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Bolsonaro’s New Enemy: Autonomy of Brazil’s Universities

Updated: Mar 13, 2022

On May 15, 2019, thousands of scientists, educators, and students in more than 200 cities around Brazil swamped the streets to protest cuts in education and research funding.

Officials in President Jair Bolsonaro’s government stated on May 1 that they are slashing university funding by 30 percent, a move that is said to be motivated by complaints about partisan activities on campuses.

University professors and students protest in Rio against cuts to federal spending on higher education. Photograph: Pilar Olivares/Reuters

The move could affect nearly 300 public universities, faculties, and other educational institutes, according to a 2017 higher education census. University officials said the cuts would also likely affect scholarships, utility services, and maintenance.

Several public universities and some private institutions canceled classes to allow staff and students to join the demonstrations against the cuts.

Although there is no official count, organizers estimated the marches attracted hundreds of thousands of people in major cities. Bolsonaro, unsurprisingly, did not react well to the first wave of mass protests against him. While visiting Dallas, Texas, the president called the demonstratorsuseful idiots and imbeciles,” who were being manipulated by the “smarthead minority” that controls federal universities. He further disqualified them by saying they don’t even know “the formula of water.”

University employees are also alarmed by a decree that gives Bolsonaro’s administration new powers to control the selection of senior administrators in the federal university system. In a decree published on May 15, the executive branch will gain veto nominations for university authorities, a decision that destroys in practice the autonomy that Brazilian public universities have to exercise independent control over their day-to-day operations and curriculum.

In addition to orchestrating the cuts, Bolsonaro has been one of the biggest supporters of the School Without Party—a conservative movement aimed against what it considers the spreading of left-leaning thinking in schools and universities.

In a recent tweet Bolsonaro stated that funding for sociology and philosophy courses will be eliminated.

Antonio Claudio, dean of Fluminense Federal University, said on Thursday that the move compromises universities’ ability to do academic research.

“It was already very difficult,” Claudio said, mentioning the recently announced 30 percent budget cut for all federal universities in the country. According to Claudio, 95 percent of Brazil’s academic investigations are carried out with the help of masters and PhD students. “The real motor of research is our postgraduate students,” he said from Brasilia, where he was to meet with education officials.

We join academic, intellectual, and political leaders in Brazil and other regions to decry this attack on the country’s universities in the name of Bolsonaro’s wider aggressive, anti progressive, and fascistic agenda.

We call upon all European governments, the US Department of State, international organizations, university presidents, academic and professional associations, student groups, and individuals devoted to the promotion and defense of human rights to protest and condemn these populist attacks on the pillars of Brazil’s democracy and education system.

We stand in solidarity with the students and faculty of Brazilian universities.

Please send appeals to the following:

Michael R. Pompeo

United States Secretary of State

Office of Foreign Missions

U.S. Department of State

2201 C Street NW

Washington, DC 20520 USA

P. Michael McKinley

Ambassador of the United States to Brazil

Embassy of the United States to Brazil

Rua Henri Dunant

500 Chácara Santo Antônio

São Paulo- SP, 04709-110


Fax: +55 11 5181 8730

Kishore Singh

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education

Palais des Nations

CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland

David Kaye

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and

protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression

Palais des Nations

CH-1211 Geneva 10


Fax: +41 22 917 9006

Federica Mogherini

High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security


European Commission

Rue de la Loi / Wetstraat 200

1049 Brussels


Thorbjørn Jagland

Secretary General of the Council of Europe

Council of Europe

Avenue de l'Europe

F-67075 Strasbourg Cedex


Fax: + 33 3 88 41 27 99

Philippe Boillat

Directorate General Human Rights and Rule of Law

Council of Europe

Avenue de l'Europe

F-67075 Strasbourg Cedex


Fax: + 33 3 88 41 27 99


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