Also in Brazil: ‘We need to say no’

Guest blog by Roberto Alamino, a Brazilian theoretical physicist who has worked in the UK since 2006. 

It took me some time to notice that something was changing in British higher education – maybe because the changes have accelerated in recent years, or maybe because when I moved to the UK in 2006 I had just finished my PhD in theoretical physics and was more worried about getting a job. When you’re worried about surviving, it’s easy to forget other important things happening around you. Once I realised it, though, I also realised that the issue goes well beyond education. It is a much larger assault on culture, critical and free-thinking, and it threatens not only science, but also arts and philosophy.

A couple of weeks ago, after I joined CDBU, I decided to talk to people from Brazil to check my suspicions that an interdisciplinary phenomenon might also be an international one. I was happily surprised to find that they said ‘no’. Still, they suggested that I take a look at the website of the Union of Academics of the University of São Paulo (ADUSP). When I did I was surprised again, this time not pleasantly. The picture it painted of a Brazilian university system in crisis was one that seemed familiar from my British experience:

“The public university, stronghold of critical thinking, intellectual rebellion, cultural freedom and political citizenship, find itself ever more reduced to a submissive position. The dominant political forces in administration have the urge to domesticate the university as a sine qua non condition to open space for mercantile values and practices that have been implanted in the Brazilian higher education, inexorably, since the 90’s.”

“The present project is even more encompassing and intends to incorporate all public higher education institutions. It concerns itself with the task of subjecting the university to the interests of the capital, what requires turning scientists into businessmen – or ‘entrepreneurs’. It tries to break the backbone of the teaching body, be it by convincing them to join this ideology, or by a control exercised by means of an unending sequence of ‘evaluations’ and certifications.”

Although there are huge differences between higher education in Brazil and the UK, I could easily find myself reading the above paragraph in a British newspaper.

“The positivist ‘scientometry’ adopted and imposed by CAPES – its rankings, quantifications, Qualis [a particular ‘quality index’ for journals introduced by CAPES], evaluations – found a fertile ground in the meritocratic and punitive vocation of the bureaucracies that control the biggest Brazilian universities and funding agencies.” 

Some clarification is needed here. CAPES is the main public funding agency in Brazil and it is noticeable by the text above that it has adopted the same kind of criteria that is becoming increasingly common in Britain. It goes on.

“USP [University of São Paulo] identified itself with this project and became one of its leading engines in Brazil. The length of the graduate courses was drastically reduced, the publications became the primary objective of research, the undergraduate studies and the teaching were downgraded to the status of lesser activities.  (…) The academic staff began to be sorted as ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’, as if the university was simply a branch of industry.”

“The public university, capable of freely producing knowledge without the chains imposed by private interests, is a strategic asset to a country that intends to be democratic, sovereign and socially fair. If we want to keep alive the hope that ‘university’ rhymes with ‘freedom’, ‘diversity’ and ‘quality’, we need to say ‘no’. Out and loud. The academics can make the University of São Paulo climb up in the combativeness rank. That might not bring individual rewards, but surely it will raise the spirits at every new academic year.”

The excerpts I have translated into English were published by the ADUSP on the 18th of February of 2013 under the title “We need to say no”. The original text, in Portuguese, is here for those who are interested.

The changes reshaping higher education in the UK are global in their nature. We need to cross the geographic boundaries to reach out to our colleagues in other countries. We need to create a network of awareness and to help each other to avoid the loss of our cultural heritage for the next generations. I have already started to talk to my contacts in Brazil and I would urge that anyone with international connections do the same.

Roberto Alamino runs the website, Science Legacy.