Opinion by Michael Royster
São Paulo, SP – Last month, the Curmudgeon considered the prospects of education after 100 days of the Bolsonaro administration and gave it a relatively high evaluation (4 out of 10). He’s not so sure anymore.
The prime reason is the hugely controversial 30 percent cut in aid to federal educational institutions. Those are mostly universities, but there are several technical schools and the Pedro II high school in Rio de Janeiro.
The affected institutions are all incensed, perhaps rightly so, as they are feeling the budget pinch. Independent observers of the situation recognize that the unspoken rationale for the cuts is that federal universities are deemed hotbeds of subversive “global Marxism.”
Such ideological justifications are simply wrong and have no place in governmental education.
But there is, or ought to be, a positive side to this question. For one thing, the Bolsonaro campaign promised to focus federal aid on pre-school and elementary education, rather than heavily-subsidized higher education. That is a worthy objective.
For another, the campaign contemplated university students paying tuition fees, thus creating a new source of funding for the federal institutions and diminishing the harm of budget cuts. That too is a worthy objective.
The payment of tuition is, of course, routine in the USA, where the Curmudgeon grew up. But in Brazil, it is undeniable that a majority of university students, in particular those graduating from public high schools, are not able to pay tuition unless they borrow or work part-time.
It is equally undeniable that the Brazilian basic public educational system is badly in need of improvement. One aspect of this is that university applicants from public schools typically do less well on the obligatory entrance examinations than graduates of private schools.
This known disadvantage led Brazil, in 2007, to pass a law whereby federal universities must now admit at least 50 percent of their entering classes from public schools; within that 50 percent, half must be students from low-income families. This quota system has successfully worked to universalize and democratize higher education.
So, back to the budget cuts. In a perfect world, the money no longer being paid to universities would now be destined for aid to lower education.
Brazil, alas! is not a perfect world. In fact, it appears that the Education Ministry has also frozen funds being paid to institutions assisting basic education in Brazil. If so, that is startlingly inconsistent with the campaign rhetoric.
Let us now consider tuition. Given that half the students at federal universities are public school graduates, and most are low-income, they could be exempt; however, the other half— those who graduate from private schools — should not be exempt.
Private schools in Brazil are not cheap, yet thousands of students (and their parents) have long been paying those schools to increase their chances of admission to the prestigious federal and state public universities.
The Curmudgeon, therefore, asks two questions:
Why should students (who can afford to pay) no longer have to pay tuition once they are admitted to prestigious public universities?
Why shouldn’t these prestigious public institutions receive contributions from those whom they educate and who can afford to pay?