Lula and higher education



What is Lula's third term policy for higher education? So far, this is not clear

Never before in history

In 2002, the government program of then candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva made a scathing criticism of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration (1995-2002) in the area of ​​education, particularly in what he called the “advance of the privatization of the system”. This, in turn, would not be expressed “… by the sale of universities and public schools, but by the accelerated proportional increase in the private network, each day with greater weight in the system, mainly in early childhood and higher education.” A commitment was made to expand “… places in public universities” and reformulate the “educational credit system”.

Data from the 2022 Higher Education Census, published in October 2023, confirm that vision: in 1995, there were 1,1 million enrollments in private institutions, compared to 700 thousand in public institutions. It was, therefore, a “commodification coefficient” (private vacancies/public vacancies) of 1,5. In the 1980s and 1990s, this ratio fluctuated between 1,0 and 1,5. In 2002, there were 2,4 million private registrations and 1,1 million public registrations, with the commodification coefficient reaching 2,2. The system doubled in size, with private vacancies accounting for 75% of this increase. The creation from the Higher Education Student Financing Fund (FIES), in 1999, replacing the Educational Credit Program (CREDUC), inherited from the Geisel government (1974-1979) was fundamental in the new dynamics of this sector.

In the Lula (2003-2010) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) governments,  the promises of 2002 were fulfilled, especially with regard to the expansion of vacancies and the search for greater democratization in access. In 2016, the country had 8 million people enrolled in higher education, 103% above the figure in 2003 (3,9 million people). However, the commodification coefficient grew even more, going from 2,3 (2003) to 3,0 (2016). Between 2003 and 2016, there was an expansion of 3,3 million vacancies in the private network (+119%) and 814 thousand vacancies in the public network (+69%).[I]

Commodification and financialization

FHC doubled enrollment in higher education in eight years, with strong expansion of the private segment and greater commodification (or “privatization” in the terms of President Lula's party) compared to the system inherited from the military governments and the beginning of the New Republic. The following governments took thirteen years to double the number of university students again. The profile of students changed significantly, with the participation of populations with lower purchasing power. This characteristic was due more to the advancement of the private sector than to inclusion in the public network. As a result, the variation in the commodification coefficient was even more intense. There was no reversal of the model stimulated in the FHC era, on the contrary

Thus, in 2022, a record private and public enrollment ratio was reached (3,5), amidst structural transformations, with emphasis on “commercialization with financialization” and advances in distance education (EaD): (i) In 2022, of the 7,3 million places offered by private education, 5,6 million were in “for-profit” institutions and 1,7 million (24%) in “non-profit” institutions, usually confessional and community ones.

(Ii) Five educational groups[ii], which opened their capital and began to have shares traded on the stock exchange, accounted for 2,5 million enrollments in 2022, more than the entire public network. (iii) In just seven years (2016-2022), the distance learning modality went from 17% to 46% of enrollments in higher education, with a strong concentration of these in private education for profit.[iii]

Brazilian higher education followed the trends observed for society as a whole and became the milestones of neoliberalism. The ground for commodification and financialization was prepared by FHC. The bountiful harvest came with Lula and Dilma, despite initiatives to expand the federal public network. The governments of Michel Temer (2016-2018) and Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022) preserved the trends of expanding private education for profit and suspended efforts to expand the public network. This process, which was linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, generated important consequences.

In private higher education, the continued expansion of for-profit institutions had as its counterpart the shrinking of confessional and community institutions, which have historically been committed to preserving quality in the tripod “teaching, research and extension”. For-profit entities prioritize higher profitability courses and rarely have postgraduate programs stricto sensu or invest in research. Furthermore, they have few links with the communities where they are located: their focus is on making a profit by selling low-cost education, particularly via digitalization (EaD).

In the public network, a serious situation of underfunding was created. Infrastructure conditions were precarious and the technological gap in certain dimensions it is a reality. Several professionals left the country. Under the indifference of the Brazilian financial oligarchy and governments, and with the applause of fanatical social groups, the country witnessed accelerated degradation of its higher education and knowledge production structure, in a typical irrational autophagy process.

Tell me who you spend it on and I'll tell you who you are

Are public universities – and some private non-profit institutions – that lead thes official assessments of excellence in human resources training at undergraduate level and postgraduate studies, as well as concentrating scientific production and the generation of new patents (property rights over technological innovations). Since 2014, this system has been suffering from significant funding cuts, which could compromise the future of what remains of quality in Brazilian higher education. Thus, between 2014 and 2024, the joint budget of the two main agencies for promoting scientific research and postgraduate studies, Capes and CNPq, fell by half: from R$ 15,1 billion (2014) to 7,3 billion (2023 and 2024).[iv][v]

There was a strong compression in the funding (-33%) and capital (-78%) of federal universities between 2014 and 2022. Even above the negative variation in the MEC's ​​total budget (-15%). This occurred in a period in which enrollments/year continued to rise: +13%. In 2023 and 2024, in a new political context, there was a partial recomposition of these items: the sum of funding and capital in the 2024 LOA reached R$9,4 billion, less than 2/3 of the real value of 2014 (14,5, XNUMX billion). A similar phenomenon occurred in the budget of the Federal Institutes.[vi]

The drop in funding (daily expenditure on maintaining institutions with consumables, student food, inputs for research laboratories, water, electricity, communication, etc.) and the deterioration of physical infrastructure (classrooms, computers, laboratories and their equipment, technical books, etc.) affect relatively more low-income students, who are already the majority in public institutions.

Without recomposition and expansion in these expenditures, it will be increasingly difficult for this segment of the population to remain in public institutions and, as a result, the facilities offered by private education for profit will be more attractive, especially when there is government subsidy.

The use of educational credit as the main instrument for expanding access to higher education, especially during the Lula and Dilma governments, deepened the problem of financing the federal public network. O Accounting Report for the 4th quarter of 2023 of the National Education Development Fund allows us to make the following list: between 2014 and 2023, the implicit subsidy for the FIES Program reached R$114 billion, at values ​​corrected by the IPCA. This is equivalent to the cost and investment (capital) value of all federal universities in the same period (R$110 billion at 2023 prices). The FNDE report also informs that the current balance of problematic FIES credits reaches R$47 billion. The accumulated funding and investments of FIs (2014-2023), corrected by the IPCA, reached R$40 billion.[vii]

What will the Lula government do with higher education?

What is Lula's third term policy for higher education? So far, this is not clear. The president promised to create 100 new Federal Institutes by 2026, which appears to be a step towards strengthening the public offer of vacancies. At the same time, bet on maintaining FIES, now with the “social” nickname.

In MEC estimates, R$3,9 billion would be invested via New PAC in the Federal Institutes, of which R$2,5 billion for the new fields and R$1,4 billion to consolidate those that already exist. The average cost of each new FI would be R$25 million. These values ​​do not include the hiring of staff. And they don't seem realistic. O Budget Dashboard records that the 38 Federal Institutes that are in the MEC budget have a total cost (personnel, funding and capital) of R$19,9 billion (LOA 2024). The average cost is R$523 million/IF/year. With this realistic parameter, 100 new Federal Institutes would cost around R$52 billion/year after being implemented,[viii] twenty times more than recorded in the MEC's ​​official announcement.

The objectives of expanding the network of Federal Institutes or maintaining FIES are defensible per se. However, they also limit the space for the necessary recomposition of budgets of federal HEIs that already exist, Capes, CNPq and other agencies and funds that support the quality of teaching and research. Unless new, truly robust sources of financing emerge, or if it is possible to reduce tax expenditures (subsidies budgeted at 524 billion in LOA 2024) and expenditures in other areas, it is inevitable to imagine a scenario of persistence in the deterioration of public higher education and research in Brazil.

The current government needs to signal more clearly what it intends to do with the higher education network under its responsibility, as well as inform society how it will deal with difficult budgetary choices. The establishment of the new tax framework and the option to pursue zero deficit, in 2024, and budget surpluses from 2025, creates a clear dilemma: to create new institutions and expand subsidies for private education, the financing bottlenecks of public HEIs and other government institutions in the sector through increasing “cannibalization” of the system. With this, future governments will find fertile ground to complete the de facto destruction of the public network.

The defense of education and science cannot just be rhetorical, but budgetary. It is necessary to establish an articulated conception between those and the development objectives for Brazilian society. The degradation of federal public education and the research system is in the interest of business sectors engaged in obtaining profits through the “sale of education services”. Despite the recent trajectory of budget restrictions, the public sector still sets quality standards in higher education and science production. In the ongoing neoliberal chess, this is the last piece that the power of finance needs to overthrow. If this happens, future (foreign) historians will possibly conclude that checkmate occurred during the Lula III administration.

*André Moreira Cunha is a professor at the Department of Economics and International Relations at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS).

* Alessandro Donadio Miebach is a professor at the Department of Economics and International Relations at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS).


[I] In addition to strengthening FIES, the federal government created the University for All Program (PROUNI), with the granting of full or partial scholarships to students from the private higher education network. In 2007, it was launched the Support Program for Restructuring and Expansion Plans of Federal Universities (REUNI, 2007), which allowed vacancies in these institutions to double: from 641 thousand (2007) to 1,3 million (2016).

[ii] They are: cogna (COGN3, ex-Kroton) and Estácio (YDUQ3), which entered the Stock Exchange in 2007; The Anima Education (ANIM3) and the Being Educated (SEER3), in 2013; It is Southern Cross (CSED3), in 2020. Its shares appreciate in value in accordance with government stimulus policies, such as the recent creation of FIES Social. Additionally, they are committed to reducing costs by expanding the offering of distance learning courses (EaD) as a strategy maintaining profitability

[iii] For-profit institutions generate 3,3 million enrollments in distance learning courses (76% of the total in this modality); and private non-profit companies accounted for 411 thousand vacancies (10% of the total).

[iv] The original data for CNPq, Capes, Federal Universities/Institutes and MEC are in Federal Budget Dashboard (committed values, with the exception of 2024, which is the value of the LOA) and were updated by the IPCA (average prices for 2023). The number of postgraduate students is from the Geocapes Platform and data on undergraduate students is in the 2022 Higher Education Census.

[v] In terms per capita this contraction was even greater: from R$68 thousand/student/year (2014) to 28 thousand/student/year (2023 and 2024).

[vi] In terms of relative participation, the budget with funding and capital of federal universities and institutes went from 12,6% of the MEC's ​​total commitment, in 2014, to 8,1%, in the 2024 budget proposal. Including personnel expenses, This structure accounts for 50% of the MEC budget.

[vii] The sum of subsidy with contingent debt approaches R$160 billion or R$47 thousand for each of the 3,4 million FIES beneficiaries since its creation. A value that appears to exceed the average annual cost of students at public universities.

[viii] Only the cost and capital portion of the 38 FIs is R$3,7 billion or R$97 million/IF/year. For 100 FIs it would be a value of almost R$10 billion, four times more than what the MEC projects. Possibly, the government should be planning structures closer to technical schools and CeFets.

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