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date: 11 December 2019

Brazilian Universities and Politics in the 20th Century

Summary and Keywords

Recently Brazil reached the mark of eight million university students, which represents around 4 percent of the population. Although this level is less than those in developed countries, it signifies an advance in relation to the country’s starting point.

Unlike Spain, the Portuguese Empire did not create university institutions in its colonies. Following the Independence of Brazil in 1822, the new governing elite established some higher-level courses (initially medicine, law, and engineering), but these functioned in isolation, in other words, university institutions were not created. The first universities emerged only in the 1920s and were regulated during the Getúlio Vargas administration (1931). Since then, higher-level education has been the object of greater public attention—as well as political conflicts—due to both its role in development projects and its capacity to produce leaders. Between the 1940s and 1960s, university students became a relevant political force, having engaged in debates for university reform and also in favor of social changes, contributing to the process of political radicalization abruptly ended by the 1964 military coup. The dictatorship led by the military implemented an authoritarian modernization of the universities, repressing and purging the “undesirables” at the same time that it increased investment in research and graduate studies. The results were paradoxical, since although the dictatorship created a better structured university system, it was a more authoritarian and socially elitist one.

The first post-dictatorial governments maintained the university structure inherited from the previous period, but they deteriorated due to a lack of public resources caused by hyperinflation and also by the intention of reducing public expenditure on higher education.

The country managed to improve its higher-level institutions during the 20th century, which became strategic spaces for political battles and, for this reason, targets of constant state intervention. Despite the reforms and the expansion, universities were marked by elitism and social inequality, like Brazilian society itself, problems that only recently have started to be addressed. Only in the 21st century did Brazilian universities undergo a new expansionist phase, led by the center-left Brazilian governments which, in addition to expanding the public system, also invested in the inclusion of social sectors that previously had no access to higher education. It appears that this process may be interrupted, thanks to the “right turn” experienced by Brazil since 2016–2018.

Keywords: education, universities, Brazil, students, dictatorship, modernization

Higher Education before Universities

The Portuguese Empire did not allow the creation of university institutions in its American colonies, either due to material difficulties or because it was thought that the dominions should be kept strictly dependent on the metropole. Those wanting to study in a university had to cross the ocean and register in Coimbra University, obviously a possibility open to few.

In 1808 the Portuguese Court moved to Rio de Janeiro, altering the status of the colony, including in the field of education. In the following years, the Portuguese monarchy created chairs for the teaching of medicine (in Bahia and Rio de Janeiro) and engineering (within the Military Academy of Rio de Janeiro), from which derived the first higher-level courses in Brazil. In 1827 the first two law courses created in São Paulo and Olinda were added: an initiative of the Brazilian state, which had been independent since 1822. This triad of courses (medicine, engineering, and law) would form the base of Brazilian higher education until the 20th century and would produce the traditional elite of bacharéis and doutores.

In the following decades, the imperial state expanded this scenario with the creation of other courses such as pharmacy and civil engineering. The first nonmilitary course of engineering was in the Polytechnic School created in Rio de Janeiro in 1874, a name that indicated the influence of the Napoleonic model. French influence was also present in the Mining School opened in 1875 in Ouro Preto under the direction of the French mineralogist Henri Gorceix. This school was concerned with training specialists for future mineral production in Minas Gerais. During the 19th century, other higher-level courses were created in different regions of Brazil, a significant improvement in relation to the colonial period. However, these were only isolated courses, the first university institutions only emerged at the beginning of the 20th century. While the Portuguese had not been interested in creating universities, or lacked the means for it, it is worth highlighting that the independent Brazil took a century to do so.

The First Universities and the Vargas Reform

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a generalized opinion among the intellectual elite that it was necessary to create universities, whether due to awareness of an intellectual backwardness in relation to other countries, including in Latin America, or the desire to expand higher education beyond the traditional faculties of medicine, engineering, and law. In the view of some, it was necessary to create centers of knowledge with universalist pretensions, covering all areas of knowledge and with broader scientific and intellectual ambitions than the simpler training of professionals to meet the needs of the labor market and public bureaucracy.

Certain regional elites dispute which is the oldest Brazilian university. Some of the first experiences occurred outside the dominant urban centers or were ephemeral, such as the University of Manaus (1909–1926), which makes a definitive answer to this difficult. However, in terms of institutional continuity, the oldest and most successful universities are considered to be Universidade do Rio de Janeiro (1920, now UFRJ) and Universidade de Minas Gerais (1927, now UFMG).

In the context of increased initiatives for the formation of universities and critical reflections about the need to reform the Brazilian educational system, the government formed following the 1930 Revolution, led by Getúlio Vargas, decided to better regulate higher education. In 1931 the recently formed Ministry of Education and Public Health (created on November 14, 1930) published norms that would be important for the trajectory of the first universities. Revealing the intention of the federal government to control higher education, the law defined the minimum criteria for the recognition of a university (which had to have at least three faculties) and its administrative structure and basic didactics, which had its cornerstone in the figure of the professor catedrático. This university format lasted until the 1968 reform, when the dictatorship led by the military decided to modernize higher education.

In 1934, shortly after the federal government’s 1931 regulations, the government of the richest state in Brazil founded Universidade de São Paulo (USP), which soon became the largest university institution in the country. Significantly, one of the motivations of the creators of USP was to react against the centralizing political and cultural project of the Getúlio Vargas administration, who had reached power by pushing aside the Paulista oligarchy. USP thus corresponded to the project of creating sophisticated intellectual elites for a state that resented its loss of power in 1930 and the defeat of the armed rebellion undertaken in 1932 in the attempt to remove Vargas from the federal government. USP’s striking characteristics were the strong presence of European professors among its founding teaching staff, notably French in the case of the humanities, and a Faculty of Philosophy and Science that intended to develop knowledge and reflection, as well as traditional university courses.

Another important initiative in the same period was UDF (Universidade do Distrito Federal, 1935–1939), led by the educator Anísio Teixeira and inspired by modern educational philosophy. UDF belonged to the government of the Federal District, the capital of the Brazilian Republic, which was then located in the city of Rio de Janeiro. However, UDF’s innovative proposal and the left-wing profile of some of its professors led to the intervention of the federal government, in the middle of a “witch-hunt” triggered by anti-communist repression following the revolutionary uprising of November 1935. Conservative forces led by Catholic intellectuals and fascist activists (Integralistas) pressurized the state to intervene in the university and in the government of the Federal District, resulting in the arrest of some professors. It should be noted that the anti-communist offensive of 1935–1937 was manipulated as a justification for the November 1937 coup d’état, through which Getúlio Vargas guaranteed his continuity as the head of the government, but now as a dictator.

The purges weakened UDF, which was closed in 1939 at the decision of the government. In part it was shut down due to the intention to strengthen the federal government’s own institution, Universidade do Brasil (UB), created in 1937 based on the former Universidade do Rio de Janeiro. Some sectors of the extinct UDF were incorporated in UB—an institution hegemonized by conservative intellectuals—which became the university model to be followed in the federal system in the following years.

The impulse to form universities in the 1920s–1930s was motivated by the wish to expand the scope of higher education, stimulating creative reflections and scientific research, going beyond the reproduction of bacharéis. However, in practice, the first universities emerged from the union between the three traditional courses, which remained the spinal column of these institutions for decades, despite the existence of faculties or schools with a greater scientific vocation. The faculties of philosophy and science, generally the option adopted to house new courses and scientific laboratories, faced difficulties in establishing themselves in opposition to the traditional faculties, as well as in dealing with the lack of a research tradition in the country. Because of the difficulty of creating scientific laboratories in universities, including the lack of interest of some university directors, research institutes were sometimes created external to faculties, as in the case of the Brazilian Center of Physics Research (Centro Brasileiro de Pesquisas Físicas [CBPF]) founded in 1949 in Rio de Janeiro.

The Student Movement, Reformism, and Political Conflicts in the 1950s and 1960s

After the end of the Vargas dictatorship in 1945, the following administrations expanded the public university system through the incorporation of private or state institutions, which came under federal control and were adapted to the Universidade do Brasil model. The initiatives for the expansion of the university system had effective results, although more modest than what many expected. New institutions were created and the number of registered students rose from twenty-eight thousand in 1940 to sixty-five thousand in 1954.1 Moreover, at the beginning of the 1950s, important institutions for the future of higher education and scientific research were founded, CAPES (Coordination for the Advancement of Higher Level Personnel [Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior]) and CNPq (National Research Council [Conselho Nacional de Pesquisas]).

An important question in this context was the increase in the activism of associative student organizations, principally the National Union of Students (União Nacional dos Estudantes [UNE]), which was created in 1937 and had a great political influence in the following years. The leaders of UNE acted in favor of Brazil entering the Second World War (1942–1943) and also for the re-democratization of the country, contributing to the end of the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas (1945), even though the entity had cordial relations with the dictatorship in its initial phase. However, the period of UNE’s greatest action and visibility occurred between the end of the 1950s and the middle of the following decade, when student leaders engaged in debates about university reform and political mobilization in favor of so-called grass-roots reforms, which included, as well as higher education, agrarian and political reform.

The university reform projects debated in the 1950s and 1960s questioned the basic structure of higher education institutions. These were organized around professores catedráticos (full professors) who had total power over their respective areas of knowledge. Catedráticos had the prerogative of selecting their teaching assistants and defining the program of disciplines. Positions were lifetime appointments, and this power generated at times nepotistic practices, such as the hiring of relatives as assistants. Moreover, catedráticos controlled the principal decision-making structures, the congregations and university councils. In contrast, the other teaching staff—instructors, auxiliaries, and assistants—received low pay and were forced to accumulate classes in various institutions. All of this resulted in a lack of production of research and knowledge, with absent and unmotivated teaching staff. Some chairs had a different situation and produced good results, but these were exceptions.

In many cases the name “university” was incorrect, since there actually existed a fragile junction of virtually autonomous faculties. Faculty directors received a budget directly from the federal government and hired and spent without having to answer to the university president. Even the selection of new students was done in a decentralized manner: each faculty had its own entrance exam. The lack of coordination created another problem: the existence of chairs dedicated to the same area in different faculties was common (for example, a chair of biology in the Faculty of Medicine and another in the Faculty of Philosophy and Science), creating a duplication of costs—in the terms of the epoch, the duplication of means for identical purposes.

Another sensitive question and one with serious political repercussions was the lack of places for young people who were able to enter university. The expansion of places between the 1940s and 1960s (rising from approximately twenty-eight thousand to ninety-three thousand registered students) did not meet the increase in demand, which accompanied the industrial wave, urbanization, and the demographic explosion.2 Since the university entrance exams for some faculties passed a higher number of candidates than places available there, the figure of the “excess student” (excedentes) emerged, an individual who had passed the tests and believed he or she had the right to enter the university, which served as fuel to inflame the students’ protests in 1964–1968.

In the 1960s, although there was a virtual consensus about the archaism of the university model in force, the solutions presented provoked divergences between the left and liberals. The first group, influential among student leaders, wanted a critical and popular university, in which students would have important political participation. Archaism was also regarded as a political problem, since the professores catedráticos were reactionary in the service of conservatism. There was thus a need for changes in internal decision-making structures, with students demanding a more equitable division of the members of the decision-making bodies (university councils and congregations). This demand motivated the “⅓ Strike” organized by UNE in 1962, which demanded student representation based on this proportion.

From the perspective of left-wing students, the university needed to have a more modern and agile structure and be capable of producing knowledge useful for development, but it also had to be on the side of social causes and serve as the vanguard for socialist transformations. Expressing these sentiments, the philosopher and professor Álvaro Vieira Pinto defended in a 1962 book a worker-student-peasant alliance to make this reform feasible.3 In his vision, real university reform would be the entrance of the lower classes into faculties, to the detriment of the social elites who traditionally occupied these places. Resulting from this was the suggestion that night courses be offered that workers could attend, an option that had not existed until then.

Furthermore, politicized university students engaged in projects to bring knowledge and culture to the lower classes, such as literacy and popular campaigns (above all through the Popular Culture Center of UNE). Moved by these convictions and with the purpose of constructing a popular and critical university, in the years before the 1964 coup student leaders and UNE organized various meetings and seminars on the theme of university reform.

Among teaching staff there was also support for the reformist demands, in general among the younger and more dynamic staff, excluded from the power system and badly paid, or among those who with great difficulty dedicated themselves to research. One of the proposals was to extinguish the cátedra system and implement departments with a basic structure, in the US style, in the expectation of making teaching and research activities more dynamic. However, not all the professors favorable to reform supported the student movement’s demands, considering some to be radical and inappropriate. Naturally, there was a lot of opposition in the universities to the reformist appeal, in general coming from the catedráticos, for obvious reasons, and the leaders of traditional faculties.

At the beginning of the 1960s, some reforms began to be planned, mostly by academic leaders identified with the João Goulart administration. The best-known example is Universidade de Brasília (UnB), designed to be a spearhead for the renewal of the university system. UnB was the first university planned to function as a research center, with departments and institutes in the place of cátedras and faculties. The expression “institute” served to designate university units with a vocation for research, distinguishing them from traditional faculties. In the original plan, UnB had eight institutes linked to basic scientific areas, which were to be complemented by faculties for producing professionals—law, administration, education, engineering, etc. UnB was created without catedráticos and paid higher than average salaries, offering full-time employment. In addition to research, it immediately implemented graduate courses that were intended to function simultaneously with the recently installed undergraduate courses. UnB also adopted for the first time the discipline credits system, more flexible than the format of classes with an annual duration.

The demand for university reform was incorporated in the grass-roots reforms announced by the João Goulart administration, which showed that it was in tune with debates in the academic and student spheres.4 Generally speaking, the intention was to use UnB as a model for changes in the oldest institutions. Goulart’s team was preparing measures in this direction. A few weeks before the coup, he gave a speech on university reform, talking about the creation of research institutes, the establishment of basic cycles, ending the duplication of means for identical purposes, and increasing places for the excedentes. Moreover, there were gestures to improve research conditions, with the announcement of a five-year plan for the National Research Council (CNPq) and the promise to increase funds. However, these intentions did not manage to create a consistent university policy, also because the government expended its energies in constant political crises. The most concrete achievement that the Goulart administration was capable of presenting in the university sphere was the increase in the number of undergraduate students, rising from approximately one hundred thousand in 1961 to 140,000 in 1964.5

In the field opposed to the left, modernizing discourses were also seductive. The diagnosis of the archaism of universities was similar, and there were some common themes, such as the extinction of cátedras and the stimulation of research activities. However, there was no disposition to accept universities that functioned as incubators of socialist and revolutionary thought. The vision of audacious student leaders interfering in the daily life of higher-level schools, with demands about teaching programs, strikes to obtain power similar to those of professors, or pressurizing for the hiring of teaching staff ideologically in tune with the left, frightened liberals, moderates, and conservatives. On the right (including liberals), the intention was not to reform universities in any “popular” sense, but make them more efficient and productive, with the aim of producing trained staff for economic development and public administration. Unlike the left-wing student project, change here had a conservative political proposal, since modernization was considered necessary to overcome the country’s deficiencies in order to counter the revolutionary impetus.

The Authoritarian Modernization of the Military Dictatorship

The groups that organized and supported the 1964 coup represented an ideologically heterogeneous front, which included liberals, conservatives, reactionaries, authoritarian nationalists, and even moderate reformists, as well as representing an alliance between the military and right-wing civilians. What united a coalition of such amplitude was a negative consensus: the removal from power of a government accused of leading the country into chaos. The principal motivation of the coup had a political nature, albeit with obvious economic implications: the central question was the fear of the rise of the left or “communization” supposedly underway during the João Goulart administration. The dominant anti-communist representations in golpista discourse expressed a fear of social movements in the rural areas (which demanded agrarian reform); the growing strength of trade unions, expressed in strikes; the politicization of the lower ranks of the armed forces; and the left-wing influence of young university students. The João Goulart administration created dissatisfaction and insecurity for other reasons as well, such as the critical economic situation, notably rising inflation, which at the beginning of 1964 seemed to be out of control. Equally, accusations of corruption had a relative weight in the campaign of opposition to the Jango administration. However, the dominant theme was anti–left wing and anti-communist.

Having conquered power, the winners did not have a consensual program of government to implement, except for the wish to purge the defeated from the public space. As a result, the first action was the unleashing of a wave of arrests all over the country, an operation that affected tens of thousands of people. Over time, government projects were implemented that implied an economic reorientation and new investments. Paradoxically, some reformist ideas debated in the previous government were adopted but implemented in a manner typical of dictatorships, in other words based on authoritarianism and repression.

Universities were at the center of the ideological battles of the period and, given the Cold War context, were institutions that reflected international tensions. For this reason, they occupied a prominent place in the dictatorship’s actions and plans. First, because they were a space of existence and work for some of the principal opponents of the new regime, especially student leaders, and gave rise to public protests and revolutionary groups. Second, because of higher education’s key role in the formation of the intellectual, political, and economic elites of the country. For this reason, universities attracted the attention of US agencies, from both the government (such as the United States Agency for International Development [USAID]) and private foundations (Ford and Rockefeller), which funded many “modernizing” projects in academic-scientific institutions.

At the moment of the 1964 coup, universities and student leaders occupied a strategic place and became a privileged target of the leaders of the dictatorship, both in relation to repressive policies and modernizing actions. Since the universities were considered incubators for the leaders of the left, students immediately attracted the attention of the repressive forces, which intervened in higher-level schools to purge students and staff considered subversive.

Leaders of the university community were an immediate target of the first repressive actions. At the moment of the coup, some universities were subject to harassment by the police as left-wing student leaders and professors were arrested. In the purges carried out between April and October 1964, more than one hundred professors were fired or forcibly retired from their positions, while dozens of students were expelled. Some of them were also arrested and interned in police stations or in exceptional places of detention, such as prison ships. Repression was constant during the dictatorship, which over time would increase its agencies specialized in social and political control. Although torture and murders had occurred since the beginning of the 1964 coup, the repression intensified even more after AI-5 (Institutional Act 5) in 1968, leading to the murder of some professors in the 1970s.

However, the dictatorship’s agenda for universities was broader than repressive policies, and the leaders of the new political regime immediately declared their intention of carrying out university reform. However, among the victors of 1964 there was no consensus about the direction of university policy, only the certainty that the area was strategic. The idea of university reform, understood as the extinction of cátedras and the weakening of traditional faculties, met resistance in the circles of power, since many professors from the traditionalist areas supported the coup. The minister of education who took office in 1964, Suplicy de Lacerda, a catedrático from the Faculty of Engineering of Universidade Federal do Paraná (UFPR), was among those skeptical of the idea of reform.6 Exactly for this reason, in his administration, which ended in January 1966, little was done in relation to reform, and he is remembered more for his repressive actions. Moreover, in the field of the supporters of the dictatorship, there were doubts about whether university reform should follow the tradition of maintaining strong ties with the state, including in terms of funding, or whether institutions should be given administrative autonomy with the possibilities of charging fees to the students, in a format similar to the US one.

After some years of hesitation the model of university reform was finally chosen, under the influence of the strategic-political calculations of military leaders and the increase of public funds provided by economic growth from 1968 onward, which made more feasible the option of funding reform with public funds and abandoning the plan for charging higher fees to students from public universities. The student movement contributed to the decision to maintain the public nature of state universities, due to its pressure against the privatizing proposals. The idea defended by the liberal sectors of the dictatorship of charging fees in public universities was shelved, because the military preferred not to give left-wing leaders a further reason for rebellion.

Also in 1968, the dictatorship’s most important university reform law was published (Law no. 5540, passed on November 28, 1968), which established, among other measures, the end of cátedras, an emphasis on creating scientific university institutes, and the establishment of a full-time teaching career. Although the dictatorship’s reforms had been inspired by pre-coup university debates, the “modernization” implemented from 1964 onward—and above all after 1968—was based on authoritarian and repressive methods, as well as the aim of preserving social hierarchies.

Returning to the objectives of the dictatorship, on the one hand, it was interested in investing more in universities due to its economic growth plans, which demanded an expansion of the offer of highly qualified labor (engineers, economists, etc.). Equally, there were important investments in the creation of a national graduate studies system, with the aim of training researchers capable of producing technologies useful to economic production. On the other hand, increasing funds for research and the salaries of teaching staff served to reach an accommodation with academic spheres, to prevent repression from being the only policy for universities. This was thus a strategy to alleviate relations with intellectuals and scientists, in order to integrate them in the authoritarian modernization project of the dictatorship.

It was equally intended that the increase in the number of grants and research laboratories would remove students from radical politics. The desire for the social engagement of youth and their availability for political and social action led the dictatorship to create a special program for this group: the Rondon Project. With this, the government intended to seduce young people with greater social sensitivity, sending the students into hamlets removed from the large centers for extension activities. The target of the Rondon Project was to appeal to patriotism and to weaken the power of attraction of ideas of the left.

The modernizing aspect of the dictatorship’s university project led to the implementation of reforms with a long-lasting impact. From the departmental structure to the graduate studies system, passing through the universalization of full-time teaching staff in the public system, the basic structure of the Brazilian university still in force was constructed under the dictatorship; or better, it was imposed by force, although its essence had been designed by university staff who collaborated with the regime. Moreover, the dictatorship invested in the expansion of universities, with the creation of new public institutions and the hiring of more professors. The result was a significant increase in the number of university students, who rose from around 140,000 in 1964 to approximately 1,400,000 in 1984, the last year of the dictatorship, an expansion proportionally higher than population growth.

It is important to note that this process also had a privatizing sense, since registrations in private schools increased more intensely than in the public sector, due to the creation of new private faculties and the expansion of the previously existing ones. Of the 140,000 registered in 1964, 61.5 percent belonged to the public sector and 38.5 percent to the private sector. Twenty years later the relationship was inverted, with the private sector accounting for 59.1 percent of registrations and the public sector for 40.9 percent. It should also be highlighted that the private sector was divided into profit-making institutions, which increased their participation in the system during the dictatorship, and confessional (in general Christian) and communitarian universities, which were non-profit making. However, at the same time that the private sector grew during the dictatorship, the state expanded its expenditure in public higher education, possibly to the detriment of expenditure on basic education, since investment in research and graduate studies increased (hundreds of graduate courses were created in the 1970s). Moreover, additional costs were assumed with new professors who started to receive payments in the full-time system.

From the Increase of Repression after 1968 to the Decline of the Dictatorship

During 1967–1968, protests by students and other social groups against the dictatorship were a serious concern for the military and served as a justification (as well as armed actions by guerrilla groups) for the increase of repression through Institutional Act 5, issued on December 13, 1968. This moment represented a landmark in both the increase of repression and the acceleration of modernization. At the same time that university infrastructure expanded, violence against students and professors increased.

Concerned with containing radical activism in higher education, the military created specific repressive actions, believing that AI-5 by itself could be insufficient. Decree no. 477 was thus issued in February 1969, which punished students accused of illicit political activities by expelling them from university. Professors and administrative staff could also be punished under this decree, but it was specially designed to de-structure student organizations. As well as being expelled from their universities, students were prohibited from studying in another higher-education institution for three years. Between 1969 and 1977, more than one thousand students were excluded from universities, both due to Decree 477 and the internal resolutions of university presidents and administrations.

Another instrument created after 1969 to expand the machinery of surveillance and repression in universities was the Information and Security Advisories (Assessorias de Segurança e Informação [ASI]), which functioned inside higher-education institutions. Theoretically subordinate to university presidents, these advisories were linked to the National Information Service. More than forty university ASIs were established in the 1970s and together with the dictatorship’s other information agencies, they politically filtered the hiring of employees, the awarding of grants, and authorizations for foreign internships. In their daily surveillance and information collection work, they monitored university life and prevented the free circulation of ideas.

In relation to repression aimed at teaching staff, a new purge was carried out in the wake of AI-5, with the compulsory retirement or dismissal of approximately 140 university professors, some of them outstanding figures in the scientific and academic scenario, such as Mario Schenberg, Florestan Fernandes, José Leite Lopes, Luiz Hildebrando Pereira, and Maria Yedda Linhares, among others. The impact of this new wave of purges was stronger than in 1964, since those affected in 1969 held positions of greater importance in their respective institutions.

Going beyond the increase in the political surveillance and purges, the context opened by AI-5 signified an intensification in physical violence. There was an increase in denunciations of torture and disappearances. For academic spheres, which registered less cases of violence in 1964, in part because the principal target on that occasion were workers, AI-5 signified a sad milestone. Although violence could affect other targets, the cases of professors detained for long periods, above all those who were tortured, in general involved the suspicion of participation in (or supporting) clandestine revolutionary groups, whether armed or not. There were situations of this type all over the country. In some places there were murders or disappearances; among university teaching staff, the best-known cases of these were Vladimir Herzog and Ana Rosa Kucinski, from USP, and Lincoln Bicalho Roque, from UFRJ. In relation to students the number affected was much higher, due to the higher involvement of young people with armed revolutionary groups. They represented a considerable part of the total killed or disappeared by the agencies of the dictatorship.

In the second half of the 1970s, in the middle of the slow “opening” process of the dictatorship, repression was gradually reduced. The aim of those guiding the state in undertaking this opening was not democracy but the construction of a politically softer authoritarian regime compatible with some liberal institutions, aimed at obtaining greater stability and duration. In this context, even more complex due to the crisis of the dictatorship’s economic model, the opposition and social movements intensified their actions and forced the limits of the opening project controlled by the military, with the aim of actually achieving liberty and democracy.

Universities were at the center of these struggles, with the return of the student movement to the public scene in 1977, when, after almost a decade of absence due to repression, street protests returned. A milestone in this process was the reorganization of UNE in 1979, which during the initial years of the dictatorship had been banned by the military. At the same time teaching and administrative staff in universities organized associative entities that, together with the student movement, demanded the democratization not only of society but also of academic spaces. After 1979 these struggles led to the dismantling of the dictatorship’s information agency apparatus on college campuses (the ASI) and the democratization of the selection of university administrators, who started being elected by the academic community at the beginning of the 1980s.

At the end of the military cycle, the economic crisis seriously affected universities, which suffered the loss of resources and the corrosion of staff salaries due to rising inflation. The severe economic crisis of the beginning of the 1980s, the final period of the dictatorship, destroyed most of the material gains obtained in the previous expansionist phase. The knowledge produced exercised a limited impact on the productive system, and the universities were more important because of their role in the production of specialists, professionals, bureaucrats, and intellectuals linked to academia. Furthermore, the model implemented was elitist and socially unjust, as was the general tone of modernizing and the developmentalist policies of the dictatorship. Investments in universities favored the richest social groups and regions in the country, consolidating—and expanding—the traditional social and regional inequalities. Moreover, it is important to highlight the impact of political repression on the lives of hundreds of university students, professors, and administrative staff: some lost their lives, hundreds were tortured, and others had their academic careers compromised or blocked.

The military and their civilian allies left a university and education system that remained in place in the following decades and to a large extent still exists: a minority public sector in which can be found the elite of researchers and where research is done and a majoritarian private sector that, despite some exceptions, does not have the same level of academic conditions as the public system. High-quality public universities exist, in contrast with unsatisfactory fundamental and second levels, which in part is an inheritance of the priorities established by the military regime. Despite these problems, the authoritarian modernization of the dictatorship left a research and graduate studies infrastructure that would be returned to in a later period. The changes implemented at the beginning of the 1970s would only yield fruit decades later, in particular after the return to economic growth and state investments in research in the 21st century.

However, caution is needed with the battles of memory and the argument that the modernizing impulse compensated for the repression, that is, that the dictatorship was worth it, has to be denied. This line of thought has to be repudiated, not least because it has been used to justify new authoritarian actions. It should be highlighted that the modernizing aspect of the dictatorship served its project of power, in other words, it aimed to gain support and legitimacy for authoritarianism. Moreover, and more importantly, the repressive costs of this process, the deaths, torture, and destruction of careers cannot be pardoned. In other words, the cost in suffering prohibits the consideration that the material advantages were worth the cost. Moreover, the latter were ephemeral, since the end of the dictatorship left a large-scale economic crisis. Finally, the modernizing impulse of the 1960s and 1970s could have occurred in a democratic regime.

The Period of “Re-democratization” and the Impasses of Recent Years

During the process of post-dictatorship democratic transition, the Brazilian university system experienced a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, there were problems caused by the critical economic situation, principally due to the hyperinflation caused by the dictatorship. Economic disequilibrium reduced public resources and those in power allowed inflation to corrode salaries and funds for research and for the running of universities. In the 1980s and 1990s, this resulted in a long cycle of strikes by professors, which paralyzed universities for months on end, thanks to the delay of the government to start negotiations.

On the other hand, despite the economic decline of higher-education institutions, academic leaders became leading figures in the cultural and political scenario, contributing in a significant manner to public debates. This was a change in relation to the initial period of the century when the most prominent public intellectuals rarely belonged to the university structure. A significant example is the career of the sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who projected himself in the political world based on his role as a leading academic in the 1970s.

As well as causing a reduction in public expenditure on education, the economic crisis of the 1980s–1990s also generated a reduction in the search for private higher education, both because of difficulties with paying fees and the reduction of expectations of professional earnings. For this reason, between 1980 and 1990 the number of university students practically did not increase, above all in comparison with the phase of great expansion of the 1960s and 1970s. According to Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE), there were around 1,380,000 students in 1980, of whom 885,000 were in the private sphere and 495,000 in public universities; in 1990 the total number had risen to 1,540,000, of whom 960,000 were in private education and 580,000 in public universities.

In addition to economic and budgetary difficulties, the public university system faced other challenges at the end of the century, to a great extent due to the influence of neoliberal ideas. Paradoxically, in the administration of the former university professor F. H. Cardoso, the federal government gave signs that it intended to reduce state participation in higher education, due to its favorable view of market interests. The government’s inclination to the private university model caused a reduction of the prestige of public institutions and salary losses. Ultimately, the state maintained the public nature of state universities, although in a weakened situation. However, there were stimuli to encourage greater growth of the private network, which came to account for 67 percent of university students in 2000 versus 62 percent in 1980. Generally speaking, the total number of students rose from 1,540,000 in 1990 to 2,700,000 in 2000, showing some recovery in contrast with the “lost decade” of the 1980s.

In the following political cycle, under the command of the Workers’ Party (2003–2016), the university system experienced a period of great expansion and a new increase of public expenditure, reversing the tendency in force until then. During the peak of the Petista era, eighteen new federal universities were created, most in interior areas not previously covered by higher-level education. Together with the expansion of the structures of the oldest federal universities, this process caused an increase in the number of students in federal institutions of approximately 100 percent.

Notwithstanding the emphasis on strengthening public institutions, the government also expanded funding for private institutions. First, the Petista administration expanded a program created by the Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC) administration, FIES (Higher Education Student Financing Fund [Fundo de Financiamento ao Estudante do Ensino Superior]), which, using funds from federal banks, funded the payment of monthly fees in private institutions, with the student having an obligation to pay back the debt after the end of the course. In addition, a new program was created to fund study in private institutions, PROUNI (University for All Program [Programa Universidade Para Todos]). This program provided grants to low-income students, who, depending on the family situation, received 100 percent or 50 percent of their university costs.

The results of the third level expansion were expressed in an increase in the number of university students: in 2002 they totaled around three million, while in 2016 this number had reached eight million. Parallel to the expansion in undergraduate studies, there was also an increase in graduate studies, in which between 2000 and 2010 the number of students grew by more than 100 percent, reaching an approximate total of 180,000 students in 2011 (including master’s and doctoral studies). To consolidate this increase, the government reedited the National Graduate Studies Plan, which was implemented for the first time in the military dictatorship, while federal agencies increased funding for scientific research and for investment in the respective infrastructure.

While the university project of the administrations led by the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) resembled the developmentalist impulse of the dictatorship, with the frantic rate of expansion and the increase in public investment, they can be differentiated in one fundamental aspect. While in the dictatorship the focus was to create economic growth and meet the interests of the traditional social elites, the Petista project included a social agenda absent in the previous period. In the Lula and Dilma administration, racial and social quotas were introduced for places in public universities, with the purpose of including a larger number of young blacks and poor and thereby reducing inequality. In the case of universities administered by the federal government, the results were effective, since according to 2016 data, blacks (blacks and mixed) held a larger number of places in these institutions, while white students predominated in private institutions. In relation to the distribution of places by gender, the 2016 educational census revealed that the female predominance in the university population had expanded in recent years, with women occupying 57 percent of places.

Political changes in the 2016–2018 period, which led to the removal of the Petista Dilma Rousseff from power and the election of Jair Bolsonaro, indicate the possibility of a change in the university policy in force, since part of the supporters of the new government elected in 2018 are opposed to redistributive social policies. As well as the command of the country being in the hands of authorities who little value higher education—and are actually hostile to some areas of knowledge—the worsening of the economic situation makes the picture even more complicated. A phase of uncertainty about the future format of the Brazilian university system has begun.

Discussion of the Literature

Systematic studies of the history of Brazilian universities and higher education began in the 1980s. Before this, all that exists is some official memoirs about certain institutions, such as the work of Ernesto de Souza Campos about USP published in 1954, or texts of political intervention such as those by Florestan Fernandes (A universidade brasileira: reforma ou revolução?) and Darcy Ribeiro (A universidade necessária) published in the 1960s and 1970s.7

Research of an academic nature about the history of universities began to flourish with the process of the expansion and consolidation of the higher education and graduate studies systems in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the pioneering work was carried out by faculties and graduate courses in education along the Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, São Paulo axis. One of the first striking studies was the book by Otaíza Romanelli published in 1978.8 Although this work had a more general scope, its contribution to the history of universities was relevant. However, the most influential researchers in this field are Luiz Antônio Cunha and Maria de Lourdes de Albuquerque Fávero, who wrote their principal works in the 1980s and 1990s. Cunha’s is the more ambitious work, since he wrote a wide-ranging trilogy about the history of third level education from the period of Portuguese domination until the 1980s.9 Fávero’s studies concentrate on the history of institutions in Rio de Janeiro, such as Universidade do Distrito Federal and Universidade do Brasil (UFRJ since 1965), highlighting the theme of political repression in the 1930s and the 1960s.10 Based on these pioneering works, much research has been done under the auspices of Faculties of Education in the following decades, which led to the formation of a specific field of study dedicated to the history of education.

More recently, research linked to graduate programs in history also began to focus on the theme of universities, concentrating particularly on the period of the military dictatorship and its authoritarian modernization and repressive policies. This tendency was due both to movements internal to the historiography and to the impact of the social demands calling for knowledge of the dictatorship, as well as to the availability of new documentary sources thanks to the opening of previously confidential archives. Rodrigo P. S. Motta has published wide-ranging research about the relationship between the dictatorship and the universities, focusing on the federal system, and various doctoral dissertations and master’s theses have researched specific aspects of university policy (such as the actions of the Rockefeller Foundation in the formation of USP by Maria Gabriela Marinho; repression and political surveillance studied by Jaime Mansan; or the Rondon Project studied by Gabriel Amato de Lima) or the impact of the dictatorship on singular institutions, such as UFMG (Luan Fernandes), UFES (Ayala Pelegrine), UFPE (Dimas Brasileiro), and UFV (Gustavo Bianch), among other works.11 It is an expanding field, since other research is being carried out at the moment.

It is important to mention an area of research parallel to the theme of universities, which is dedicated to the university student movement. This area of study began in 1968 with José Arthur Poerner’s work produced in the heat of the large anti-dictatorship protests which, perhaps for this reason, assumes a somewhat hagiographical tone.12 Studies of a more academic nature began to be carried out in the 1980s and 1990s and continue to be produced, with the work of João Roberto Martins Filho, Maria Ribeiro do Valle, Alberto Saldanha, José Sanfelice, and Angélica Müller deserving mention.

In this synthetic summary of the historiography, the need for more research on private universities can be noted, especially the oldest and best-structured of them, the Catholic universities, which began to be organized in the 1940s as part of the project to dispute the education of the country’s ruling elites.13

Primary Sources

Unfortunately, the Ministry of Education, which has had a preponderant role in the administration of higher education since the 1930s, does not possess a suitably organized archive. Part of the documentation of this body is in the National Archives and is currently being organized. CAPES, created in 1951 to help produce higher level teaching staff, especially with the mission of working with graduate studies, has a memory preservation division, the Coordination of Documentary Administration. Universities rarely invest in the preservation of documentary sources for their history. However, in recent years there have been efforts to improve this some universities have launched initiatives to organize and preserve their memory, such as UFRJ, UFMG, UnB, and UNICAMP, among others. In the context of the National Truth Commission (2012–2014), which investigated the political repression carried out during the military dictatorship, some universities created their own local commissions, which in many cases led to the finding of sets of documents referring to people purged in the 1960s and 1970s. In relation to this, there exist many documents in the documentary collection of the extinct National Information Service (SNI), now the responsibility of the National Archive. Also in relation to the dictatorship, important documents produced or collected by the Information and Security Advisories that functioned in universities can be found in the archives of some institutions, notably UFMG, UnB, UFBA, UFF, and UFES (in certain cases the documents were transferred to the National Archive). Some general statistics about education can be found in the publications of the Brazilian Geographical and Statistics Institute (IBGE). For the period of the creation of the Ministry of Education, it is recommended that the Gustavo Capanema archive be consulted, under the care of CPDOC-FGV. Other useful documentary sources for the study of the history of universities and higher-level education are the periodicals of the traditional press, which in many cases can be accessed on the Internet (such as Folha de São Paulo, Correio da Manhã, Última Hora, O Globo, and O Estado de São Paulo). Finally, for the theme of the participation of foreign governments and entities in the expansion process of Brazilian universities, the archives of the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations can be researched, as well as diplomatic and USAID documents kept in the National Archives and Records Administration (College Park, MD).

Further Reading

Carvalho, José Murilo de. A Escola de Minas de Ouro Preto. 2nd ed. Belo Horizonte, Brazil: Ed. UFMG, 2002.Find this resource:

Cunha, Luiz Antonio. Universidade crítica: O ensino superior na República populista. Rio de Janeiro: Francisco Alves, 1983.Find this resource:

Cunha, Luiz Antonio. Universidade temporã: O ensino superior da Colônia à era de Vargas. 2nd ed. Rio de Janeiro: Francisco Alves, 1986.Find this resource:

Cunha, Luiz Antonio. Universidade reformanda: O golpe de 1964 e a modernização do ensino superior. Rio de Janeiro: Francisco Alves, 1988.Find this resource:

Fávero, Maria de Lourdes de Albuquerque. A Universidade do Brasil: Das origens à construção. 2nd ed. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. UFRJ, 2010.Find this resource:

Fávero, Maria de Lourdes de Albuquerque, and Sonia de Castro Lopes, eds. A Universidade do Distrito Federal (1935–1939): Um projeto além de seu tempo. Brasília: Liber Livro, 2009.Find this resource:

Lima, Gabriel Amato Bruno de. “‘Aula prática de Brasil’: Ditadura, estudantes universitários e imaginário nacionalista no Projeto Rondon (1967–1985).” Master’s thesis, UFMG, Belo Horizonte, 2015.Find this resource:

Lopes, Eliana Marta Teixeira, Luciano Mendes Faria Filho, and Cynthia Greive Veiga, eds. 500 anos de educação no Brasil. 2nd ed. Belo Horizonte, Brazil: Autêntica, 2000.Find this resource:

Mansan, Jaime. “Subversivos: Ditadura, controle social e educação superior no Brasil (1964–1988).” PhD diss., PUC-RS, Porto Alegre, 2014.Find this resource:

Marinho, Maria Gabriela S. M. C. Norte-americanos no Brasil: Uma história da Fundação Rockefeller na Universidade de São Paulo (1934–1952). São Paulo: Universidade de S. Francisco, 2001.Find this resource:

Martins Filho, João Roberto. Movimento estudantil e ditadura militar. Campinas, Brazil: Papirus, 1988.Find this resource:

Motta, Rodrigo Patto Sá. As universidades e o regime militar. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 2014.Find this resource:

Romaneli, Otaíza de Oliveira. História da educação no Brasil (1930–1973). Petrópolis, Brazil: Vozes, 1978.Find this resource:

Saldanha, Alberto. A UNE e o mito do poder jovem. Maceió, Brazil: Edufal, 2005.Find this resource:

Schwartzmann, Simon, ed. Universidades e instituições científicas no Rio de Janeiro. Brasília: CNPq, 1982.Find this resource:


(1.) Helena Sampaio, Evolução do ensino superior brasileiro, 1808–1990 (São Paulo: Núcleo de Pesquisas sobre Ensino Superior da Universidade de São Paulo, 1991).

(2.) Sampaio, Evolução do ensino superior brasileiro.

(3.) Álvaro Vieira Pinto, A questão da universidade (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Universitária/UNE, 1962).

(4.) Elected vice president in 1960, he assumed the presidency in September 1961, after the resignation of Jânio Quadros. Goulart was considered by liberals and conservatives to be a leftist and an ally of the communists: the principal reason for his overthrow in the coup led by the military in 1964.

(5.) Cristina Helena Almeida de Carvalho, “Reforma Universitária e os mecanismos de incentivo à expansão do ensino superior privado no Brasil (1964–1984)” (master’s diss., Instituto de Economia, Campinas [UNICAMP], 2002), 115.

(6.) According to US diplomatic records, Suplicy was opposed to university reform when he was minister of education. See Record Group 59, Box 1901, Carpet 2, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.

(7.) Ernesto de Souza Campos (1954)[Queried to author]; Florestan Fernandes, A universidade brasileira: Reforma ou revolução? (São Paulo: Editora Alfa-Omega, 1975); and Darcy Ribeiro, A universidade necessária.

(8.) Otaíza Romanelli (1978)[Queried to author].

(12.) José Arthur Poerner, O poder jovem (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1968).

(13.) Because of the lack of space, works produced in related areas, such as sociology, were not included here. Nor was it possible to deal with works based on research in an important connected area, the history of science.