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Public education in Brazil isn’t as public as students want

Students protesting to defend free public education last fall. (Nicole Luna/YJI)

Maringa, BRAZIL – Getting into a public university in Brazil is a dream for many students who want to continue their studies, but for many, it is not an accessible reality. 

There are two main reasons that public universities are so attractive. 

The first one is money. Since the federal and state governments are responsible for maintaining and investing in public universities, they don’t have any tuition fees. 

The State University of Maringá, which is considered the 26th best university in Brazil, according to the QS World University Rankings. (Nicole Luna/YJI)

The second reason is because they’re very recognized in the society, as they are important research spots and centers of innovation. 

According to the National University of Minas Gerais, public universities are responsible for 90% of the national scientific research production.

But there is a gap between the theory and reality of what it looks like to be within this type of university.

“It’s not as accessible as it should be. When we were in public schools, we were not prepared for standardized exams, such as the High School National Exam or the state universities’ selective exams,” said Tatiana Moreira, 25, who studies Communication of Media at the State University of Maringá.

To apply to public universities, students have to pay expensive fees and take the competitive standardized exams – such as the High School National Exam and local university tests. They also must prepare in advance for them, as they’re the only way to get into public secondary education.

Students at the State University of Maringá are very worried about the university’s capacity to embrace the freshmen after applicants received the results of their applications in early February.

“As a public institution, the State University of Maringá should have some improvements in the infrastructure,” said Matheus Pereira, 24, a Communication and Media at the school. He said some departments, like his, don’t have their own buildings and are sharing space with other departments.

Pereira also shared with Youth Journalism International about the lack of resources that his university is facing.

“There aren’t enough materials and even laboratories for classes. There aren’t even basic resources to study!” Pereira said. 

The State University of Maringá is considered one of the top universities in the country, Pereira said, but the facilities and infrastructure don’t meet the standards for a top school. Students sometimes have to cope with power blackouts.

“We should be always fighting for improvements and more investments to guarantee a better education for all,” Pereira said.

What is the university doing about it?

According to the Transparency Portal of Parana State, from 2016 to 2021, the funding allocated to public universities decreased by approximately BRL 313 million (about $63 million USD).

At the State University of Maringá, the budget reduction amounted to about BRL 134 million ($27 million USD) during the same period.

In May of 2023, the Brazilian National Syndicate of Professors at High Degree Institutions mobilized to expose the adverse working conditions and infrastructure issues plaguing public universities in Parana State.

The strike served as a means for professors to pressure the government to outline a career plan and address their demands, drawing participation from seven public universities in Parana state.

Thiago Ferraiol (Nicole Luna/YJI)

Professor Thiago Ferraiol, president of the Teaching Syndicate at the State University of Maringá, said teachers have gone without a salary adjustment for seven years.

“The government operates in an authoritarian and anti-democratic way,” said Ferraiol.

Another significant reason that educators mobilized is the General Law of Universities, a law that centralized decision-making power in the hands of the government, diminishing the autonomy of universities.

According to Estevão Pastori Garbin, a temporary geography teacher at the State University of Maringá, the situation is particularly dire for temporary educators who face high-pressure teaching environments and overwhelming workloads.

“Temporary teachers are essentially sidelined,” said Garbin.

Garbin said that since the state government passed the General Law of Universities in December 2021, undergraduate temporary teachers experienced a drastic increase in their workload.

“The challenge is to maintain the quality of my work with students. Although the university pays me for 40 hours weekly, my workload unquestionably surpasses this limit,” said Garbin, discussing the impact on his life.

He detailed how this work regimen has led to widespread illness. He said that he’s been feeling more anxious and developed insomnia and stress. 

Additionally, Garbin told YJI that many peers have faced situations of workplace sexual assault, further exacerbating the situation.

“The current state is unreliable, indecent, and immoral. In my 14 years here, as a student and now as a teacher, I’ve never seen it deteriorate to this extent,” said Garbin.

In June of 2023, the student community eagerly anticipated action, and after five months, the government released a new proposal.

The proposal outlined an additional increase based on academic titles. But, it remained silent on the situation of temporary professors and teachers said it lacked commitment to improving education and infrastructure quality.

The lack of accessibility around campus makes studying a challenge for people with disabilities. Entrances to campus are often inaccessible to someone using a wheelchair. (Nicole Luna/YJI)

Initially a movement by educators, it garnered the attention of students at the State University of Maringá, who presented their grievances.

Students objected to what they said were severe budget cuts to universities, exorbitant dining plan costs, the absence of housing and inadequate infrastructure.

When their voices were ignored, they chose to protest

Frustrated by the silence, the Central Student Union called for a vote last November on supporting the strike. Out of 20,000 enrolled students, only 500 participated. The strike received 317 votes in favor and 188 against.

“This strike is crucial because our university is in disarray. Professors are not just fighting for themselves; they’re also advocating for us,” said Dandara Sturmer, 27, a Communication and Media student. “How can we claim (the State University of Maringá) is one of Brazil’s best institutions when we lack basic resources?”

An online meeting with students about participating in a strike. The Student Union at the State University of Maringa invited all students to decide whether they’d support and spread the strike. (Nicole Luna/YJI)

Following student protests and occupations, the university’s rector agreed Nov. 13 to student strike demands and signed a contract with the Student Union.

The contract entails reducing dining plan costs, enhancing public lighting, offering more research scholarships, allocating resources for stalled construction projects – including housing – and increasing student involvement in decision-making.

But, recognizing limits, the movement started losing momentum. Following suit with other institutions, the State University of Maringá suspended the strike the next day, to monitor the government’s next steps.

“We’ve seen significant success with the strike so far, but as it loses steam with other universities, it’s challenging to sustain for substantial changes,” said Ferraiol, the president of the teacher’s union.

Sturmer, one of the communication students, expressed frustration after the strike’s suspension.

“I appreciate the collective efforts from students and professors, but I don’t feel it brought about significant change, especially for temporary teachers,” said Sturmer. “Losing two weeks of classes makes our end-of-year overwhelming.”

Since this movement happened, the situation of education and infrastructure remains unchanged in Maringá and in many other public institutions across the nation. 

Said Moreira, another Communications and Media student, “We should review this, so more people could access university for free.”

Nicole Luna is a Correspondent with Youth Journalism International.

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