Bolsonaro’s War against Academic Freedom

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

In May 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, expressing serious concern about Bolsonaro’s education agenda. At that time, we reported with alarm on Bolsonaro’s pervasive attempts to gain control of the selection of senior administrators in the federal university system.

Photo: Reuters

Notorious for his attacks on women, BIPOC, and LGBTQI+ people, Bolsonaro has declared that “leftists will have to leave the country or go to jail.” Before assuming office, he and his party encouraged a witch-hunt-style campaign, the School Without Party—a conservative movement that encouraged high school and university students to covertly film and denounce teachers for “ideological indoctrination.” Since he took office, the initiative has only gained momentum and has led to the introduction of dozens of similarly exclusionary bills in Congress. In addition, the federal government has taken an increasingly active role since January 2020 in censoring textbooks that reach public schools in order to endorse conservative principles and denounce more progressive approaches. Bolsanaro’s increasing attempts to censor institutions of higher learning has had the effect of decreasing institutional autonomy, which his administration has described as a way to curb “left-wing influence,” particularly in the process of selecting university rectors and administrators.

Bolsonaro’s outspoken bias against the humanities and social sciences has also led to sharp budget cuts that his administration has imposed on public higher education institutions through the “Future-se” Program to hamper liberal arts education within the university system. In 2019, the budget of federal universities was cut by 30 percent specifically in the areas of liberal arts, nearly bringing the system to bankruptcy and stirring up a broad wave of protests across the country. Since June 2020, the government has gone even further, announcing a massive cut of 4 billion reais (an additional 18 percent reduction) in university operating budgets, which is certain to even further damage humanities and social science departments. Students have circulated images of darkened hallways leading to bathrooms without soap or toilet paper, a further unwelcoming and deterrent environment for students who are pursuing higher education.

Here you can read a summary of events that have taken place in Brazilian higher education since September 2019.