Former Exchange Student to Brazil: Government Should not Sacrifice Education and Research in Austerity Push

Austerity hit Brazil's higher education system last week after the Agency for Higher Education Development (CAPES) announced a steep 75 percent cut last week in their post-graduate support program, PROAP.

This cut continues a larger trend of spending cuts that many economists hope will stabilize Brazil's economy. After years of growth, a hotly contested election, and with 8 percent inflation, Brazil continues to speed down the road of austerity. Dilma Rousseff's government aims for a 1.2 percent budget surplus this year according to Foreign Policy magazine. Such goals have been furthered, as Forbes and MercoPress have reported, by a presidential decree cutting spending by 21 percent and a budget cut of US$22.5 billion from health and education. Despite the cuts, according to Brazilian newspaper Folha, congressman have tripled the amount destined for the political parties' coffers in a bid to make up for an anticipated decrease in private donations in lieu of arrests during Brazil's Petrobras money laundering scandal.

According to Brazilian news outlet, O Globo, the PROAP reduction has already drawn fire from Brazil's prominent universities and caused the temporary closing of the northeastern Federal University of Bahia's graduate program, after their research support from the PROAP dropped from a projected R$4 million (around US$1.3 ) to around R$1 million (around US$316,000). Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education downplayed the severity of the cuts, arguing that 90 percent of the allocations for post-graduate education in 2015 would remain intact, and that no government funded scholarships would be affected. The Minister of Education, Renato Janine Ribeiro, facing a 19 percent reduction in funding, echoed those sentiments in an interview with the BBC. He said "fiscal austerity is a reality" arguing that the Ministry should focus on primary education to end a "perverse [social] lottery" and leave universities and researchers to rely on other sources of funding.

However, those other resources are fast diminishing. Consider the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) where I exchanged in 2012, the largest federal university in Brazil, in Brazil's second most populous state. According to the Brazilian newspaper Estado de Minas, the FAPEMIG, Minas Gerais' research support agency,has de-emphasized research. From 2004 to 2014 research as a percentage of the agency's activities dropped from 41 percent to 18.6 percent. A 33 percent cut in the UFMG's budget due to the presidential decree and budget cuts means that while the institution maintains basic financial aid, it has also experienced delays in financing, difficulty in maintaining scientific equipment, and risks potential cuts in humanities (such as a 50 percent cut in the university's history program).

Sharp educational reductions hurt Brazil's growing international prestige and deprive Brazilian and international students of important opportunities to tackle pressing international issues. For years now, Brazil's universities have powered their way to regional and international prominence through public financing. In 2015, Quacquarelli Symonds ranked five (public) Brazilian universities in the top ten of Latin America according to the BBC. In a June meeting, Presidents Rousseff and Obama made educational and technological exchange a cornerstone of their educational, scientific, and international cooperation agenda. In Brazil, agreements such as "double doctorates" with international institutions and the Scientific Mobility Program, better known as Ciência Sem Fronteiras , allow Brazilian students to take advantage of international resources and exchanges. In short, cuts to postgraduate education follow an austerity trend that belies Brazil's growing educational clout, its international commitments, and its dedication to solving the great environmental challenges within its borders.

Having studied History at the UFMG and read the historical work produced from a variety of Brazilian public universities for my own research, I can testify to the high quality of the historical work that Brazil's public schools produce. Furthermore, I've grown immensely through participating in Brazil's social experiment. Many programs come through participatory budgeting, in which proportional representation by neighborhood allows poorer city residents a greater voice in municipal projects. Through university networking, I was given an opportunity to document informal communities' reactions to urban renewal and volunteer as an assistant instructor in after-school programs in Belo Horizonte through an (unpaid) volunteering program. In many instances, the UFMG offers scholarships to participate in projects such as these. I've visited the Serra da Capivara National Park where students from local universities have challenged longstanding narratives about man's arrival to the Americas. Drastic cuts hurt experimentation and exchanges such as mine. More importantly, reductions close lesser-known federal universities, which allow greater access for future scholars to make important discoveries about humanity's past and gather important scientific data necessary to better our future.

The Brazilian legislature has found the money to triple allocations toward their political campaigns. Surely these same caretakers of the Brazilian republic can find the money to keep Brazilian higher education on the path of scientific innovation, international competitiveness, and social advancement.