Editor’s Note: Opening up to the community, Nova Iguaçu’s Multidisciplinary Institute (IM/UFFRJ) launched a letter (em português) in defense of higher education in early March. The Nova Iguaçu Letter reflects the culmination of a March 1, 2018 “Open University” conference, in defense of higher education in the under-served and stigmatized region, Baixada Fluminense, on the outward limits of the greater Rio Metropolitan Area. The conference brought together government officials, cultural stakeholders, community activists, public school teachers, students of all levels, and the university community to discuss the importance of the university for the City of Nova Iguaçu and the region as a whole. This letter also responds to a series of budget cuts, election-year austerity rhetoric, and higher education-related political intimidation targeting university professors across Brazil. The letter in its entirety is below:
The Nova Iguaçu Letter
For the Democratization of Access to the University,
Universities play a fundamental role in the promotion of economic development, in the strengthening of democracy, and in the support of social justice struggles, whether through research activities, innovation and outreach, professional development, or the exercise of critical thought.
Brazil faces great challenges in these first decades of the 21st Century. Four almost first decades, the hope in a better future, of the advance of social justice, was fed by democratic, economics, and more recently, but the positive impact of public policies geared toward wealth redistribution. In the last years, however, pessimism and frustration based in the persistence of continuing social inequality, corruption, and worries over environmental stability have predominated [the national conscience].
The country is passing through a quickening demographic transition. The latest wave of adolescents in our history are, at this moment, in high school. Our future as a society depends on the level and quality of education that we give them.
In the Baixada Fluminense, this potential and these contradictions show themselves in a particularly sharp way. The region, with a population of four million, makes up one of the greatest concentrations of youth in the country. This youth, creative, persistent, and resilient, drives the Baixada’s and Rio de Janeiro City’s economies. At the same time, it expresses itself in social and cultural movements of great vitality. Unfortunately, however, only a small part of these youth has access to the university academic life which would offer them the opportunity of individual and collective fulfillment and discoveries capable of raising their social and economic activity to new levels.
In just the municipalities of Mesquita, Nova Iguaçu, Duque de Caxias, São João de Meriti, Nilópolis, Belford Roxo, and Queimados there are more than 350,000 youth between 18 and 24 years old. In the range of 15 and 17 years old, there are 160,000. According to the goals of the National Education Plan (PNE), about 120,000 of these municipalities’ youth should have university access, with 30,000 of them in public universities. However, counting all of the public university campuses installed in the region in the last decades, we only arrive at 7000 university slots. The access to the other public institutions in the metropolitan area, on the other hand, becomes extremely difficult due to factors like the precarity of urban transportation and the necessity to balance work and study.
Without a shadow of a doubt, if we broke down these data by color and race, we would see an even graver picture. We know that, despite the positive impact of affirmative action policies, the prospects for growing the schooling rate and skilled entry into the labor market of black and brown skinned- youth remain restricted. We know as well that their a priori exclusion from the educational system transforms them into the prime victims of urban violence. The expansion of investments to assure a quality high school education and increased access to universities, can, therefore, constitute a fundamental contribution to confront the genocide that has descended on black youth in Brazil.
It’s fundamental therefore, that we assure continued investments geared toward meeting the immense pent-up demand for university access, especially in historically disadvantaged regions such as the Baixada Fluminense. Unfortunately we have recently started with unprecedented attacks against our own universities. This offensive includes actions such as budget cuts for public universities and financial aid programs for private university access, censorship and disrespect of the principle of university autonomy, senseless police interventions, and systematic attacks by the biggest media conglomerates against said institutions and their researchers.
At this hour, we have to once again align the constant perfecting and elevation of our academic practice to the struggle in defense of the Brazilian youth’s right to higher education as a condition for the fulfillment of all its potential which favors national development.
For this reason, we, elementary, high school, and university students, educators, public administrators from all parts of government, and social movement representatives, meet here today to join our efforts in defense of the right to a university education for Brazilian youth and for the public policies necessary to assure that right. We call on all sectors of Brazilian society to join us in this struggle.
March, 1, 2018, Multidisciplinary Institute, Rural Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Nova Iguaçu
Travis Knoll (Trans.)