A public, popular and municipal university for São Paulo

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By EVERALDO DE OLIVEIRA ANDRADE*

The city of São Paulo needs a new public university that learns and dialogues on the periphery, a true “City School” that is close to the working class

The pandemic and the attacks by the federal, state and municipal governments against the population, withdrawing their economic and social rights, have highlighted and widened the immense gap of inequalities in the city of São Paulo and the growing marginalization of the peripheries. Access to quality and free education at all levels has become an increasingly distant dream. The City Hall of a city the size of São Paulo cannot remain indifferent to this situation. Thousands of young people and workers from the neighborhoods farthest from the city center want to study, enter a college or university, qualify and have better jobs. And it is in this context that public universities and science and culture itself are being attacked and devalued by obscurantist and conservative sectors. This is when educational companies advance, university models without commitments to society and needy communities, seeking to impose non-attendance and disqualified teaching strategies, dismissing or making teaching activities more precarious in order only to increase their profitability margins. Professors, scientists, academics and intellectuals committed to the university socially referenced in the rights of the majority of the population, in favor of equality and the expansion of social rights, have felt increasingly harassed by the anti-scientific discourses that are produced by the extreme right, by the market and its productivist models, due to the dynamics of rapid professionalization and seen as disposable that is offered to students. In contrast, São Paulo has some of the most important public universities in the country (USP, UNESP, UNICAMP, UNIFESP, UFABC) some with their campuses in the capital and involved with the production of high level science, culture, extension services and social support but far below the needs of the city.

The vast majority of higher education students in the city of São Paulo attend private institutions that, unfortunately, offer very little contribution – despite the effort and dedication of their professors – to the main problems of the municipality. Private educational companies are little concerned with the immense dilemmas and difficulties of our population, today sunk in the despair of unemployment, lack of qualification opportunities and low wages; but they benefit by expanding in the face of the lack of vacancies in public universities and the immense demand for higher education among the population that wants to study and qualify professionally. These shortages are even greater on the outskirts of the city, far from the main university centers. Today, it is necessary to reaffirm the importance and right of public, free, quality higher education, close to the working population, with face-to-face classes that allow for a lively dialogue between the university and the community in which it operates. There is still no public university institution with this profile and focus of action. The city of São Paulo could and should have, but does not yet have, a municipal institution of higher education and there are dozens of examples across the country of public municipal universities that play an important role in their cities as scientific, cultural, technological and professional centers.

The periphery of São Paulo is alive and active, it produces culture, knowledge, science, it is an expression of the true popular and working, social and cultural kaleidoscope of the city, but it has been ignored and discriminated against economically and socially, leaving ample spaces for exploitation to drug trafficking and the market religious. A new public and free, municipal and popular university can and would need to be born committed to overcoming the immense social and economic inequalities that mark our city, offering new opportunities, a new space for dialogue and a new project and perspective of higher education. That it is born with autonomy to dialogue and propose solutions, producing scientific knowledge from within the reality of youth and the São Paulo working class that lives on the outskirts. We will have the possibility of building new links between the different knowledge of these peripheries, their popular local and self-organized entities with the highly complex academic science developed today almost only in the large public universities, and which are still far short of supplying the immense and legitimate public demand. The distances between university campuses and peripheries are not just geographical, but also cultural, political and, above all, social.

The structure of the São Paulo City Hall has already taken important steps and has structures for the first initiatives to be taken. A new university for teaching, research and extension can start now by taking advantage of what exists in the municipal administrative apparatus, its physical structures, its qualified professionals and its social roots in the periphery. The UNICEU network, for example, formed during the Fernando Haddad government, expresses the great existing possibilities. It originally envisaged blended courses to train municipal public school teachers and later courses were opened for local communities. Initially offered in partnership with Univesp, they are now progressively reducing their scope. The current management intends to privatize and restrict rather than expand these spaces. It would be necessary to reverse this direction and expand public services in general. The Uniceu network is an experience to be maintained and expanded, transforming the network, step by step, into a true municipal public university. Today there are hundreds of current teachers from the municipal network with training (masters and doctors) who could join the project. There is a huge demand for training and professional qualification among municipal teachers, even in the broad municipal function that a municipal university could incorporate as part of its objectives. Municipal teachers have been advocating for years that the DREs (regional education stations) become poles of teacher training, a municipal university would fulfill this role.

We can think of numerous alternative ways to achieve this goal. A further and important step could be the articulation of a consortium of public institutions of higher education to act and contribute to the formation of the new university, supporting projects and initiatives to boost new centers of research, technological advances, cultural creation and professional qualification from the spaces of the CEUs initially; university extension activities connected to spaces and institutions in the municipality, dialoguing with popular experiences and initiatives to make this new university a space for true “citizenship schools”; to help boost extension and specialization courses together with the new municipal university. The dozens of existing municipal higher education institutions throughout the country provide examples that can be reproduced or inspiring to develop the popular university in São Paulo.

Financing these initiatives towards a municipal university is a political matter, but it cannot compete or dispute funds for basic education and its immense needs, but seek alternative ways, strategies and resources to make it viable and guarantee free and quality higher education. It is necessary to break with the immense straitjacket of income inequality, rights, access to knowledge, culture and science that the financial elite and the Brazilian bourgeoisie as a whole imposed on the working people. In the liberal and market logic that today guides all state policies and most governments, there will always be a lack of resources when it comes to expanding rights and free public services for the working class, but there will always be a willingness to negotiate and grant tax exemptions, pay uncontested billionaire debts to speculators and willingly help businessmen, bankers and the usual privileged. A specific public fund fed by these privileged sectors could be set up to help finance or make the municipal university viable, which will also require popular mobilization and pressure. There are many recent examples of popular and youth movements that obtained resources by mobilizing and putting pressure on public authorities, such as the “movement for a public university in Baixada Santista”, the movement for a public university in the East zone, which achieved important, albeit partial, achievements and show that it is possible to follow this path.

The city of São Paulo needs a new public university that learns and dialogues on the periphery, a true “City School” that is close to the working class and offers possibilities of professional, cultural and scientific training for thousands of young people today excluded from any access to higher education, which opens up new job opportunities, helps to boost the economy, which deepens the qualification of current teachers and the functionalism of the municipal network; an open, free, autonomous and democratic university that at the same time can guarantee access to the cultural, scientific and technological heritage of humanity for all, connected with primary and secondary education, that is capable of listening, learning and elaborating from the problems , demands and criticisms born from the popular and working periphery, from the youth today excluded from the possibilities for their full development. The forthcoming municipal elections will probably allow this debate to gain the dimension it deserves.

*Everaldo de Oliveira Andrade Professor at the Department of History at FFLCH-USP

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