The Endangered Graduate



Reflections on the changes at the University that are profoundly altering its graduate programs

My answer to the question “Is graduate school in danger?” and yes. However, I do not believe that postgraduate studies are at risk of extinction, but of de-characterization and retraction. That is, it is no longer the same and is shrinking, as it ceases to be viable, with quality, in certain areas and/or in certain institutions.

Furthermore, it is being pressured to look more and more like specialization – which, in principle, should have other purposes. It is precisely this overlap between graduate and specialization that will give us the opportunity to discuss, later on, the urgency and importance of the four-year evaluation.

But first, let's get to what we mean by mischaracterization and retraction. In fact, they are worldwide trends, which emerged in the 1960s, and constitute a serious threat to science in general. However, they become even more serious – and much more perverse – in peripheral countries. And, unfortunately, as we all know, never in its republican history has Brazil been as peripheral as it is now.

Paradoxically, our graduate programs, which were born and consolidated over the same period, have only recently been affected by these changes. This is due to the fact that graduate programs were implemented by academic staff formed within the old order.

To understand the difference between these two orders, we can make use of a distinction made by the philosopher Olgária Matos,[I] which characterizes the University model in force until around 1960 as 'modern', opposing it to the 'post-modern' model, which has begun to gain strength since then.

At the modern University, scientists and humanists share an interest in universals and speak out on knowledge in general, exercising critical thinking inside and outside their disciplines. In the postmodern university, scientists from all areas and even humanists assume the specialist discourse and start to preferentially pronounce on technical issues pertinent to their specialty within their discipline.

The backdrop for this shift in the conception of the university are the changes, gradual, but growing and cumulative, of capitalism in the last 60 years. With globalization, digitization and the financialization of capital, the market assumed a position of absolute power and began to colonize the academy, which previously had strong support from the State in public and private institutions.

One of the aspects of this process was to submit the academy, little by little, to the notions of market productivity. Well, capital is Taylorist, it demands speed and efficiency. Consequently, it is also Fordist, demanding fragmentation and sequencing of tasks. Furthermore, it is inherently opportunistic.

Thus, contemporary capitalism soon found two effective loopholes to control the academy. One was to take over the academic assessment systems, which were becoming onerous with the progressive demands of space in increasingly complex digital environments. The other was to supplement, more or less generously, the progressively declining public funding, on condition that the research objects met the interests of the market.

The neoliberal logic of privatization started to be applied to Universities and research promotion agencies. The result is that today we have, all over the world, companies installed in the fields university students, collaborating and financing, partially or totally, research projects that meet their short, medium and long-term interests.

It's getting harder and harder to get sponsorship to try to solve a problem just because it's intellectually exciting and could lead to new problems. On the other hand, it is increasingly easy to obtain sponsorship to try to solve a problem aimed at a practical application.

Two factors delayed the establishment of this new university order in Brazilian science. One was the resistance of those who are now at the end of their careers, a generation formed by pioneers of the old order, in turn trained, a long time ago, in traditional universities abroad – or here, self-taught.

The other factor was the low interest in research of the incipient national industry. Proof of this lies in Fapesp's effort to encourage entrepreneurial research in recent decades and in the parallel effort by public universities in São Paulo to strengthen relations with local companies through their innovation agencies.

Now, however, there are new and dangerous factors at play, namely: the deindustrialization of the country, as a result of the financialization of capital, and the privatization of its companies and municipalities, as a result of the successive neoliberal shocks applied to the economy from 2016 onwards. The shrinkage of the State drags down its universities and research companies, responsible for building the Brazilian scientific heritage over the last seventy years – which, by the way, coincides with the founding of CNPq and CAPES.

We can then ask what type of higher education qualification is required by global companies that are replacing Brazilian state-owned companies. The answer is the same as anywhere in the world: highly specialized technical staff with access to updates are sought.

Now, the specialization courses available until very recently resided in low-quality private universities, aimed at those seeking to thicken the curriculum in the dispute for employment. However, under the pressure of the market, high-quality public universities enabled another type of specialization, based on their postgraduate studies.

So, just as they instituted professional master's degrees, they instituted postgraduate courses Postgraduate Course , which are generally paid, even in public universities. In these courses, the teaching and research infrastructure of postgraduate courses is shared with the specialization, differing only in terms of student performance assessment requirements.

Symptomatically, at a time when the four-year evaluation is paralyzed – namely, since last September 22nd,[ii] CAPES continues with a forecast for the opening of new courses (APCN, Analysis of Proposals for New Courses).[iii]

What criteria will these courses be subject to? Will they be the same as the quadrennial assessment? It is not known. In fact, it causes strangeness, as pointed out by the Knowledge Observatory, the inertia of the CAPES presidency in these two months.

Meanwhile, the opportunist, privatist and utilitarian logic is segregating institutions and entire areas of knowledge according to their ability to capture private resources. Thus, with the drastic reduction in the funding agencies' budgets, the postgraduate courses best able to survive are certainly those that offer specialization in parallel.

Some areas, such as engineering and health, naturally have a greater vocation for adapting to this type of crisis. Furthermore, in high-quality Universities, certain areas of basic research have the potential to survive thanks to consolidated international partnerships. Large projects can be set up with the sum of limited resources from development agencies in several countries.

But what will become of other areas of basic research that were trampled by the lack of funding during an ongoing internationalization process? And what will become of productive human scientists, but less able to compete for international funding? These will certainly be invited, by the private universities that will emerge opportunistically, to set up and coordinate new postgraduate courses, with the “mission” of supplying the lack of some areas already retracted in the public Universities. Once the courses are set up, these professors will be summarily dismissed, as usually happens, and replaced by younger and less expensive staff.

Finally, we can ask ourselves what we have lost with this transformation of postgraduate studies in order to survive in the new times, since the surviving courses maintain their high quality in the institutions whose expertise and research infrastructure are of interest to the market. In my opinion, we lost everything, because we lost precisely our project of intellectual sovereignty, which is an inalienable part of the project of national sovereignty.

In rich countries, traditional Universities continue to be financed by the State, together with mixed foundations, to produce new knowledge in any area, without utilitarian restrictions.

In contrast, here – where, in five years, we have been increasingly relegated to the periphery of the global market – the struggle for survival will make the struggle for sovereignty unfeasible.

Thus, our already weakened national sovereignty will be definitively dead and buried, since our thinking heads will be divided between those that remain, sustaining the specialization demands of the market so as not to let the university wither completely, and those that leave the country, inflating the diaspora of Brazilian scientists and intellectuals abroad.

* Eleonora Albano is a professor at the Institute of Language Studies (IEL) at Unicamp.

Contribution to the round table “The four-year evaluation and its perspectives” organized by the SBPC and ANPG in the cycle The graduate in danger?on November 29, 2021.



[I] MATTOS, O. Twilight of the wise. The state of Sao Paulo, November 15, 2009.



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