Universities hit back as Brazil slashes scholarship funds

Universities hit back as Brazil slashes scholarship funds

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — University deans and education experts in Brazil expressed their concern Thursday about the future of academic research after the education ministry announced it had blocked all forthcoming scholarships for master's and doctoral students.

Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel, a foundation linked to the country's education ministry, said Wednesday it had shut down the system awarding new higher education scholarships as part of a wider effort to slash public spending. It did not say how many scholarships would be impacted.

While Brazil's government claims it is implementing the budget cuts across the board and in an equal way, some say it could be politically motivated.

Far right President Jair Bolsonaro has targeted education in his young presidency, vowing to oust the "leftist ideology" from schools that he says is ruining Brazil's academic environment. Bolsonaro and Education Minister Abraham Weintraub have argued in favor of letting students film teachers during class time, in an effort to fight the alleged leftist indoctrination.

The scholarships for master's and doctoral students had helped many of them with living costs over the course of their studies. Scholarships that had already been awarded will not be withdrawn, officials said, but it will impact those that were already in the application process.

Antonio Claudio, dean of Fluminense Federal University, said Thursday the move compromised the universities' ability to do academic research.

"It was already very difficult," Claudio said, mentioning the recently announced 30% budget cut for all federal universities in the country.

According to Claudio, 95% of Brazil's academic investigations are carried out with the help of master's and PhD students. "The real motor of research is our post-graduate students," he said from Brasilia, where he was to meet with education officials.

Another university dean, Adalene Moreira Silva in Brasilia, said 123 students would not get a scholarship as a consequence. Bahia Federal University, in the northeast, said it had similarly lost 82 scholarships.

"It took us by surprise. Our preoccupation is that it hits research but also the training of high education staff," Silva said.

Claudia Costin, who was senior director for education at the World Bank in 2014-2016, said this latest cut targeting scholarships was "terrible" news.

"Brazil intends to join the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development but is following a path that distances us from those countries, in terms of education, science and technology," Costin told The Associated Press.

Earlier this month, the Education Ministry announced it would freeze 30% of all federal universities' budget, as well as public education institutions and some federally funded high schools, triggering widespread criticism from worried university staff and education experts.

Students from federal high schools in Brazil also protested. In Rio de Janeiro, hundreds of high schoolers were joined by university students, teachers and parents in front of a military school where Bolsonaro was speaking.

Before announcing the cut, Weintraub told the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo that he had cut the budget of three federal universities because of their ideological stance and poor performance.

During the campaign trail, Bolsonaro said he wanted to "enter the Education Ministry with a flamethrower to remove Paulo Freire," one of Brazil's most famous educators, whose ideas on literacy teaching had worldwide influence.

Last week, a legislator from the president's party introduced a bill to strip Freire, who died in 1997, of his ceremonial title as the "patron of Brazilian education."

Bolsonaro and top officials also spoke of plans to revise school textbooks to excise references to feminism, homosexuality and violence against women.

Aside from the cultural war that some say is rocking the education ministry, critics say the government is not giving education the attention it desperately needs.

Brazil ranked 63rd out of the 72 countries and regions in the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, conducted by the OCDE.

"It's a question of priorities. We need to give education the importance it deserves, for its participation in social progress and the construction of the country's future," said Costin.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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