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

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.