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