Summary: Students fight neoliberal agenda and administrative repression, link up with workers — Editors
September 18, 2023, should be remembered as the first lecture by Professor Kevin B. Anderson at the University of São Paulo, considered the best university in Latin America1 and the largest in Brazil, currently with just over 97,000 students, 5380 professors and 13,360 workers2.
We expected that the lecture would be attended by hundreds of students. However, we did not count on the fact that outside the auditorium undergraduate students would start a strike for immediate hiring of professors and staff, for better working, teaching, and research conditions.
The student strike began after the Faculty of Philosophy, Language and Human Sciences (FFLCH) principal, Dr Paulo Martins, had sent the private security of USP and the Military Police (PM) to close the FFLCH activities, expel students and professors from the buildings and close all entrances. The pretext for this violent action was the threat of damage to the University’s property.
There is a tradition at USP that began a few decades ago: for the decisions of student assemblies to be respected, pickets are organized in the corridors of the colleges so that no classes take place after students vote for a demonstration or strike. Paulo Martins used this democratically voted decision in the assembly as an excuse to deliberately attack the student movement.
Thus, violent repression was the spark that ignited the student movement. Immediately after the principal closed the college, an extraordinary assembly approved the immediate start of a strike. At the same time, some students occupied the administration building to demand the reopening of the FFLCH and a letter explaining the real reasons why the principal sent security guards and the police to close the activities at FFLCH.
Students demand the implementation of quotas for trans people and an Indigenous entrance exam, the immediate hiring of new professors and the recognition of student rights. During the assemblies, the students demonstrated how USP improved its position in the international rankings as it increased the exploitation not only of undergraduate and graduate students but also of professors and other employees.
USP was the last Brazilian public university to reserve 50% of its enrollment for racial and social quotas. Since the quotas were implemented at USP in 2018, the number of Black and Indigenous students coming from public schools has only increased: in 2023, 54.1% of new undergraduate students come from public schools, while 27.2% are Black or Indigenous3. The student movement struggled for scholarships to ensure the minimum conditions for these students to remain at the university. At the beginning of 2023, however, USP gave up R$5 million in public funds for private companies to start managing some of the scholarships.
This neoliberal management of USP also had profound impacts on professors and other workers. There was a policy at USP known as automatic trigger, through which new professors were hired immediately after retirements or dismissals. Since 2011, however, this policy has been no longer respected, which has caused colleges at USP to lose a total of 1042 professors in less than ten years4. The shortage of professors not only caused a work overload but also profoundly affected the functioning of some courses. For example, students in Literature and Linguistics, who study Japanese, are unable to graduate, as some subjects are no longer offered, while the Korean course can no longer receive new students due to the of professors. Similar problems were reported by students from all colleges during the strike assemblies.
The students are demanding the immediate hiring of 1683 professors, including making up for additional losses due to retirements. The board of direction, however, insists that it can only hire 1027, which will be distributed according to the criteria of merit, that is, the colleges that comply with the requirements imposed by the board will receive a greater number of new professors. As the students pointed out during the assemblies, the merit criteria are purely quantitative and aim only to produce statistics so that USP rises in the international university evaluation rankings, rather than the quality of the labour involved in the research.
USP workers have also suffered a lot in recent years. Since 2014, there has been a reduction of 4338 employees, in addition to a wage freeze. USP claims, of course, that this was due to budget problems, although the university ended 2022 with an operating surplus of R$5 billions5. The USP Workers’ Union published a note expressing deep solidarity with the students, remembering that defending the quality of teaching and research necessarily involves defending the workers who guarantee the maintenance of these spaces.
After more than a month of strikes, the board of directors still refuses to negotiate with the student movement. Although many students have returned to class, a considerable part of the student body continues to strike. More than that: part of the student movement saw the need to deepen the struggle. Thus, USP students showed solidarity by marching side by side with civil servants from SABESP and the public transportation system, who are currently struggling against the threat of privatization. These companies, as well as USP, are hostages of Governor Tarcisio de Freitas, a former military officer and a former Minister of Infrastructure under Bolsonaro. Tarcisio adopts a strategy of direct confrontation, accusing the workers of these state-owned companies of sabotaging their work, while exalting privatized companies6, withdrawing funds from public universities7 and threatening to reduce the Education budget by more than R$9.6 billions8. However, in the same way that the student movement resisted the direct attack of the FFLCH principal, with its private security and the PM, we will also resist these new threats!
PS: Since I submitted the first draft of this brief article, the student movement has had to reorganize itself due to a direct attack by the dean’s office to penalize students. Upon realizing that some colleges had resumed activities and that the strike was weakening, the dean’s office released a statement saying that colleges should reduce student attendance records based on the time the colleges remained on strike. In practice, all undergraduate students at colleges who have been on strike since September 18 will fail their courses. This implies the loss of scholarships and even the expulsion of students who entered in 2023. The USP Professors’ Association opposed this statement and declared that colleges should not implement it.9 Students have since organized assemblies and demonstrations demanding that the dean’s office withdraw the statement, showing how neoliberal arbitrariness needs to be confronted.
1 Regarding USP’s position in the international university evaluation rankings, it is possible to check at: https://www.saopaulo.sp.gov.br/ultimas-noticias/ranking-internacional-aponta-usp-como-a-melhor-universidade-da-america-latina-e-caribe/
2 To check the numbers of students, professors and other USP employees: https://depar.usp.br/num/#:~:text=Voc%C3%AA%20conhece%20a%20USP%3F,e%20quase%20seis%20mil%20professores
3 To check the increase in the number of quota students: https://jornal.usp.br/institucional/com-541-de-ingressantes-de-escolas-publicas-vestibular-2023-foi-o-mais-inclusivo-da-historia/
4 Available on: https://adusp.org.br/movimento-discente/greve-geral/
5 For more information on USP’s budget, see the note from the USP Professors’ Association: https://adusp.org.br/financiamento/usp-informa-no-diario-oficial-que-fechou-2022-com-espantosos-r-57-bilhoes-em-caixa-evidenciando-que-arrocho-salarial-e-decisao-politica-e-gratificacao-foi-cala-boca/
6 About the strike by SABESP, CPTM and Metro, see: https://noticias.uol.com.br/cotidiano/ultimas-noticias/2023/10/02/tarcisio-critica-possivel-greve-e-exalta-privatizacao-nos-transportes.htm
7 To learn more about cutting funds from public universities in the state of São Paulo: https://sintunesp.org.br/images/arquivos/F6/boletins/2023/Boletim_do_Forum_-_Reuniao_tecnica_e_outros__-_10-10-2023.pdf
8 About cutting funds for Education in São Paulo: https://www.adunesp.org.br/noticias/pacote-de-maldades-de-tarcisio-chega-na-alesp-privatizacao-da-sabesp-reforma-administrativa-e-reducao-do-orcamento-da-educacao-entidades-convocam-ato-unificado-para-20-10