The social sciences have often seemed either like a lesser kind of knowledge, superfluous and inexact, or like an indispensable layer of cultural polish that one needed before embarking on a career in one of the liberal professions.
However, the complexities of social life, with its renewed political debate and competition, the unpredictability of economic crises (whose effects on the class structure are immediate), and the progressive diversification of goods and services in the sphere of high culture force us to challenge the artificial character of this “education.” We need to reclaim the tools of the social sciences in order to overcome the retrograde localisms and provincialisms of the elites and the strict political control of the institutions of traditional society in Brazil.
The public University was once the shortest and quickest route for moving up the social ladder (mainly for immigrants or people whose roots were in the lower middle class). For such people, studying the Humanities could, slowly but surely, could help to overcome or replace the dilettantish and politically innocuous sort of “social studies” then on offer. These blasé forms of social criticism gave way to a body of knowledge organized into separate disciplines that were managed by specialists. It may be exactly this arrangement which will allow for a renewed Social Science discipline to play a crucial role in producing scientifically valid ideas and analyses, as well as providing a much needed space for comprehensive reflection. With this in mind, how should we view the public University in Brazil today?
Examining the Brazilian public university today implies overcoming imposed false dichotomies through the application of common sense. In order to do this, we must refute the commonly accepted opposition between “productive” and “non-productive,” an artificial dichotomy oft resorted to by “well-informed” critics of the University. Other new antinomies soon follow this first dichotomy: “research-professor” vs. “administrator-professor” ; “professor-as-committed-professional” vs. “professor-as-union-activist” ; “new professor” vs. “old professor” (and the most recent distinction: the “productive-professor” vs. the “professor-professor”). The preference for one or the other term in each dubious equation depends, of course, on the subjective predispositions of the analyst. As generally happens, the ensuing discussion of these dichotomies (which, after all, is a very “academic” discussion) actually serves to obfuscate the principle sources of the current crises of the public university.
These sets of opposing terms, which are superficial yet intriguing, are very similar to another such set: that which contrasts the “elite university” with the “mass university.” Paradoxically, since one must overcome the former in order to achieve the latter, it becomes necessary to establish the means to pay for instruction (whether by “everyone,” or solely by the “rich,” remains to be determined).
The first move in overcoming these false dichotomies consists in pointing out, in a clear and direct manner, the fundamental problem (but certainly not the only problem) which compromises the “proper functioning” of the Brazilian University.
If this “proper functioning” is to be achieved, then the Republican mission of the University must be understood and articulated. The University must be a truly public institution – more productive, yes, but also politically and socially more democratic. This is impossible without Public Funding as the Republican University’s main pillar of support.
The current crisis of the Brazilian University is actually a less visible aspect of the crisis of the Brazilian State, of its forms of management (bureaucracy) and of its standards of financing (inflation) in the 1980s, which the essentially fiscal perspective of the liberal governments of the 1990s failed to solve.
Current dominant policies insist on combating the degradation of public space with less State, contrary to earlier Keynesian and social-democratic prescriptions. Under the pretext of condemning the excessive bureaucratization of the State and the inefficiency of its administration, the ideology behind these new policies produced a generic critique of “the Public Sphere” as such. Through a semantic slip (perhaps intentional, perhaps not), everything that had been “public” is now treated as if it were state-owned or state-managed. The State, of course, is assumed to promote inefficiency, and inefficiency must be subject to reform. In accordance with this conceptual move, the essence of such reform demanded “privatization” of all enterprises and services, including higher education. Transformed into a market commodity, the provision of education -- or more accurately, the resources that would have been devoted to education – must now vary with the financial fluctuations of the government, rather than be determined by a strategic policy of affirmation, or defense, of citizenship (in all of its cultural, scientific, technological dimensions). This is a policy option, and not an automatic result of “globalization.” Nor is it a product of the ineluctable and presumably purifying “weakening of the national State.” It is a policy option which produces negative results in public services, now in poorer financial and material shape than ever.
What is the significance of the disintegration of the “public sphere” for the Brazilian University? Essentially this means the steady advance of the “privatization” of the public university in various important aspects.
The first and most fundamental aspect is the increasingly strategic role which extra-budgetary resources play, in more and more areas of academic life. These include such things as the offering of specialized courses, consulting, and contracts for research based on market needs, among other things. These should not be considered as mere complimentary activities or additional tasks. These are services that “earn money,” and are therefore to be seen as more efficacious substitutions for public funds. This basic change conditions other important aspects affected by this process, in the intellectual, social, administrative and political dimensions of the public university.
The predominance of private financing tends, to a certain degree, to constrain intellectual liberty. It determines the academic agenda by imposing its own favored themes for research. These themes are defined mainly in utilitarian terms, where private sector profits, (or, in more polite terminology: “with immediate application for its findings,” or perhaps “socially relevant knowledge”) are the ultimate goal. This tendency is growing, and seems to be all but irreversible, imposing new parameters of evaluation (under the new name: “productivity”) heretofore unknown in university life. With these new guidelines for evaluation, former measures such as “number of publications by a professor in a given period” are no longer sufficient to justify university expenditures. While a professor is still evaluated according to his or her teaching activities, institutional service, and professional enhancement, the always-damning evaluation of the “professor-who-does-not-publish,” is being replaced by the possibility of being judged a “professor-who-publishes-a-lot-but-nothing-that-is-immediately-applicable.”
From the social point of view, the decrease in the allocation of public funds to the universities has an even more adverse impact. It is becoming more and more difficult for needier students to complete their studies, relying as they almost always do upon the various services heretofore provided for by the Republican University, such as housing subsidies, meal plans, health care, and various sorts of grants. Contrary to the myths that claim that “only the rich study at public universities” in Brazil (consistently disproved by serious census data), this new trend is one of the most troubling that we now face, especially as recruitment mechanisms such as affirmative action for needier students are being radically altered to fit “market models.”
The third strategic dimension suffering from the effects of the new financing strategies is the administrative part of the University. Administrators, now struggling both for diminishing public monies, and for resources from the private sector, are themselves essentially co-opted into adopting the new criteria discussed above. They now need to make the University more “attractive” in the market. This is not merely a bureaucratic dimension: it seriously affects the distribution of prestige and of influence within the academic institution. Certain areas of knowledge that do not depend exclusively on public funds, such as the liberal professions, or applied technology and scientific research, will not immediately feel the impact of the reduction of public funding.
This will not be the case in fields of learning outside of the areas of “basic research.” Were a sufficient flow of public monies guaranteed, then those fields associated “high culture” (classical studies and the liberal arts in general) would be adequately supported. We would then not have to fear the resurgence of the split between high prestige “wealthy disciplines” and low prestige “poor disciplines,” with attendant levels of influence and funding. This dimension is not insignificant in institutions in which the “academic hierarchy” has ceased to depend on the mere quantity of knowledge achieved by its professors.
Finally, the specifically political dimension. The erosion of even minimal levels of financing by the State has created a predatory competition for capital, intensifying that destructive logic which pits rival groups against each other. This exacerbates the interminable disputes over resources that have always existed in the University to the point where even the minimal consensus necessary for the defining, or defending, the institution as a whole becomes practically impossible to achieve.
In the end, what we see emerging is not the idealized “enterprising-university,” the productive and bracingly efficient neo-liberal promise. Rather, we are clearly regressing towards a “university-as-government-agency” (with all the attendant risks of corporatism and bureaucratization). Altogether forgotten is the ideal of the public University, which serves the Republic and its citizens.