With shrinking budgets, Brazilian public universities may have to stop activities

Federal universities have the same budget as 17 years ago for twice the number of students

Translated by: Julia Abdalla

Rede Brasil Atual |
ufrj universidade orçamento
The Federal Universities of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and São Paulo (UNIFESP) debate stopping their activities from July onwards - Raphael Pizzino/Coordcom-UFRJ

With the funds for investments and maintenance now equivalent to the figures of 2004, federal universities sustain that they are reaching operational limits. Some of the most important institutions in the country, like the Federal Universities of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and São Paulo (UNIFESP), now debate stopping their activities from July onwards.

The 2021 Federal Budget reserves 2.5 billion Brazilian reais (approximately 500 million dollars) for so-called discretionary spending of the 69 federal universities, which together have about 1.3 million students enrolled. With values updated by the Extended National Consumer Price Index (IPCA), which measures the inflation rate on products and services, the value is almost the same as in the 2004 Federal Budget. That year, nonetheless, there were only 51 institutions of that kind in the country, amounting to 574 thousand students.

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The discretionary spending is destined to cover basic costs like water, electricity, cleaning, security, and the maintenance and renovation of the buildings. Scholarships for students and purchasing supplies for research are also included. They are complemented by funds of obligatory spending, which consume most of the total budget, encompassing salaries and other allowances earmarked by law. 

Serious impact 

The low budget forces the universities to cut scholarships, directly affecting the poorer students and freezing research. Now, alongside that, water, electricity, and cleaning bills can no longer be paid. 

“With the current value for discretionary spending, UFRJ will stop working in July. The classes will only continue because they are taking place online. But all the services the university provides, including the hospital and research, not to mention the development of a vaccine against COVID-19, will be interrupted”, affirmed the university’s Dean, Denise Pires Carvalho, to the newspaper O Globo.

In a statement, the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) also said that unless more resources are released, it will be impossible to “afford the basic functions of the university from July onwards. We are at risk of a complete shutdown”.

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“The most important budgetary revenue, in which resources are allocated for the university’s basic functions - electricity, water, cleaning, maintenance, surveillance, resources for undergraduate laboratories, among other things - was of 66 million Brazilian reais in 2020 [about 12.5 million dollars]. Now, in practice, it is 21.1 million reais [a little over 4 million dollars], which is only enough to maintain activities until July. And imagine that classes are happening remotely for most courses. If we need to resume in-person activities, we won’t have enough even for the most basic adaptations that are needed”, the statement continues. 

Besides the 2.5 billion reais that the federal government has released, the universities' budget includes 1.8 billion reais (around 343 million dollars) that may or may not be unblocked during the year. If it is issued, discretionary spending will reach its level in 2006 when the country had 54 federal universities. 

Services at risk 

The president of the Brazilian Association of Deans of Higher Education Institutions (Andifes), Edward Madureira, also told O Globo that the complete 2021 budget for the sector should come to R$10.4 billion (almost 2 billion dollars). He reported that the Federal University of Goiás (UFG), where he is the Dean, ended 2020 indebted given the lack of funds.

“Almost 180 million reais [34.3 million dollars] were cut off student assistance. As many of the students come from poor backgrounds, cutting their food and housing aids is the same as sending them off the university”. 

Madureira also noted that 50 university hospitals are endangered of closing due to the reduction, including the beds destined for COVID-19 patients and services like testing and vaccination support. He will meet with the Executive Secretary of the Ministry of Education soon to ask for the liberation of the blocked funds. 

According to Paulo Speller, who worked as the Secretary of Higher Education of the Ministry from 2008 to 2010, Brazil is going in the opposite direction of the world by removing the funds for education and research at this particular time. “This government believes that educating students has a marketable and low price. That is a limited vision”. 

Edited by: Rede Brasil Atual