Bolsonaro among the Tories: the politics of defunding the humanities

The newly-elected President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has announced that his government is ‘studying how to decentralize investment in philosophy and sociology at universities.’ ‘The objective, he explained, ‘is to focus on areas that generate immediate return to the taxpayer such as: veterinary, engineering, and medicine.’ This has predictably met with outrage among academics, who have responded with an open letter expressing their ‘alarm and concern.’ Signatories now number in the thousands.

Commentators and campaigners have suggested that Bolsonaro’s plans are nakedly political, part of his broader attack on the institutional infrastructure of liberal democracy. This view has the not inconsiderable advantage of being correct. The president, as an editorial in the Guardian noted, has ‘thundered about the need to “combat Marxist rubbish” in educational institutions.’ It requires no major leap of the imagination to conclude that defunding certain humanities and social science disciplines is an attempt to root out such views. In the fevered authoritarian mind, sustained reflection and engaged social theorizing – along with the wider history of dissent sponsored by the university – represent a threat an unconscionable threat to the regime.

Yet for those who would connect Bolsonaro’s policies with a distinctively new form of authoritarianism, there is some awkwardness in just how he has presented his proposal. He focuses explicitly both on the economic return that the government may expect from higher education and on how state-level policy may be used to direct student and university priorities. These are oddly familiar to those of us working universities – they almost directly reprise the reform agendas of supposedly moderate governments across the Anglophone world. They are, in fact, our current realities.

Take the UK. In 2012, the Tory-led coalition government stripped out the direct public funding for teaching, and since then has forced students to make up the financial shortfall. In practice this means that since the reforms were implemented, students have paid an extra £18,000 in fees alone for a three-year degree. Maintenance grants were also turned into loans at the same time – many students now leave university nearly £50,000 in debt. Part of the justification for shedding costs onto ‘consumers’ was that the private return that higher education provides to graduates, in the form of higher wages later in life, means that it is reasonable to ask them to contribute more towards meeting the cost of their education.

Alongside the government’s retrenchment from funding came an increased demand that universities contribute to economic development. As a 2016 white paper put it, the remaining pool of funds – the funding cut was barely acknowledged – should be used to direct the university system toward being ‘a driver of economic growth.’ The paper noted also that ‘employers are suffering skills shortages, especially in high skilled STEM areas.’

The language in these documents may be somewhat more guarded than Bolsonaro’s, but the suggestion is not substantively distinct. The Brazilian government is following the Tories in both defunding teaching and learning in much of the university, and then claiming that it is concentrating state resources in those areas of human understanding which will provide immediate economic return for the taxpayer – namely ‘veterinary, engineering, and medicine.’

Bolsonaro is advancing his political agenda not by dictating what may or may not be taught, but rather by bringing to bear on students and academics the discipline of a market he commands. A student is free to pursue any area of knowledge, his government proposes – but the state will only support certain economically valuable endeavours. Such strategies are more or less official policy in New Zealand and Australia. Consider this statement in New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Strategy (2014): ‘in tough economic times,’ the government has ‘improved the way the system targets need, for example, by giving providers stronger incentives to deliver education in high need areas like priority engineering courses.’ In the meantime, in those areas of apparently lowest need, there have been swingeing faculty cuts – humanities in particular have borne the brunt of this in the last several years, with major restructurings, departmental closures, and job losses at almost all of the country’s universities. In Australia, the 2014 The Kemp-Norton report recommended at once that ‘in light of cost pressure,’ Commonwealth funding for ‘engineering and health disciplines should be reviewed’ (upwards) and that the system as a whole would be most ‘equitably secured by adjustment of the Commonwealth per place subsidy and student contributions’ (that is, most students should pay more in fees).

Bolsonaro’s proposals merely differ in proportion from such strategies, but they do not differ in their nature.

It has been obvious to critics that what we are seeing in Brazil is authoritarianism at large. Bolsonaro is trying to silence his political opponents by withdrawing state support for those distinctly uneconomic spaces where professors and students can talk together about the nature of understanding, the formation of society, or how we might live more freely together. It has been less obvious to such critics, though, just how deeply reforms to higher education in Anglophone nations have been motivated by a similar desire to call an end to such utopian spaces and practices.

If we are to see through Bolsonaro’s own account of his proposed changes such that we can name its unacknowledged political end, then we should equally be able to see through the transformations that have taken place in our own university systems, such that we can name them as radical attempts to change our political cultures. The crisis that many departments in our universities face is political in that sense, not simply a by-product of shifting economic conditions, but rather a more direct attack on traditional centres of political critique and modes of social engagement. Bolsonaro seems to know all of this. To attack his enemies in universities, he has concluded, he need not ban any particular area of teaching and learning. Rather, he can simply tell students and academics to pay for the whole endeavour themselves – and call this a strategy for growth.


Image: Flickr

Andrew Dean

Andrew Dean is Lecturer in Writing and Literature at Deakin University. He recently published Metafiction and the Postwar Novel: Foes, Ghosts, and Faces in the Water (2021) with Oxford University Press.

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