Latin America, has a ‘democratic legacy’, as stated by the sociologist Michael Burawoy. This heritage, far from being fixed and guaranteed, is being maintained with hard efforts from social movements – unfortunately not as organized as the Chilean ones. More important is the currency of the notion of public education in the struggles and claims that comprise Brazilian society. It is the sense of the public good which drives Brazil’s heated debates in many distinct spheres, and is our main defense against neoliberal logic.
Besides the inspiring learning, my experience in Sydney is a reminder that our cause is global. In order to deal with these problems, education is indispensible, but it is not the only part of the process. As the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire used to affirm, ‘Education does not change the world. It changes the people, who will change the world’.