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Neoliberalism in the public university


Labor won the elections in England. Faced with an outline of celebration, an English friend was quick to say: “Look, don’t get excited, they’re not so left-wing anymore.” Such blurring of boundaries would be repeated everywhere, erasing previously clear distinctions between conservatives and progressives. We would be living in new times of political pragmatism, in terms of which everyone would become much more united and, for this very reason, left and right would no longer be clearly distinguished by their practices or proposals, but above all by their rhetoric.

All rhetoric has consequences, of course; can lead to opposing policies and different outcomes, but sometimes deeper agreements can unify those who appear to be virulently opposed. This is often the case when public resource transfer processes are involved.

Some areas, it is true, would not even be covered under conservative governments, but the distribution methods can be similar, as if there were no longer an intrinsic procedural link between the principles, means and ends of public management. Politics would no longer be demarcated by principles applied over the long term, but by immediate results.

Principles have never been the strong point of the most down-to-earth politics – the kind that becomes institutionalized and assumes protagonism in everyday life. Where's the surprise then? Firstly, in the recent neglect of institutions. Politicians or managers can even sublimate this disregard with the justification of being left-wing; they would say rhetorically that only conservatives would have some respect for traditions, such as university ones.

Secondly, in the pure and simple defense of the most effective mechanism. They would therefore react to our objections by affecting sagacity: they would, after all, be politicians. The result of this voluntary disdain is clear: the invisible hand of the market and the very visible gesture of governments undermine the public sphere and compromise the social control of public resources, with such mechanisms being a threat to a democratic society, beyond any rhetoric. 

Such political realism, now adopted by a new left, a left with a neoliberal aspect, is scandalous everywhere, it compromises the entire public sphere, every exercise of the common, but it is especially painful to see it thriving so much in this singular dimension that is that of universities – unique equipment through which the tradition of producing knowledge and training people would bring us the best promises for the future.

From a long-term perspective, universities should not fluctuate at the whim of particular interests, as they represent an investment by society, with our special reverence arising from the recognition of their strategic role for the nation and, consequently, the duty to see them protected. in its universality and autonomy.

It was therefore difficult for me to believe in an electoral “card”, in which a candidate currently campaigning for the rectorship of an important university states with all pragmatism as one of his slogans “encourage and support the raising of extra-budgetary resources”, proposing to create “a sector to guide these processes”. What is this fellow? It's certainly not a kiss. By transforming into a virtue such an expedient that has been practiced everywhere, the candidate enunciates a true scandal, leaving us even to suggest a name for this sector: “The Balcão”.

I neither want nor can I estimate whether or not the candidate's platform is better than that of their competitors. Nor do I think the problem is more serious at your university. I only suggest that, when this proposal is announced on a platform, we have a warning about a practice that has become systemic and, as such, affects and threatens all federal universities.

In fact, raising extra-budgetary resources has always been among the missions of managers, as well as researchers, with the most politically skilled being praised and highlighted. Despite this relatively normal history, the expansion of discretion places the problem on another scale and gives it another meaning.

Perhaps the candidate's proposal is thought of, with unusual innocence, as a measure of effectiveness and political realism. If so, it at least has the virtue of transparency. Explicitly, however, it is adopting as a policy a mechanism that, raised to a paroxysm, attacks more republican and democratic principles, compromises the entire federal system of higher education and, ultimately, undermines the autonomy of each university, transforming the best managers into mediators and the worst into operators of a perverse system.

Informal counters, with or without names, more or less linked to central administrations, may be spread throughout our institutions. It is no coincidence that, “contracted” to develop projects by the government or the market, universities now have a significant volume of resources running on the sidelines. And this volume is, at times, much greater than the amount recorded for the institution's funding in the Annual Budget Law (LOA) - it no longer seems to us that there is a difference between the public and private sources, since the Autonomy is threatened in both cases.


It is important to insist. The threat does not just come from outside. This move is in line with the narrowness of government officials who decided not to expand the budget of federal universities. It is due to this deliberate budget restriction that the Andifes matrix has not been able to run for a few years.

And this is indeed a choice, a decision, since, at the same time, several ministries – especially Education – allocate large resources to universities in the form of extra-budgetary resources. With this procedure, we have more costing resources in the system, but most of them run outside the matrix.

It is worth clarifying here. We call the “Andifes matrix” a resource partition model implemented after 1994, when the distribution of the budget, as proposed by Andifes, was no longer defined discretionarily by the MEC and began to rely on modeling. Such a partition model would, in theory, identify the maintenance cost of each university.

The matrix does not distribute the entire university funding budget. For example, amendment appeals are recorded in the LOA, but they are erratic and rarely constitute a historical series. The matrix, yes, creates an important common ground. In this case, after many studies, a conceptual formulation was arrived at, translated into a mathematical equation, which seeks to identify the value of a cost unit for the so-called “equivalent student”. The matrix would then establish, based on university census data, how many equivalent students each institution would have.

As the main inputs for these calculations are the number of students enrolled in undergraduate and postgraduate courses and the “weight” of the courses, there is a lot to discuss. The matrix is ​​far from perfect and cannot solve every problem on its own, but it is a common and transparent path for allocating funding resources.

Furthermore, as it is a modeling designed for a system, the model can contain inductive triggers, through which the system as a whole can come to the aid of institutions that may face economic difficulties, as well as stimulating them, aiming to guarantee or demand due quality.

Many points can certainly be questioned. However, due to its regular employment, society may be challenged to indicate the model of university that, in the end, it intends to value. Wouldn't this be exactly an urgent debate to be taken up not only by Andifes itself, but also by various scientific societies, the SBPC, the Academies of Sciences, the National Association for Research in Education Financing (Fineduca), the parliament? Shouldn't such a debate take place in our councils, local and national union representations, our categories, our assemblies?

The questions are many. For example, should the matrix mainly count the number of students, in the current form of the equivalent student? Should institutions that house more vulnerable students have an increase, incorporating PNAES, the national student assistance program, into the matrix?

Institutions with excellent undergraduate and postgraduate performance must be reinforced, with these data impacting the design of the distribution of funding resources, so that the results of research, even though it is financed separately by funding agencies, could be captured and interfere with the matrix design?

Therefore, there are many issues that, involving budget, allow for an effective collective discussion about the nature and future of the university. This should call us all together as a society and as a university community, not obviously being resolved behind the scenes. In any case, it is imperative and strategic to be able to run the Andifes matrix, while discussing and improving it.

It is clear that, no matter how severe the arithmetic, it is inevitable that, without an increase in total resources, the automatic application of the matrix will harm some institutions – no matter how hard they try and how effective the extra-budgetary resource collectors are. In the undesirable situation now faced, without sufficient resources for a distribution that guarantees a minimum necessary, the matrix will continue to be unable to be rotated. Therefore, a contribution of more resources directly to the LOA is essential, and this at a much higher level than the current one.

This level can be defined quite objectively and, moreover, republican and transparent. This is a contribution that must be able to put our institutions in line, being compared according to their dimensions and qualities. Only in this way, through a process of comparison and assessment of their operational needs, can they be guaranteed what is stated in Article 55 of the Education Guidelines and Bases Law: “It will be up to the Union to ensure, annually, in its General Budget, sufficient resources for the maintenance and development of higher education institutions maintained by it”. There is no other duty of the State.

On the other hand, if the singular situation of penury is maintained amidst an indirect and highly selective injection of resources, a mechanism of destruction is established and prospers. With this mechanism, we are returning in practice to a discretionary period of resource distribution, that is, to a procedure that favors those already favored, deepens inequality between regions and even between researchers, breaking the commensurability of our academic measures and the sense of a federal higher education system.

Discretionary distribution must therefore be combated. Whatever the motivation, the widespread return to such a discretionary regime can only bring damage to the system – long-term, irreversible damage.[I]


In electoral campaigns within the university, I have no doubt that almost all candidates will defend the increase in student assistance, freedom of expression, the fight against discrimination, excellence in research, the strengthening of extension. This is, after all, our environment. Some will advance identity agendas, others will risk innovations in teaching or the use of digital technologies, including in administration activities. They will often treat as a truism even what still demands careful discussion, with the enchantment of scientific communities being so commonplace that, for better or worse, it can be labeled as “progress”.

Finally, with their souls cleansed, they will probably talk about the autonomy of the university, although perhaps they are consenting to the practice (or even in their proposals) in which this same autonomy is destroyed by the pervasive action of subordination of a significant part of research, teaching, extension and even university administration to resources arising from parliamentary patronage or decentralized execution terms – all of them, for the most part, managed from now on by foundations supporting universities.[ii]

In this scenario of breaking the aura of the university, of lowering the collective pact that supports it, some come to think and even formulate: whoever is not taking advantage will be a fool, whoever is not being benefited or is benefiting someone with scholarships and other resources. . I even heard from a colleague that questions would only come from those who were not being considered; and a complete silence usually surrounds this mechanism, offering it tacit consent.

The disease becomes so serious that, once it is disseminated and becomes common currency, it ends up compromising the health of even procedures that, over the years, have served to raise resources necessary for research or extension, but not provided for in common headings. Before, they were like moss that stuck to the bark of a healthy tree. Now, once distorted and hypertrophied, such devices tend to destroy the leafiest tree like birdweed.


The error is widespread, with all the exceptions that we must always record and praise. It is clear today, however: branches exist with more or less professionalism, their success depending much more on political management than on exclusively academic ones. The error therefore lies, firstly, with government policy itself. In this case, it may be motivated by a fundamental disregard for the university as an autonomous and long-term project.

Some actually fear the critical independence of the university or insult it as if it were an elite project. And, as they don't value it, they can barely hide their repulsion at the idea of ​​universities having their own flight. Universities are only called to serve the immediate projects of governments, if not the more direct interests of parties (any parties!), and not a State project.

The mistake, however, is also made by those who at university, due to tiredness or conviction, cannot wait to obtain resources, even if to do so they have to hand over their fingers to keep the rings. The mistake also lies with administrations that, without structure, without personnel, and carrying the weight of many controls (which many once dismissed as mere bureaucracy), accept being reduced even further and even prefer to transfer responsibilities to foundations.

The error can, finally, be combined and systemic, not restricted to the territory of universities, but invading all public space. Of course, the issue is broader. Such overfunding practices are always harmful to public management and truly questionable. In the history of Brazil, perhaps it is a rule in city halls, states and at the federal level.

Error is error, pure and simple, everywhere. Now, however, a neoliberal left sees the winds blowing in this direction and forgets that such practices, in the specific case of the system of universities and federal institutes, can be even more dangerous and compromise their entire essence.

The university is not immaculate, but it is a place where this would never need to happen, and the procedure would not be redeemed if it was fueled by discourses that value any opportunity and tend to descend into mere opportunism, forgetting the lesson that you cannot rise in a horse just because it is saddled, without us even knowing where it will take us.

As the voracity is great, the available amount of resources to be raised can now cover all areas of knowledge and not just the hardest sciences. Some even celebrate the novelty of resources never seen before in certain corners of culture and extension (these more from the government than the market), which can thus include the humanities and the arts. They forget, however, that, as this procedure is discretionary, it can be temporary. With its indiscriminate adoption, the main thing is not done: protecting the university itself, which, rain or shine, will always request and provide science, culture and art.

Once identified and (as we have seen) even celebrated as a management proposal, the error will also belong to the university community as a whole, if it does not resist. In other words, it will be up to each institutional representative, each manager and, especially, our categories, if they accept such trends as an ineluctable destiny or even want, in pure immediacy, to benefit from them.

We cannot, therefore, close our eyes to the harsh reality that, given the current mechanisms, to which some adhere happily, the Future Program it was nothing more than a child's game. Let the big numbers be verified. Let us see how an abundant set of resources is no longer intended for what is collectively managed by the university itself, that is, by its administration, in accordance with the policies approved by its councils.

There is no serious discourse that can, then, intend to transform such precariousness into a virtue. Consider, therefore, the risk of large and hasty allocations of resources (sometimes easily approved by our congregations) even undermining or diverting the work of those who, after all, are exclusively dedicated to teaching, research and extension.

After all, practices that were previously parsimonious, and perhaps released as necessary and well-justified, simply proliferate, compromising even the meaning once attributed to strict and well-controlled extra-budgetary supplementation. As a result, the entire system suffers – as, in fact, happens to any organism when there is excessive food intake, whatever its nature or origin.

We cannot accept a disjunction of an almost apocalyptic nature. Either the community seriously resists the systematic reduction of university budgets, or we will soon see the end of the university as we know it and dream of it. If so, it will be a destruction to which we too will have contributed – some through our actions and most through repeated omissions.

If the pessimism of reason brings us closer to such gloomy observations, the call for resistance is not supported by emptiness. It is rooted in the history and life of each university. Therefore, the optimism of the will finds its strength in a collective body capable of doing science and being radically linked to the deepest interests of society – a body that, in short, thinks, debates, learns, teaches, researches, fights and dances. .

A body that knows how to act urgently or patiently, as it also knows how to put an end to unsustainable procedures, when it is then reasonable to suspend judgment and more than prudent to withdraw its hand.

*Joao Carlos Salles He is a professor at the Department of Philosophy at the Federal University of Bahia. Former rector of UFBA and former president of ANDIFES. Author, among other books, of Public university and democracy (boitempo). []


[I]  Such a procedure, generally harmful to the public sphere, can create a true syndrome within the university. In 2006, when analyzing the national system of training in philosophy, we diagnosed a systemic disease that we named “Virchow Syndrome”, due to which differences would deepen within a system that, nevertheless, simulated identity. In the case of training in philosophy, this disparity was fueled by not guaranteeing the political, institutional and academic conditions, for example, for the equivalence in fact and in law of dissertations and theses produced in any region of the country. We would thus have two measures; and our products, formally the same, would not be commensurable. This syndrome, however, has many other forms of expression, generating systemic distortions in the valuation and expectations attributed to different areas of knowledge, as well as to universities in very different regions of the country. In this case, generally speaking, a few universities would be “dedicated” to research and nurtured in that direction, while the others could be condemned mainly to reproducing knowledge produced elsewhere. (Cf. our “Virchow Syndrome”, in SALLES, JC Public University and Democracy. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2020.)

[ii] We addressed these aspects in two previous texts, which form a unit with this “The Balcony”, and should be read together: “The Hand of Oza” ( and “Fear and hope” (

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