What is the use of a university? The draft copy of the pre-project Tertiary Education Law that the federal government presented to the country gives a reply that is hardly orthodox to this question. The text, submitted to intensive debate during the months of February and March, is laconic when dealing with the intrinsic powers of the tertiary level institutions, such as research and the production of knowledge, but bends over backwards through one hundred articles, about concepts such as social responsibility (providing service to the local community and the external control of academic activities), democratic management (the participation of students, employees and professors when choosing management) and the reserve of places for students from state schools. The proposal has brought about energetic reactions. In the role of enthusiasts we have those who manage federal universities. The explanation: the project slackens the budgetary tourniquet to which they had been submitted over the last few years. According to data from the National Association of Directors of Tertiary Level Federal Institutions (Andifes in the Portuguese acronym), during the period 1995 to 2001, the fifty four (54) federal institutions lost 24% of their monthly provisions budget (water, light, telephone, purchase of office materials, etc.) and 77% of their budgetary resources for investing in classrooms, laboratories, computers and books. The project removes the weight of their pension payments from their payroll, guaranteeing a greater volume of resources and conceding financial autonomy to these institutions, although it does not point out where the extra money will come from or give an indication as to how the resources will be divided up among the units. Acid criticism came from the private universities and colleges, which would be submitted to restrictive norms that, among other control mechanisms, would limit the participation of those who sustain these universities to 20% of each institution’s upper management board – the other 80% would come from representatives of the professors, students, employees and the local community. There was a consensus of opinion that the federal universities had needed help, and also, as had been expected, a more rigid regulation for the private institutions was needed after the extraordinary expansion of that system during the decade of the 90’s. But the passion with which these two topics have been dealt with blurred the central point, namely: what is the type of university being proposed by the Ministry of Education (MEC)?
The main criticism of the project is that the Brazilian university is much more complex than the law framework drawn up by the federal government supposes. “If it had been to solve the problem of the federal universities, the MEC could well have presented an organic law for the universities. A university reform is not urgent and deserves much more reflection”, says the rector of the University of Sao Paulo (USP), Adolpho Melfi. Marcos Macari, the rector of the São Paulo State University (Unesp), agreed: “The proposal is full of good intentions, such as the autonomy of management of the federal universities and an increase in the number of students from state schooling. But there is a very poor and long-winded text that deals with questions already covered in the recent Law of Directives and Educational Bases and ignores the reality of the state and municipal public universities.” Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, who is leaving the rectory of the Campinas State University (Unicamp) to take over the position of FAPESP’s scientific director, complemented: “There’s a lack of strategy. The proposal doesn’t contemplate the production of knowledge and values too much community extension, in a utilitarian vision that belittles the university”.
In the worst of situations, the universities run the risk of channeling resources and efforts in order to comply with the goal of the expansion of places and new takes of assisting the community, thus sacrificing research. The minister of education, Tarso Genro, rejects this possibility. He points out that the reform establishes the requirement, to be complied with within a period of six years, of a teaching staff with a minimum of 50% of masters and doctors in the classrooms and at least one third of the teaching body being of exclusive dedication. And says that there is the targeting of specific resources in the budget for quality projects and the expansion of teaching and research. Repeatedly, minister Genro says that he is willing to correct ambiguities in the next version of the project, which will be published in the middle of April for a new round of discussions. “The only points that are non-negotiable are autonomy, the expansion of places without a lowering of quality and the reserved places for pupils state schools”, the minister says. “In the new edition of the text, there should be more explicit information on the role of research as an intrinsic university activity”, concedes Fernando Haddad, the Ministry of Education’s executive secretary.
There are signs that other points, such as the generic subjection of support foundations to the norms of the pre-project, will also be revised. This demand was the reason for a motion coming from FAPESP’s Board of Trustees, signed by the president, Carlos Vogt, which was sent to the MEC: “One point in particular called the attention of FAPESP’s Board of Trustees: that of section III of the first article 1 which, even when fashioned under the form of – in the situations that fit -, submits the development institutions to research, in a general manner, and, in our evaluation, unduly, to the treatment of the same pre-project law, which by being unique and by dealing with such diverse material, runs the risk of being dangerously all embracing or of being particularly innocuous in material that has its own specifications and that, in the case of the FAPs, already constitute the objective of institutional and legal regulation in many of the States in the country”. At a meeting on the 11th of March, at USP, Fernando Haddad guaranteed that the intention was not to control the state foundations and said that this point would be removed. “The project is maturing and being improved”, said the optimistic president of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC), Ennio Candotti. The modified text should include forgotten themes such as arrangements for distance learning and financial assistance to students. In the same way, it should have some softening towards the privately owned faculties. The participation of foreign capital in these institutions is going to be increased from 30%, in the current text, to 49%. The change makes up part of the strategy of turning the pre-project more palatable for the National Congress, which will be presented with the definite proposal starting from June of this year.
Nevertheless, the project’s essence is likely to be maintained, with its impact upon the daily administration of universities. One of the most controversial points is the establishing of a social community board, composed of members of the civil society, of government and of the institution itself, “responsible for the supervision and accompaniment of its activities” and for the elaboration of “assistance with the university’s general policy”. The fear is that this organ hamstring academic autonomy, placing the institution at the service of group interests that do not have a notion about the complex tasks faced by a university. Even those who defend the project see inconveniences. “Such a board can’t have the function of supervising the university’s activities, as is indicated in the proposal from the Ministry”, says Ana Lúcia Almeida Gazzola, the rector at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) and the president of the National Association of Directors of the Federal Institutions of Tertiary Teaching (Andifes). For the Ministry of Education the fear is unfounded. The objective will be to create “communicative veins” between the university and the community, following the examples that have taken place with the institutions of other countries. The ex-minister of education, Paulo Renato Souza, considers that the problem lies not in the boards itself, but “the threat that it would be dominated by internal corporations”. The Brazilian Association of Sciences (ABC in the Portuguese acronym) is proposing to the MEC the substitution of the social community board with a development board, with external and community participation and attributions analogous to the trustees of the American and European institutions, which provide external legitimacy to the authority of the university managers. Another control mechanism proposed is the institutional development plan (PDI), which the universities must present every five years, with objectives and teaching, research and extension goals.
The extension and community support activities conquered unprecedented relevance in the text that came from the Ministry of Education, returning back to the formation of the professional framework “whose aptitudes should be specifically directed towards attending to the needs of economic, social cultural, scientific and regional technology developments, or of the specific demands of groups and social organizations, including within the working, urban and farming world, directed towards the regime of cooperation”. “Up until this project, we had judged that social interest or the social responsibility of university institutions in their collective grouping consisted in the formation of qualified personnel, through quality teaching, in the development of knowledge through research, and in extension, that is, in the promotion of access to knowledge that they hold in custody and produce for the sectors of society that desire it and wish to be benefited”, observes the ex-secretary of Educational Policy of MEC, Eunice Durham. “In the new conception, added to this are a series of other finalities, formulated in an ambiguous manner, undercut in terms of social responsibility”.
Other criticisms refer to the proposed methodologies, not to the objectives. The text institutes direct elections for the choice of a rector. Today such elections have only an indicative character. The University Board, composed by 70% of the professors – representatives, determines the names (almost always respecting the result at the polling booths) and sends it the head of the Executive Board, whose responsibility it is to make a nomination. Direct democracy, observes the ex-rector of USP, Jacques Marcovitch, at the recent conference of USP’s Advanced Studies Institute, would distance the choice of its main objective, which is to select for the post someone with merit and administrative capacity. And opens the door for “political parties to take over the academic world”. Marcovitch coordinated the study that surveyed the working of the electoral system in twenty-seven important foreign universities. The study concluded that the ideal situation is halfway between direct election and the choosing, behind closed doors, of a Board that is not always representative. “The scenario of the direct election for the rector would be a wide-open doorway for the rigging of the public university. Through it would enter ideological groups in search of strengthening their hand. Right wing groups as in the time of the military dictatorship or groups from various matrices as in today’s world. Pernicious all of them for university interest, because they see politics in first place and not the issues relevant to the academic world”, explains Marcovitch. Minister Tarso Genro considers the reaction of the academic community to such a concept to be exaggerated. He argues that university boards will have autonomy to define the rules of the electoral process and to avoid abuses. For Unicamp’s rector, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, the proposal breaks a highly desirable state of equilibrium. “The university belongs to society, not to the corporate groups that make up society. The chief of the Executive, who was elected by the people, must maintain the prerogative of making the nomination, after having listened to the academic community”, he says.
The proposal for the reserve of 50% of places for students coming from state schools (and to establish quotas for Afro-descendents and the indigenous population, obeying these proportions in the population of each state) brings with it the uncertainty that merit stops being the guiding light for entry into university and that the quality of the teaching will be suffocated by students with serious gaps in their schooling. “The idea will be to establish the main goal and to give autonomy to the universities to comply with these objectives”, says rector Adolpho Melfi, from the University of São Paulo. “For example, we could identify the best students from the state schools right at the start of high school, invest in their formation and help them to gain entry via the university entrance exam”, suggests Melfi. He cited the legal obligation of linking 30% of the vacancies in the São Paulo universities to evening courses. “Each institution adapts itself in an autonomously. The law doesn’t say how they must do it, but only defines the objectives”, he says. For the president of the SBPC, Ennio Candotti, the question of quotas is badly formulated. “In the overall balance, we’re not far off the mark of 50% of the places being taken up by students from state schools. The question is that, in the highly disputed college, their index is laughable, whilst in courses such as that of pedagogy it’s very high. We need to find some way of giving them access to all of the careers.” The question of quotas aroused a collection of collateral criticisms. One of them is that the pre-project is silent about the root cause of the problem, which is the deficient quality in primary and high school teaching. “It’s an error to carry out a university reform without linking it directly to a reform in basic education. You don’t have a good university coming from poor high school teaching”, ponders the senator and ex-minister of education, Cristovam Buarque (PT-DF). Equally the project ignores evening courses, essential for the students who need to work during the day. “This is a revealing issue on the absence of a prior debate concerning the university that the country needs. This is just happening now”, says the SBPC’s president, Ennio Candotti.
Also it is said that the project is timid in fixing goals and wishy-washy in demanding performance. In the third Article, sector VII, the text establishes as a goal that the public universities will be responsible for 40% of the places in the tertiary education system by the year 2011. In the middle of the decade of the 60s, public institutions were responsible for 65% of the enrollments in tertiary education and the private teaching institutions had 35% of the enrollments. Today the picture has been turned upside down, with the public universities responsible for 30% of the enrollments and private teaching institutions with 70%. Compared to the reality of other countries, the objective of reaching 40% is not very ambitious. In the United States 77% of enrollments are linked to public institutions. In European countries it goes as high as 90%. “If the project had taken as an objective, for example, guaranteeing that in fifteen (15) years 50% of the Brazilians between eighteen and twenty four years of age would frequent an institution qualified to tertiary level education, then 50% of those in public institutions would have a goal”, wrote rector Brito Cruz in an article published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo. “Let’s say that, in the same fifteen years, if you wish, for example, to have fifteen universities to be included in the top five hundred (500) most important in the world, instead of the four (4) as we currently have. It would also be desirable to have 50% of the vacancies at the federal public institutions in the evening period instead of the 25% that we have today. Once the goals were established, it would be necessary to specify the means for hitting them. After all of this, then we would arrive at the moment of comparing alternatives, in accordance with the result and with the cost, and then to create the legal instruments so that the Brazilian State goes after and attains these goals and generates the means to do it.”
There are those who doubt that the government can manage to attain the goals that it has established. It so happens that the project forecasts, in the longing for expansion, the reproduction of the model of the federal universities, with research, teaching and an extension program. “This is a highly expensive model and it’s unlikely that there will be money for this”, says the rector of Unesp, Marcos Macari. “We could well widen much more the access to tertiary level education by proposing different models, such as those of technological schools. And consequently not deal with a reduction in quality. Today many students spend five or six years at a university and then are underused by the labor market. They could well have taken a shorter course and then later gone back to specialization”, he affirmed. “Of what type of openings are we speaking?”, underlines the USP rector, Adolpho Melfi. “Of five year courses or of lesser duration, or of technological faculties? It’s good when different models exist, but they are not forecast in the project”, he points out.
“A lack of glamour”
The trajectory of the reform met with an accident. During the first year of the president Lula da Silva government, the reform began to be debated, but went back to square one with the changing of the guard at the Ministry of Education, when Tarso Genro substituted Cristovam Buarque. Recently the government seized upon provisional decrees in order to make important changes, an example being the alteration in the system of evaluating tertiary education, and more recently, of the University for All Program (Prouni), an unprecedented initiative that guarantees study grants in private universities for students with a low family income. Only now have they managed to present a package of changes. The government’s challenge is to convince society and the National Congress that its heterodox model of the university is the most adequate for the country. For the physicist Luiz Davidovich, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the university needs to be reformed in order to overcome obstacles such as obsolete curriculae, the low number of young people enrolling in tertiary education, the meager demand for qualified professionals and the deficiencies in the primary and high school sectors. But, in his opinion, the major error is to discuss bureaucratic structures before defining what is expected from the institutions. “There’s a lack of glamour to the debate of university reform”, he says. “In the debates about the university in the decade of the 50’s the discussions were not about the forms of administration, financing or the election of a rector, but about new academic models. We need to get back to these renovating experiences and get out of the bureaucratic discussion.”