Philosophy of Education

Brazil’s new education minister has promised to deploy university resources and talent to help address poor performance in basic education, which is frustrating the country’s attempts to evolve into a knowledge-based society.

If he is to be successful, the new minister will have to challenge powerful interests controlling for-profit universities and training institutions, which today receive a significant portion of the federal education budget.

Renato Janine Ribeiro is not a career politician but a professor of ethics and political philosophy with a chair at the University of São Paulo. A long-time supporter of president Dilma Rousseff’s PT Workers Party, Janine promised in a newspaper interview ahead of his formal swearing-in, to make use of Brazil’s well-developed higher education framework to try and address the growing deficiencies of the service provided for younger pupils at state-funded schools.

Education Minister Renato Janine Ribeiro will need all his philosophical skills.

Education Minister Renato Janine Ribeiro will need all his philosophical skills.

The appointment has been well received by academics and society alike, at a time when confrontational behaviour by career politicians is seen as against the national interest. Janine’s predecessor, Cid Gomes, left abruptly 10 weeks into the job after an intemperate spat with congressmen that damaged the government’s reputation for effective management of parliamentary business.

Janine has authored 18 books, and has served in senior positions on both the CNPq and CAPES academic research funding organisations. He’s also been a member of the board of SBPC, the academy of Brazilian sciences.

Portuguese readers can review the new minister’s comments by clicking here to read an article from Folha S. Paulo.

Or you can review a government-made video (in Portuguese) of Janine’s swearing-in ceremony by clicking here.

It’s not yet clear how Janine’s policies will affect the public funding of science in Brazil, but his track record with funding institutions suggest he will try to protect higher research.

The government is promising that education will not suffer budget cuts. However, the powerful fiscal squeeze and a recessionary environment (Brazil currently ranks just 15th on the Bloomberg list of emerging market economies) indicate that with no chance of expanding the pot, Janine will have to reallocate scarce funds away from higher education towards basic teaching.

Janine noted that although the ministry of education enjoys 18 percent of the budget, a disproportionate amount is invested in the university sector. Over the last decade, university teachers have used their access to the media to become highly influential formers of political opinion, and successive governments have found themselves unable to curb spending in Brazil’s federal university network.

At the same time, the 50 million school pupils and two million teachers responsible for basic education, have seen their funding from federal, state and municipal sources dwindle – with the exception of São Paulo state.

Just how Janine proposes to engage the higher education sector in correcting this inverted pyramid is unclear, but he mentioned MOOCs and distance learning as a tool. And he said the current low status of teachers in Brazilian society needs to be addressed. He also promised to create a network of 6,000 state-funded kindergartens to address early years education.

During her inaugural address in January, President Rousseff promised to make Brazil “a country of education.” But there is a long way to go.

Although Brazil is now a significant spender on education in international terms, statistics show the country persistently punches below its weight in basic skills. Brazil is not ranked in the OECD’s PISA survey. Likewise, UNESCO’s database showing the numbers of children in (or out) or both primary and secondary school does not include rankings for Brazil. But the Pearson ranking of cognitive skills, Brazil ranks just 38th out of 40 countries.

The Education ministry’s budget was BR$102 billion in 2013. Media reports state that in 2014, the federal government spent a total of BR$640 million on transfers to the commercially-run educational sector – including at BR$120 million “top-up” fee for the Programa Nacional de Acesso ao Ensino Técnico e Emprego (Pronatec).

During President Rousseff’s first term and (if her re-election campaign promises are to be fulfilled, until 2018) significant resources are earmarked for the technical training sector through the Pronatec programme which promised to equip nine million young people for the workplace with the aid of training at privately-owned facilities. Politically, Pronatec is making a significant contribution to controlling the rise in joblessness among young voters as the recession bites.

Similarly, the Programa Universidade para Todos (PROUNI) university inclusion programme in 2104 handed grants to over 1.2 million recipients – the majority to pay for undergraduate study by students from lower-income families at commercial universities. In some cases these places were offered in exchange for exemption of taxes owed by commercial universities. Press reports said the Prouni budget was BR$7.5 billion and that 1.66 million out of  5.34 million  students at commercial universities currently receive support.

These commercial universities do not carry out any significant research and are designed to  confer undergraduate degrees useful in the job market.

Together with Fundo de Financiamento Estudantil (Fies) programme, Prouni is now funding over 30% of the private university system. Pronatec, Fies and Prouni use government finance to place poorer students in for-profit commercial  institutions – in some cases run by the very same business conglomerates.

Ownership of these conglomerates in turn receives powerful backing from a congressional lobby in part made up of Evangelical congressmen who form an important plank in the political support for President Rousseff. Lobby groups such as ABMES will also prove zealous defenders of the rights of free enterprise to receive state funding and tax incentives.

Dismantling a system that confers powerful financial advantages for the private sector of the education industry would undoubtedly benefit the country’s educational aspirations over the long term – but may prove politically untenable in the context of a lame-duck administration with a slender majority, sorely in need of rebuilding strained links with the congress.

So, while Janine’s proposed policies of transferring funds towards the basic education sector have received almost universal approval, they are likely to encounter stiff resistance if basic education’s gain can only be achieved through a financial loss for well-placed figures in the commercial academic sector.

If so, the academic from USP may have to call on all the Stoical philosophy at his command for his sojourn in Brasilia.

Researching in Brazil

Brazil’s best-known scientist, the veteran nuclear physicist  José Goldemberg,  in September 2015 took office as the president of  the São…

Read more