Brasil, Maravilhosa

The Rio Times’ mission is to provide English speakers with local information, to “improve their understanding of the Cidade Maravilhosa and Brazil”. Its front page has three routes to follow: the World Cup (that ended with the final at the Maracană Stadium on July 13), the Olympic Games (which will open in Rio on August 5 2016) and, between, them, current news. And foregrounding the news is an editorial on education.

I was in Brazil to build on our university partnerships and the recent increases in our enrolment of Brazilian students at Salford. And in this restless country of contradictions the demand for education, at all levels, is everywhere. I was last here just over twenty years ago, mostly in the north and looking for traces of the period of Dutch colonization at Mauritsstad, now Recife. Between 1581 and 1654, the Dutch had revelled in the exoticism of Brazil until they were displaced by the Portuguese. This complex interplay of colonialism, the legacy of slavery and rich and varied indigenous culture has resulted in a famously complex and diverse contemporary country that covers half the landmass of South America with a population growing past 200 million.

Back in 1994, Brazil was a different country. Civilian governments had been in power for less than a decade and Henrique Cardoso had only just launched his Plano Real, the basis for economic reform. Recife and other cities were decrepit, the evidence of poverty everywhere. Since then, and through the long period of economic growth led by the Lula government after 2002, there have been significant reductions in poverty and Brazil’s middle classes have expanded by some 40 million people, pushing in turn the services sector to some 60% of overall GDP.

It’s not surprising, then, than education is an obsession in Brazil today. Marta, a journalist from a magazine focusing on the economy, tells me that, apart from football, all middle class Brazilians talk about is education and healthcare. And the two are closely related, because education is key to better paying jobs that can ensure a reasonable quality of life.

A year ago, Brazil’s growing economic confidence was severely shaken by waves of protest that started with objections to increases in public transport costs but which widened into opposition over spending for the World Cup in the face of other priorities. Stone Korshal, Editor of Rio Times: “Brazilians learned they can spend billions on stadiums soon to be forgotten, many of which opened in incomplete conditions, and reinforced a culture of overspending, under-delivering, and distracting the masses with the circus. Well, now it’s over, it’s winter in Rio, and life is moving on. Most are licking their wounds and trying not to think too much about the 2016 Olympics, not yet.”

Marta sees younger Brazilians like her as anxious about this future. While there are jobs, they don’t pay well without good educational qualifications. Property is expensive and becoming more so, so it’s difficult to buy an apartment. Increasingly, employers want good English language skills and international experience. Public schools are seen as low quality and private education is expensive. There is widespread disillusionment with government policies.

Stone Korshal sees lack of education opportunities as a major factor in the June 2013 protests – Brazil’s equivalent of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement of Europe and North America. So too does President Dilma Rousseff’s PT (Workers’ Party) government, which has launched a new and comprehensive education policy that stresses access to basic education and the quality of the country’s public schools. It is intended that, by 2024, this National Education Plan will see 10% of Brazil’s GDP committed to education. According to World Bank figures, this would make Brazil’s the highest proportional education expenditure in the world; the UK currently spends 6.2% of GDP on education, and the US 5.4%. And last year, Brazil’s Congress passed legislation that earmarks 75% of petroleum royalties for education.

Continuing with interviewing my interviewers, I ask Fabrico, a journalist with a business newspaper, what he thinks about access to Brazil’s elite federal and state universities. Fabrico, whom I guess is still under 30, has had the opportunity to study in Paris and this has clearly shaped his view of the world and of Brazil.

Public federal and state universities have high entrance standards and do not charge tuition fees, and so every place is fiercely contested. Given the extent of inequality in Brazil, and the direct link between access to quality education and the country’s history of colonialism and slavery, public universities are expected to attain significant and challenging affirmative action quotas. But because the state-run schools are so bad, success in entrance examinations requires high cost, private schooling that is inaccessible to the poor. Not surprisingly, Fabrico explains, there is widespread cynicism and disillusionment about commitment to change, which young Brazilians see as cosmetic, doing little to give them the opportunities that they crave.

As with the Arab Spring two years earlier, Brazil’s 2013 protests revealed the power and potential of social media. Brazil is one of the most urbanized countries in the world, with more than 80% of the population living in massive cities such as Sāo Paulo (19.7 million), Rio Janeiro (11.8 million), Belo Horizonte (5.4 million) and Porto Alegre (3.9 million). This, combined with half the population under the age of 30, is fertile ground for social media. Brazil is a Facebook nation, with over 29 million subscribers and the highest current annual growth in sign-ups in the word, at 9.2%.

Manuel Castells, writing about the Occupy movement, sees social media as enabling “counterpower”, “the capacity of social actors to challenge the power embedded in the institutions of society for the purpose of claiming representation for their own values and interests”.

As Adalberto Müller, Professor of Film Studies at the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio explains to me, the 2013 protests and social media have crystalized the alternative to traditional party politics in post-dictatorship Brazil. The conundrum has been that alternatives to Dilma Rousseff’s leftist Workers’ Party are unpalatable, but her government has been tainted by political scandals and the insensitivity of prestige spending on the World Cup in the face of pressing needs for basic facilities and infrastructure. As across the Middle East in 2011, social media provide the means for alternative forms of political association – what Castells calls “rhizomatic”. Adalberto gives the example of Mídia Ninja, crowd-sourced journalism that is now an alternative to established media in Brazil, widely seen as censored by the state. 2014 is an election year in Brazil and, while the Workers’ Party is currently seen as on track to retain power, many young Brazilians are expected to spoil their ballot papers in protest (voting is compulsory).

With lack of adequate access to federal and state universities – together, they take only about 20% of Brazil’s students – demand is driving a vibrant, varied and expensive private Higher Education sector across Brazil. The country is now the fifth largest education market in the world and by next year there will be more than 10 million enrolled students. Currently, 2378 institutions are recognized by the Ministry of Education, but only 190 have the title “universidade” (101 are publicly funded and the remaining 89 are private and fee paying). The remaining 2188 institutions are private, many for-profit and part of a vigorous market in mergers and acquisitions, with increasing foreign investment. Quality and fees are variable (up to the equivalent of £1000 per month) and each offers its own diploma in its particular area of specialization. With families prioritizing investment in education, the risk of de-registration by the Ministry and the confusion that private sector qualifications brings to the job market, it is no wonder that young Brazilians are anxious about their futures, and sometimes angry.

In this world, nothing is taken for granted; Brazil’s new generations of students cannot afford the listless ennui of aging democracies, where access to education is seen as an entitlement. This is evident when we visit the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ), a brutalist concrete construction of stairways and precipitous facades alongside the iconic Maracană Stadium (the site of Germany’s bitter triumph just ten days earlier). Although it’s after seven and a wet winter night in the vacation, students are everywhere and books are laid out for sale on the street, under protective umbrellas. Across the wall of the cramped campus bookshop, that doubles up for shots of espresso, is a quotation from Paulo Freire: “um professor que não exerce a curiosidade está equivocado” (“a teacher who does not exercise curiosity is mistaken”). UERJ has more than 26 000 students, some 2 300 academic staff and about 5000 graduate students. As Rio’s state university, UERJ leads in research fields from Energy, Engineering and the Environmental Sciences to Politics, Media and the Social Sciences.

Our host is Erick Felinto, Professor of Media Studies. After a seminar on Media Archaeology – part of our collaboration with UERJ in the area of media and music – Erick takes us to Nova Capella, one of the oldest restaurant’s in Rio’s Lapa district and an eclectic mix of traditional wall tiles, a pink studded ceiling, contemporary art and religious iconography. Some of Erick’s graduate students join us. One is mid-way through her Masters course. She holds down two jobs and takes classes at UERJ in the evenings. Another is wrestling with German media theory, central to his doctoral dissertation. Erick is working on a translation of Friedrich Kittler’s work on media technologies from the original German directly into Portuguese. This, he explains, will avoid some of the errors that have been made in the prevalent English translation. The book will be published by UERJ’s own academic press. Overall, this feels like a university should, with the political edginess, urgency and intellectual passion of the traditional campus.

Despite the polarization of the 2013 protests and the shift of the established electorate to the right, making Dilma Rousseff’s re-election later this year far from a certainty, the current government seems determined to address Brazil’s continuing hunger for education. The new National Education Plan will tackle state funded basic education; there are still an estimated three million school-aged children in Brazil who never attend a class. At the other end of the pipeline, the state-funded Science Without Borders programme is paying for 101 000 young Brazilian students to study abroad (to date, 8657 are studying at universities in Britain, including ours); in June, Science Without Borders was extended with an additional 10 000 scholarships.

It seems clear that young Brazilians’ determination to gain qualifications and engage with the world continues to grow as a determining force; with India, China and African countries, Brazil will shape a “southern century” of economic growth, politics and new cultural and intellectual syncretisms. The contradictions this will continue to bring were well expressed in the ambiguities of the World Cup: the protests about investment at the expense of other priorities, and then the dismay of defeat; the passion for the game in the face of extreme inequalities.

Brazil’s Paulo Freire again: “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”


Stone Korshal: Editorial: “ The Learning Process”. 22 July 2014:

Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope. Social Movements in the Internet Age. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2012

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1968.

Jonathan Watts “Brazil’s ninja reporters spread stories from the streets. Band of volunteer citizen journalists are setting the news agenda with their ‘no cuts, no censorship

Back to the Curriculum

Opening Address, Forum for Access and Continuing Education (FACE) Conference, July 2 2014, Salford, Manchester

How do we defend access and continuing education in the emerging, “post-crash” settlement?  Before things went wrong in 2008, Higher Education in Britain was awash with cash, steering towards an overall participation target of 50%.  Five years later, as the economic recovery gains momentum,  there is little talk of going back to these objectives.  Instead, there is inexorable motion towards a new binary divide, whether from the left or the right of the political centre.  And binary divides tend to squeeze access to appropriate opportunity, whether to correct economic inequality or to enable continuing education.

Manchester – Salford – has the history and consequences of binary squeezes written across the cityscape.  This was the heart of Britain’s industrial revolution in the eighteenth century, creating immense economic value.  It’s also the city where Friedrich Engels described the conditions of the working class – basements recently excavated by our Centre for Applied Archaeology.  Salford Quays, connected to the Atlantic trade by the Manchester Ship Canal, was one of Britain’s busiest ports a century ago.  By the 1990s it was a wasteland, a graveyard for employment.  Today, there’s  a billion pounds of investment in one of the largest digital media centres in the world.  This is also a city formed and defined by immigration, from Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and from everywhere else.  Today, more than two hundred languages are spoken across Manchester and it’s a fair guess that everywhere in the world is represented.  Manchester’s universities have the largest number of international students in Britain; at our university, we have students from well over one hundred countries.

Today – 2014  – feels like 2009.  Then, we knew that cuts were coming, but the general election had to come first.  The Coalition was elected in May 2010 and there were massive protests against the new fee regime in December.  Now, we know that this fee regime is unsustainable, and far more expensive than the system it replaced.  We are waiting for the general election of mid-2015 to find out what the next policy will be.

One extreme, that Labour is working through as the party shapes its manifesto, is the reduction of the fee cap from £9000 to £6000.  The other extreme, which could follow logically from current Coalition policy and the Browne Review, would be the removal of the fee cap, further encouragement of private for-profit providers and the break up and sale of the student loan book to banks.  Whatever the eventual mix, the outcome is likely to be binary.  On the one side will be a small number of elite universities, either charging high fees or else reducing their undergraduate numbers to offset cross-subsidization.  On the other side will be large, low-cost universities, competing on price to offset fixed costs against scale, either because fees are capped or in competition with for-profits that offer the transactional, minimal requirements to achieve a qualification.

One set of responses to this developing scenario will be – and already is – anger.  But anger has not had a great success rate in recent years.  The student protests of December 2010 were the biggest in years, but the fees went up and the NUS conceded defeat.  The Council for the Defence of British Universities was formed as a broad coalition to defend the idea of the university, but is off the radar (I think I may be the only serving Vice-Chancellor who is a member).  Universities in general get a critical perspective from all sides: for failing to adapt quickly enough to disruptive digital technologies; for not developing employer-required skills; for graduate under- and unemployment; for offering funny courses.  As a consequence, anger does not stand up well in comparison to other demands on public spending, such as local government services, public transport and, particularly, the NHS.

More specifically, with regard to access and continuing education, we still find it difficult to show how we use resources – funding – to bring about a demonstrable effect.  Contrary to expectations, while anticipation of the new £9000 fee level led to a surge in applications and admissions in September 2011 and a matching and sharp dip for September 2012 when the new regime was first applied, applications have recovered and are stronger than ever for September 2014.  And, if anything, the proportion of new admissions from low-income households has increased.  In contrast to secondary education, we do not use measures of added value, which would compare statistically predicted graduate outcomes with actual results and would allow a comparison of benefits against socio-economic circumstances.  There do not seem to be evident, compelling, arguments against funding changes, such as the recent removal of support for students with disabilities, or the continuing threat to HEFCE’s student opportunity funding.  This fuzziness does not make for good public policy arguments.

An alternative to anger is to get better at demonstrating success and, through this, to become more successful in enabling access.  One approach here is to return to the curriculum, in its broadest sense.

By curriculum – as I don’t have to tell a group such as FACE – I don’t mean what’s in the prospectus or the rules and regulations that the QAA looks to for assurance.  I rather mean the whole structure of the student experience, ranging from technical mastery of new knowledge through to the excitement of discovery, the empowerment in learning and the contexts in which new understanding is applied.  And I want to emphasise two generic aspects of curriculum that, I believe, can contribute to improving access:  recognition, and extended progression.

Recognition.  One of the tacit assumptions behind a cluster of policies that, together, shape the dominant view of access is that of correcting deficit.  Whether talking about widening participation in terms of low income households or socioeconomic category, advancing equality, or embracing diversity, there is often an implication that “marginalized groups” need assistance to “catch up”.  Rarely, though, is the objective specified or how attainment is to be measured; catch up with whom, and against what criterion for success? And we know we must be in trouble when everyone from UKIP to Labour is committed to “social mobility”.  In essence, overuse has made these concepts empty ciphers, of little practical help in shaping either policy or practice.

An alternative way of looking at this, and the focus of a thoughtful and productive line of research and writing over recent years, is rather to think and act in terms of “recognition”.  I tend to think of this in terms of the continuing value in the concept of experiential learning, the insight that stepwise changes in our acquisition and use of knowledge come from moving through cycles of immersion in experience – whether in the workplace, the laboratory or the richness of sources – and reflection, when we step aside and apart, usually with others, to generalize, share, reflect and theorize.  When we do this, we find that diversity becomes a significant asset, bringing experiences and perspectives into unexpected and productive juxtaposition.  Rather than seeing some members of a class as marginalized or lacking, this gives status and dignity to their knowledge through recognizing the value that they bring into the university. Anyone who has been thoughtful about their experience of teaching at a university will have also experienced this.

Recognition, though, also has a deeper and more profound value.  To recognize the legitimacy of the experiences, perceptions and perspectives that a far wider range of people bring into the university is to broaden the epistemic framework of knowledge itself.  We are quite good at recognizing this retrospectively.  For example, in the nineteenth century novels were seen as too trivial to warrant any place in the curriculum and were widely associated with the frivolity of women.  Today, this literature is the canon, staunchly defended as a bulwark of standards of learning and scholarship.  It’s a fair bet that, in fifty years time, new ways of knowing that are considered marginal today will be similarly defended as mainstream, and that our successors will look back at us with the same mild and condescending derision that we apply to aspects of the Victorian curriculum.  To recognize the value in the new and the marginal is to get a glimpse of the future, and to benefit from this.

Extended progression. Here, I mean a priority on improving the articulation between all aspects of post-compulsory education, whether this is Further Education, Higher Education, apprenticeships, or work-based learning programmes such as Employer Owned Skills.

It is surprising how many people believe that that there is simple relationship between A-levels and university study; in fact only about half of all British university students have A-levels and, in many universities, students with A-levels are in the minority.  As far as access is concerned, the A-level route is comparatively uncomplicated with a single major point of contention; whether or not “top” universities should allow “contextual admissions”.  In other words, should the undeniable relationship between socioeconomic circumstances and attainment levels at A-level be taken into account by those universities with the most competition for places.  While this is certainly important, it is conceptually simple.

Improving the articulation between vocational courses and the university curriculum is more complex and, I would suggest, far more significant in potential for improving both access and continuing education. There is a clearly a need for far more coherent pathways through the plethora of post-compulsory qualifications other than A-levels and their assessment systems.  While A-levels are widely understood, and their standards a matter of recurring national angst, there is almost no public debate about BTECs, about how they are moderated or that they are offered by a for-profit company.  Most people who teach in universities, or their children, are unlikely to have studied for them and, I suspect, comparatively few people know what the qualification’s acronym stands for.

Work across the divide between BTECs offered at Level 3 in Further Education and the first year of undergraduate study at university yields rich rewards in access and progression.  Extending this further, by designing curricula in which learners can continue from a BTEC and into a Higher Education diploma at Level 4 in their college before having the opportunity to enter university at Level 5 will widen access, with subsequent retention, further.  We are one of a number of universities currently working with partner colleges to explore the opportunities in new pathways such as these.

Getting back to the curriculum by engaging with issues such as these will, I believe, demonstrate more convincingly how important access and continuing education continue to be, both in terms of public goods and in personal benefits.  For public good, we surely need clear and diverse pathways that equip more people for the continually emerging needs of the economy.  To recognize ever-new ways of looking at the world is to anticipate emerging, new knowledge.  For personal benefits, we need to provide prospective and present students with clear ways of imagining their future selves, so that they can make the most appropriate choices to realize their capabilities.

Thank you for joining us here, in Salford, and for the richness of discussion and inspiration that always distinguishes FACE’s annual conferences.


Forum for Access and Continuing Education (FACE) Conference, University of Salford, 2-4 July 2014.  “FACE as an organisation facilitates the exchange and dissemination of information and practices in lifelong learning and continuing education. By promoting collaboration and innovation between providers and practitioners FACE aims to support and encourage a socially inclusive framework for lifelong learning, challenging exclusion and fostering full participation”.

Angel Meadow

Eddie is dead.  It’s not quite clear how or why, but the gangsters who hang about the street corners in this part of Ancoats seem implicated and ready to do it again if they’re crossed.  The chic woman who met the eight of us in the Square for a bargain renovation opportunity has gone.  And I’m being questioned by a hyped-up thug with his stubbly face six inches from mine. We duck in through a door and up some narrow stairs.  Now I’m left in a disheveled bedroom with a girl in a red dress who believes she has seen the devil, with the head of a pig and drinking bleach.  I don’t know what to say so she grabs my wrist and I’m downstairs in the pub with someone determined to teach me snooker.  There are some others from our group led who were duped in the Square here, and one has decided to stare out our unanticipated companions, expressionless.  This seems like a good tactic to me, but Eddie’s girl pulls me onto the gents and opens up her handbag.  She wants me to touch up her lipstick.  Why I am I doing this?  Then we’re back in the pub with the others and the devil really is here, with a formidable pig’s head and a bottle of bleach.  He stares us out, one by one, and we are transfixed.  Then someone leaps onto the bar and douses himself with paraffin, lighter ready.  The bar keeper hurries us out into the street and slams the door closed after us.  The eight of us wander off, dazed after 55 minutes in a world we did not anticipate, and still don’t understand.

I don’t do interactive theatre, and try to avoid the front row in case an actor sits on me, or needs to pull a reluctant member of the audience onto the stage for some entertaining humiliation.  But Angel Meadow is so immersive and overwhelming that it makes the very concept of “audience” redundant.  This is way beyond “site-specific”, more a demolition job on any sense of order or expectation.  The eight of us are like the survivors  of an air crash, forced to be together in a ghoulish reality show.  Within a few minutes of being dragged into this world we are beyond humiliation and embarrassment.  I’m glad I went alone, and don’t know the other seven.

This loss of dimension is attenuated by the confusion of time and place – instead of theatre, perspective, positioning this is a kind of free fall.  Time veers between the nineteenth century scuttle gangs of this part of Manchester, a juke box and taunts about Facebook.  The rooms around the seedy bar are a confusion of narrow stairways and passages, domestic debris and dirty windows.  Disorientation is comprehensive.  There is no clear narrative and nor should there be.  Disorientation is the point.

Participants will take away from Angel Meadow what they want.  I understand cities – their creativity and their terrors – as fault-lines, as sets of contradictions that run through the fabric of buildings and spaces and through social relations.  Engels was one of the first to write about Manchester in this way and the quality of his prose rings true more than one and half centuries later.  Today, life expectancy varies by ten years across the city and there is substantial poverty.  Inner city gentrification – the promise of apartment living offered us as we arrived at Angel Meadow – must always work to hide this.  Our fifty-five minutes of free fall into the stairwells and corners behind the façade was a sensory experience of a fault line. of its sounds and smells, materiality, and snatches of words and bits of pieces of peoples’ stories.  There are suggestive possibilities here, for performance as active intervention, for provoking an awareness of issues in ways that conventional politics can no longer touch.


Angel Meadow.  Directed by Louise Lowe, by ANU Productions, Dublin (    10-29 June 2014, as the inaugural production by Theatre HOME, Manchester.