Brazilian universities fear Bolsonaro plan to eliminate humanities and slash public education budgets

Tens of thousands of students and professors protested nationwide on May 30 against a Jair Bolsonaro administration proposal to slash Brazil’s public education budget and starve university humanities departments of resources.

It was the second mass demonstration in two weeks against the education policies of Brazil’s divisive new president.

Protesters in cities and towns across Brazil took to the streets to condemn an education ministry proposal to reduce funding for Brazilian public universities by 30% during the remainder of 2019. The ministry is also considering withdrawing financing entirely from the philosophy and sociology departments of public universities.

The objective would be to “focus on areas that generate immediate return to the taxpayer such as veterinary, engineering and medicine,” Bolsonaro wrote on Twitter on April 26.

Education in disarray

Bolsonaro, a provocative conservative who took office on Jan. 1, was elected in November with promises to radically restructure Brazil, including its schools.

Brazil’s chronically underfunded public education system has struggled to pay for maintenance and utilities since the country entered recession in 2015. In 2016, the conservative government of [President Michel Temer passed an austerity measure] that capped all federal public spending at 2016 levels for a period of 20 years.

Federal public universities in Brazil depend entirely on the central government for their budgets, though they may seek research grants and other funding on a project basis. State governments maintain their own universities in Brazil.

In order to “banish the ideologies of the left” from classrooms, the president opposes the study of any subjects related to sexual diversity, gender equality or racism.

Bolsonaro believes that women should be paid less than men because pregnancy is a financial liability for companies, and that enslaved Africans came to Brazil by choice. He wants Brazilian students to be taught those lessons, too.

Bolsonaro also plans to shift the federal government’s limited education resources to focus on elementary and secondary education, taking money away from higher education and scientific research.

But the president’s efforts to implement his education agenda have so far faltered. Initially, the problem was disarray in the education ministry.

Bolsonaro’s first education minister, the Colombia-born philosopher Ricardo Vélez Rodrígues, enjoyed the backing of powerful evangelicals in Brazil’s Congress. But his lack of management experience and ignorance of Brazilian administrative machinery created tension within the education ministry.

In February, Vélez directed all schools to recite Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan, “Brazil above all, God above all” after singing the national anthem. The order violated Brazil’s constitutional separation of church and state.

Velez also made public comments that embarrassed the Bolsonaro administration.

In a Feb. 19 interview with the magazine Veja, Vélez said that Brazilian schools should teach more civics courses because “Brazilians behave like cannibals when traveling, stealing things from hotels, stealing life preservers from under their airplane seat, stealing everything they can.”

Vélez was fired on April 8, four months into Bolsonaro’s term.

Controversial proposals

Vélez’s successor, Abraham Weintraub, is a university economist and former finance executive. He also believes that there is a “communist conspiracy to take power in Latin America.”