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Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has proposed privatization and immediate slashing of the public education budget. Students worried about the future of education in Brazil are beginning to mobilize with a strike at one of the county’s main universities. Mike Fox reports from Brazil

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Mike Fox: Students at Brazil’s Santa Catarina Federal University are on strike. 70% of classes have been canceled. It’s been on-going for two weeks. They made the decision to strike on September 10 in a huge assembly, attended by thousands of students.

The students are striking against a massive 30% cut to the university budget and the roll-out of a government restructuring plan, called Future-se, which they say is an attempt to privatize the university system.

The Santa Catarina Federal University is one of the top 20 schools in Latin America. This is the first university student body in Brazil to declare an on-going strike against the Bolsonaro government. They are hoping other universities will join them.

Henry Bill McQuadeJunior, Postgraduate Student: “The universities will not make it to the end of the year with the budgets slashed. And there’s a possibility they won’t make it halfway through next year with the proposed budget. So, because of the urgency, we decided to organize and proposed this strike as a historic tool to stand up to what is being imposed on us.”

Mike Fox: Teachers spoke out in support of the striking students last week, during a university-wide teacher assembly. Some particularly railed against the recent elimination of thousands of scholarships and research grants by Eduction Minister Abraham Weintraub.

Prof. Paulo Horta, Biology Professor: “We can’t let a government — that is burning the Amazon, burning our mountains and burning our dreams — contaminate the dreams of our students. What Minister Weintraub is doing with Brazilian post-graduate students is terrorism. You don’t do that. It ends the dreams of students who are just a year out from finishing their masters and they don’t know if they’ll be able to continue or not, because they don’t know if there will be PHD programs in this country. If there is no science, there is not country, and there is no sovereignty. We have to stand up now.”

Mike Fox: The teachers, however, voted against joining the students.

Most classes, nevertheless are canceled. And the students may be on strike, but they’re not staying home. On-going activities, events, and meetings are being held to organize and hash out next steps.

Luiz Felipe Souza Barros de Paiva, Association of Postgraduate Students: “We have a diverse range of minds from different areas, who don’t usually communicate. So the strike is a moment that these people, who are worried about education, are coming together. They’re meeting and organizing in various working groups: art, internal communication, foreign relations, legal.”

Across campus, several days a week, pharmacy students visit with patients waiting to be seen at the University Hospital. Some of their companions have already lost scholarships from the budget cuts.

Maria Fernanda da Silva, Pharmacy Student: “That’s why we’re here. Because you deserve to hear about what’s happening from us, the students. We are on strike. But that doesn’t mean we’re staying home. We want to study. But we want to be sure we can continue the semester, or have the funds for next year, which is why we are on strike and speaking with the community.”

Mike Fox: The funding cuts are already taking their toll. The university’s subsidized school cafeteria is set to be closed. This will hit poorer students hard, as the highly inexpensive meal costs less than half a U.S. dollar and it’s something they often can’t do without. Students are also afraid that if Bolsonaro’s Future-se program is imposed, the university may start charging for its medical services.

Danielle P. Martins, Pharmacy Student: “All of the beds right now at the hospital are public and no one pays, but if this project is put into effect, many of the spots could go to private insurance plans. In other words, people will have to pay for medical care at the public hospital.”

Mike Fox: Under Future-se, federal universities must acquire partial funding from private businesses and entities. The program was announced in July. In an overflowing school-wide University Council meeting earlier this month, the university overwhelmingly opposed the plan.

University professors and deans have expressed major concerns, because they weren’t consulted, and because it could put university administration in the hands of private entities, investors, and businesses. They say it could impact how teachers are hired, the classes that are offered, and the direction of the university itself.

Aureo de Moraes, Chief of Staff, University Dean: “You can’t ignore the fact that this project is being rolled out against one of the main fronts of resistance that any authoritarian government has to confront. We lived through the experience of the federal universities during the military dictatorship. The main resistance against the regime was created through the federal universities.”

Mike Fox: For many of those here, Future-se is really a political tool to gut funding for humanities departments, sociology and philosophy, which Bolsonaro has long accused of being hotbeds of Marxist teachings. With a greater dependence on private funding, Bolsonaro could ensure that investors put their money where they think it’s a good bet: business, engineering, maybe medicine.

Roberto Melo, Professor: “We need to organize society against this great risk. Which means handing over its greatest ability to create a sovereign future, and that is with the public and autonomous universities: A university that can manage its resources and define where it’s going to invest its money, in what research and specialization, and define its curriculum. And all of this, which is the foundation of the public and autonomous university, is at risk with the creation of this project Future-Se.”

Mike Fox: Students have vowed not to back down. The strike will continue and they are expected to join more national rallies in early October.

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