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Human Resources

A Controversial Change

The scientific community expresses concern over the law that changes the career plan for faculty members at federal universities

CATARINA BESSELA series of changes in the career plan of professors at federal universities take effect at the beginning of this month and have triggered strong reactions in the scientific community and in some of the entities that represent the faculty members. The target of the criticism is Law No. 12.772/2012, which President Dilma Rousseff signed on December 28 after the federal government reached an agreement with the Federation of Unions of Teachers in Federal Institutions of Higher Education (Proifes-Federação). The agreement was made following the strike that paralyzed the federal universities last year. Although some of the grievances had to do with faculty salaries, which were adjusted upward by an average of 16% in 2013, the new law changes the structural aspects of the career plan that had been in effect since April 1987. “The law should be repealed because the concept of the university has been undermined,” says Helena Nader, a professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) and President of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC). In February Nader alerted President Rousseff of the scientific community’s dissatisfaction during a meeting of the National Council for Science and Technology.

Critics argue that the law may discourage research at the federal universities and make it impossible to attract the most talented people to an academic career. This is because the entry level to federal universities is only at the class 1 teaching assistant level, regardless of the professor’s degree, and it takes 24 months to move up from one career level to the next. Under the new law, federal universities will have two types of full professorships: The first is a career full professor who, in addition to holding a PhD, must climb the rungs of the academic ladder; the other type of professor is the titular-livre, which is the category for professors who have had their PhD for at least 20 years and would like to teach at a federal university.

To illustrate the problem, Debora Foguel, Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), provides an illustrative case, which she fears could become recurring. Recently, Cedric Villani visited UFRJ. Villani is a young French mathematician who in 2010 won the coveted Fields Medal, awarded by the International Mathematical Union. Villani earned a PhD in 1998. If he is invited to come and work at UFRJ, he would have to start as a class 1 teaching assistant. Since he has had his PhD for less than 20 years, he would be ineligible to be a titular-livre professor. “This is going to be a problem, since we are already bringing in many brilliant researchers through the Science Without Borders program. We will have to offer them positions as teaching assistants. If we want to bring in Cedric Villani, I would not have the nerve to make that kind of an offer,” says Foguel. For Helena Nader, the amount of time a professor has had a PhD is not directly related to ability. “You can have someone who has had a PhD for just five years, but is clearly ready to be a full professor,” she explains.

040-041_federais_205The law also prohibits opening specific competitive examinations to the ranks of teaching assistant, lecturer and assistant professor. Even though a successful applicant has a PhD, the applicant will have to start at the teaching assistant level. After three years of probation, the professor will be promoted to the adjunct level. However, the promotion process can be accelerated based on whether the professor has a master’s degree or a PhD. The president of Proifes-Federação, Eduardo Rolim, explains that the reason for this is based on decisions of the Audit Office, which prevent government employees from joining the system in the middle of their careers. “This has been the case until now because our career plan dates back to 1987, prior to the 1988 Constitution,” he adds.

Dissatisfaction on the part of the scientific societies grew in August, when the Office of the President of Brazil introduced the draft that generated the law. The draft law also generated controversy among the unions. At that time there was a meeting of the representatives of the Ministries of Planning and Education and three unions of professors. Two of the unions, the National Union of Teachers at Higher Education Institutions (Andes-SN) and the National Union of Civil Servants in Basic, Vocational and Technical Education (Sinasefe), did not sign the agreement. One of the reasons cited was that they believed that the law would destroy the structure of the teaching profession. In November, while the draft was moving through the lower house of Congress, the SBPC and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC) released a manifesto in which they claimed that some aspects of the proposal could lead to “serious difficulties and problems, not to mention setbacks for the federal universities of Brazil, primarily in terms of the quality of research.”

The new statute provides that at least a graduate degree should be required for competitive examinations, but it leaves unclear whether institutions would be able to continue to restrict the entry process only to applicants who have a PhD, as most do today. “Professors who enter federal universities without a PhD seldom earn the degree during their career,” says Foguel. For their competitive examinations, the universities plan to continue to require that applicants have a PhD “However, I admit that I’m fearful that applicants will challenge this strategy in the courts,” says the professor from UFRJ, where just 20% of faculty members do not have a PhD.

Changes in legislation have forced some universities to hastily cancel competitive examinations that were in progress. According to Helena Nader, one applicant in these competitive examinations was an experienced professor who wanted to take the exam to become a full professor at Unifesp. When he learned that the exam was cancelled and that there were new requirements for teaching at the university, he decided not to apply. “The university should generate new knowledge and not merely convey concepts,” says the president of the SBPC. Elizabeth Balbachevsky, professor in the Political Science Department of the School of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences at USP, says that federal universities may lose the opportunity to bring back Brazilians who are performing research in countries that are currently victims of the economic crisis. She asks: “Do you think that a professor who is teaching at Stanford University in California will come back to Brazil to be a teaching assistant?”

Maria Paula Dallari Bucci, former National Secretary of Higher Education and law professor at the University of São Paulo (USP), monitored the start of discussions on some of the concepts in the law. While still at the Ministry of Education, she led a joint effort with the National Association of Directors of Federal Institutions of Higher Education (Andifes) to make the federal universities autonomous. Law No. 12.772, Bucci says, should be read carefully, taking into account the innovative articles that are being overlooked in the discussions. In Article 21, for example, which specifies what is permitted in an exclusive commitment arrangement, there is a passage which, according to Bucci, directly benefits research at federal universities: possible compensation for work performed as part of institutional research and extension projects. Bucci also mentions the regulation of probationary internships. “There is no guarantee that a professor who has taken the competitive examination will become permanent faculty. The performance of these professors is evaluated, and this prevents complacency among professors. This is one of the few laws in Brazil that addresses this issue,” she says. Bucci considers Article 26 important as well—with the system created in 2007 that automatically replaces who are have retired, deceased are deceased, or were dismissed, because it established a committee to develop and monitor the implementation of the faculty policy. “The law allows the university to manage the faculty framework according to its own plan. Each university has its own plan, challenges, and difficulties,” she concludes.

The vice president of the National Union of Teachers of Higher Education Institutions (Andes-SN), Luiz Henrique Schuch, questions the statement of the former secretary of the Ministry of Education that the law expands university autonomy. “The new law empowers the ministry to establish guidelines that have yet to be determined.” According to Schuch, this is an affront to autonomy, because career development should be defined in the institutional framework.

Another new feature of the law abolishes the 10% limitation on full professors in universities. Any professor in associate professor category 4 and who has a PhD may apply for a promotion to full professor status whether there is a vacancy or not. “Without this limitation, it will be easier to attract qualified teachers from the outside and develop postgraduate programs in newer campuses,” Rolim [president of Proifes-Federação] says.

However, Elizabeth Balbachevsky observes in the case of Brazil a movement that runs counter to the global trend of allowing universities to develop their own career plans. Balbachevsky took part in an international study from 2005 to 2007 that assessed the impact of globalization on the academic profession in 19 countries on every continent. The study shows that, traditionally, the organization of the profession in universities shifts between two major conceptual types: the academic market (the U.S. experience), and the state model. The first features considerable mobility, in which the institution negotiates contracts with specific conditions when it wishes to attract a particular professional. This situation tends to generate intense mobility among professionals at every career level, because, as professors age, their ability to negotiate special conditions with the institutions that are interested in them improves.

That is the secret of the dynamic U.S. university system, Balbachevsky says, because it is relatively easy for an institution to build competency in emerging areas of research. They hire a few researchers who have made a name for themselves and who have experience in the area. These people have set up new laboratories and research groups. “A professor who graduated only recently will be unable to attract funding for more ambitious projects or muster the leadership capacity to propose a significant research agenda,” she notes.

In the second model, academics are hired as civil servants; this is the source of their stability and it tends to contribute to keeping researchers in an institution from very early on in their careers. This model was very common in European countries. Nonetheless, in different countries the structure for accessing different career points, especially as a full professor, tended to promote mobility among professors, especially the more ambitious ones who were interested in advancing their careers. In recent decades, this career plan concept has lost momentum in Europe, where, since the late 1980s, a limited response capacity has been identified in the face of the growing societal demands, in which economic competitiveness depends on the ability to maintain leadership in innovation (see map). Among emerging countries, China has also introduced major reforms in academic careers and has made them more flexible, Balbachevsky explains. “For China, reform of higher education is key to the country’s strategy of moving away from a model of joining the international market based on low-cost labor to a model based on competitive advantages generated by the capacity of Chinese industries to innovate,” she says.

The Ministry of Education supports the new law, but admits that a few points could be renegotiated. In a statement, the Department of Higher Education in the Ministry of Education indicated that “some of the questions about structuring the Career and Employment Plan for Federal Educators are being addressed by the Ministry of Education directly with the universities.” Furthermore, according to the ministry, the purpose of the law is to attempt to improve the exclusive  professor commitment and full professorships. In January, the Ministry of Education published a white paper in which it attempted to clarify at least one of the topics in the law. According to the paper, in addition to the graduate degree requirement, institutions may add other requirements to vacancy announcements, such as postgraduate credentials based on the university’s interests.