Brazil's first-generation students trade pens for protest as budget cuts take toll

The ruling Workers' Party said educational access would be the 'priority of priorities.' But deep recession has put significant gains in peril, and students are mobilizing to push back.

Two students clean up the bioctechnology lab at the State University of the West Zone on a recent afternoon. The first public university in Rio's blue collar west zone has faced class suspensions and has had to lay off its cleaning staff due to public budget cuts.

When some biotech and pharmaceutical students at a young university here decided to carry out their first large-scale protests against budget cuts last year, they first had to make a call.

They rang up a national student organization: "How exactly does one go about shutting down a university?"

The advice: Figure out where the classroom keys are stored, then bring your own external locks – and lock those doors.

The eager students, frustrated by cuts that were sidelining professors, shuttering classes, and diminishing lab supplies, took action. They piled desks in front of two strategic rooms and hung banners with slogans like, “What’s actually radical is the way [Rio de Janeiro Governor] Pezão vandalizes public education."

The students weren’t just new to public protest. Most are the first in their families to pursue a higher education, buoyed by the rising tide of Brazil’s economic boom that began in the early 2000s.

Public protest here over the past several months has largely targeted a corruption scandal that’s ensnared top political and business leaders and brought about impeachment proceedings for President Dilma Rousseff on unrelated charges. But these students at the State University of the West Zone (UEZO) are focused on something more personal: their status as the first generation of Brazilians who could lose the very advances they grew up striving to achieve – and being told by the government that they deserved.

UEZO is the first public university in Rio de Janiero’s blue-collar west, home to about 40 percent of the city's 6.3 million residents. The school represents some of the loftiest ambitions of Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT): In its 13 years in power, the PT’s most acclaimed legacy has been shrinking racial and socioeconomic inequalities through education, improving access to public healthcare, and offering more opportunities in science, technology, and engineering. This goal was bolstered by a period of economic growth rates as high as 7.5 percent annually, riding on favorable commodity prices and heavy investments in offshore oil.

Now-suspended President Rousseff took office following a razor-thin reelection in 2014, stating that public education would be the “priority of priorities.” But today, Brazil is in its second year of recession and public accounts are in disarray. Local governments are cutting jobs and delaying payments to state employees for months on end.

Public hospitals are turning away patients in Rio de Janeiro, just weeks before the city plays host the Summer Olympics. The interim government of Michel Temer, in office while Rousseff is on trial for impeachment charges, has stoked alarm by announcing further cuts to public health services and proposals to charge for post-graduate courses at public universities, which are constitutionally mandated to be free. 

Nationwide austerity measures mean the scaling back of a welfare state that provided drastic changes in the lives of Brazil’s have-nots. And while UEZO’s classes have been suspended as a result – with employees and scholarship recipients going unpaid – students like Douglas Val Quintans are trying to convince their classmates that even if they can’t study toward their degree, their education doesn't have to be put on hold.

"I think [UEZO] students would be quiet and satisfied,” if it weren’t for Brazil’s worst economic crisis in nearly a century, Mr. Quintans says. He’s waiting outside a state budget meeting where a proposed 50 percent slash in funding for science research is under discussion. Inside the meeting, an exasperated legislator takes the microphone and lambasts his colleagues for saying there’s no money for science, after they just passed a tax exemption for a jailed CEO’s construction company.

For Quintans, there’s a silver lining: "If we didn’t have this moment of crisis we wouldn’t have this mobilization,” he says. Students "would see the institution as a place to generate diplomas. But it’s a place to generate citizens and to form opinions.”

Education 'interrupted'

For students, defending their education been a rapid learning experience. "I ended up doing two degrees,” says Quintans's classmate Thamyres Vianna. “Biology is what I want [to study] … but I need to understand the political side to know what's going on."

Ms. Vianna is the first in her family to go to college – her father is absent from her life and she was raised by her grandmother after her mother died young. She says she began university with little in the way of political leanings, just a general “curiosity” to learn about the world.

The 2010 census shows that about half of Brazilians over 25 didn’t complete middle school. Their children, however, zipped past them, in part thanks to programs like Brazil’s Bolsa Família. The Bolsa's monthly stipends go directly to poor mothers in return for keeping children enrolled in school. Basic education became universal by the late 1990s, and college enrollment more than doubled between 2000 and 2014, reaching 7.8 million university students in a country of 206 million.

"We got to a point in which we could finally bring the country to another level,” both in terms of economic development and social welfare, says Rodrigo Capelato, executive director of the National Syndicate of Higher Education Institutions (SEMESP).

"But unfortunately this [trajectory] was interrupted,” he says. A better educated populace would improve critical thinking and resistance to political "manipulation," Mr. Capelato says, referring to the ongoing political crisis which ushered in a party known for corruption and an interim president who, if an election were held today, would earn 2 percent of a popular vote.

A broader trend

The students at UEZO aren’t alone in facing a potential end to their education. In São Paulo last November, young students organized weeks of “occupations” after the governor threatened to close a series of public high schools due to budget constraints. The students slept and cooked on campus, held “teach-ins” where they learned about constitutional rights and the privatization of education, and had rough confrontations with police, who tried to kick them off school property.

The students garnered nationwide attention for their calls to defend their school rather than be shuttled to distant districts that would become increasingly overcrowded. The governor dropped his initiative. By April this year, students in Rio kicked off a series of similar public school occupations, with the state secretary leaving his post in May as a result.  

But Sérgio Seabra, a biology professor at UEZO, isn’t as enthralled by the social awakening he’s witnessing in his students. Yes, it is important to know how to effectively lobby the government, he says. But he’d rather the university be a place of pure science that didn’t have to flirt with political parties to keep functioning.

“I wish it weren’t so,” Mr. Seabra says. “The students should be in the university learning and discussing future political issues,” rather than being forced physically onto a political scene before they've even graduated college.

Brazil falling short?

In Brazil, it’s historically been wealthy students – able to afford private high schools and test-prep courses – who end up in the country’s free public universities. A 2012 affirmative action law instituted racial and income-based quotas for public colleges and also streamlined entrance exams to broaden applicant pools.

During the same time, enrollment in private universities ​mushroomed to 3-1/2 times higher than those in public institutions. For-profit ventures popped up to serve a new generation of Brazilians that expected a chance at a college degree, much like the students at UEZO. Monthly fees at private universities dropped to levels accessible to Brazil’s working classes – an average of $200 a month, according to research from Pedro Mena Gomes, a market analyst at Hoper Educação. Enrollment was boosted by increasingly favorable terms of government-subsidized student loans.

But years of gains started to falter come 2015. Despite Rousseff stating in her second term that Brazil would be an “educating nation,” federal funds for education were cut by about $2.5 billion. When she met with President Barack Obama June last year, she faced the awkward fact that her government had unpaid debt with US universities of reportedly more than $300 million for her flagship Sciences Without Borders student exchange program. The students were meant to be sent on the Brazilian government’s dime.

The government suspended new entrants to the program shortly thereafter. It also more than halved the number of government-subsidized loans – vital for working-class families to afford private universities – offered in 2016.

There are signs that Brazil’s crisis, and accompanying austerity measures, are already having a negative affect on its most-educated generation. In a recent poll of 800 high school graduates, 41 percent said the economic crisis discouraged them from going to college. They cited both the difficulty of getting financial assistance and skepticism over finding a job after graduating.

The research, from SEMESP and Popular Data, also projects that Brazil's goal of having a college-attendance rate of 33 percent by 2024 will fall short, reaching only about 20 percent given new cuts to student loans.

Capelato says this number puts Brazil not only behind wealthy nations, but also neighbors like Argentina and Chile.

'The Future'

With dim prospects for an economic revival any time soon, reforms that could deeply alter the character of higher education are increasingly under discussion here.

As universities look for new sources of funding, Rousseff signed a law in January that will allow professors at public universities to take on paid research projects with private companies. And Temer's new education minister has already suggested he will cut financial assistance to low-income graduate students.

Ms. Nascimento,  who was in charge of cleaning an UEZO lab on a recent holiday break, came to college to study biotechnology. She’ll now graduate at least a year late due to suspended classes and campus activism.

If Seabra, one of her professors, fears his students' politicization comes at a time when they should be dedicated to diligent scientific work, Nascimento's eagerness to get back into the classroom could serve as reassurance.

"I am really in love with my studies," she says, comparing the field of biotechnology with the forward-looking nature of activism. "My [field of study] is about thinking about the future."

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