Public education

Cuts will impact more than 30% of budget in half of Brazil’s federal universities

Freeze will hit more than 50% of discretionary budget in some universities, a survey shows

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
Jair Bolsonaro (left) and Education minister Abraham Weintraub trying to explain education budget cuts using chocolate bars
Jair Bolsonaro (left) and Education minister Abraham Weintraub trying to explain education budget cuts using chocolate bars - Facebook/Screen Capture

Half of Brazil’s federal universities will suffer higher budget cuts than the 30-percent freeze announced by the government for payment of the so-called non-mandatory spending, a survey disclosed last week showed.

The Budget Cut Panel survey conducted by Brazil’s National Association of Directors of Federal Higher Education Institutions (Andifes) found that 34 of the 68 institutions will suffer greater impacts than the previously 30-percent cuts announced by the Education Ministry.

The Federal University of Southern Bahia (UFSB) will feel the most dramatic impact, with a 54-percent freeze in its discretionary budget -- that is, all “non-mandatory” spending, including outsourced staff, equipment sourcing, and water, electricity, phone, and internet bills.

Other institutions that will suffer the deepest budget cuts are the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul, with a 52-percent cut, the Federal University of Greater Dourados, with a 48-percent freeze, the Federal University of Cariri, with 47 percent, and the Federal University of Lavras, with a 44-percent budget cut.

Most of the 34 higher education institutions that will suffer budget cuts higher than 30 percent are located in the Northeast, where 13 universities will be impacted, followed by the North region with eight institutions, the Southeast with six, the Central-West with four, and the South region, with three universities.

The national average budget freeze is at 29.74 percent. The Federal University of Juiz de Fora (UFJF) will suffer the lowest cut, 15.82 percent.

Budget cuts

The announcement on Apr. 30 by Brazil’s Education minister, Abraham Weintraub, of a 30-percent budget cut for three federal universities that were “making a mess” grabbed the headlines and sparked a heated conversation about higher education in the country.

One day after announcing that the budget cut would affect only three universities -- in Brasília, Bahia, and Rio de Janeiro state -- and facing a huge backlash, the cabinet informed it would freeze the budget for all federal universities and institutes.

In a live-streamed video on president Jair Bolsonaro’s Facebook page, the minister used chocolate bars to argue that the government will cut “only 3.5 percent of federal universities’ budget.” But his numbers include both non-mandatory and mandatory spending, while the Education Ministry cannot cut back on the latter.

So considering only non-mandatory spending -- electricity, internet, and water bills, cleaning and security services, construction works, and equipment sourcing -- the government will actually cut back on 30 percent of the budget for federal universities the ministry is allowed to reduce. That adds up to R$1.7 billion (roughly US$420 million).

Daniel Feldman, a professor at the Economics Department of the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) and the president of the university’s faculty association, confirms that the cuts will be at 30 percent and could be higher for some institutions.

Feldman argues that the government’s presentation on Facebook was purposely confusing and aims to respond to their own voters.

“Their tactic is to set society -- which whether doesn’t really know the university or is misinformed -- against us. They say it’s a mess, that the university does not produce anything. Bolsonaro said that absurdity that the university does not conduct research. But if you look at the list of the top 50 universities in terms of research in Brazil, 49 are public,” the professor says. Feldman teaches at the same Unifesp campus where minister Weintraub used to work.

Professor Feldman points out that, as a result of the government’s lack of project, decisions like the budget cuts are announced “without supporting documentation.”

“I’d say that 95 percent of Brazilian universities reject the Education Ministry’s policies as a whole -- not only the budget cuts, but their whole vision. That means the nonpartisan school [project that aims to curb] political debate in the university. As if the minister himself was not doing politics -- he campaigned for Bolsonaro speaking on behalf of Unifesp before he took office [as Education minister],” Feldman points out.

National strike and rallies

One million people took to the streets all over the country last Wednesday to protest the education budget cuts. The demonstrations were organized by students, teachers, professors, and staff from federal universities and schools.

The huge impact of the rallies encouraged student and faculty organizations to call for a new walkout on May 30.

Edited by: Aline Carrijo | Translated by Aline Scátola