Brazilians Do It Better: Public Universities for the Public

I am sitting here at my desk watching the sun glisten off the south Atlantic Ocean. Large waves crash against the soft white sand of Ipanema Beach, providing a refreshing mist to the 265,000 slender or chiseled bronze bodies that fill up the birthplace of Bossa Nova. To the east, another 200,000 tan bodies bask at the world’s arguably most famous beach: Copacabana. Each morning, thousands of joggers, runners, in-line skaters, dog-walkers, families, stranded socialites, models, film stars, politicians and everyone in between flock to the clear blue water and warm sand to marvel at the City of Wonder: Rio de Janeiro.
Since I arrived in Brazil to study abroad, locals have asked me about the education system in the United States and specifically the UC system. As an education reform activist and a tuition abolitionist, talking about this subject is easy. However, it has not been easy to explain the concept of student debt and the reasons our public university system is not truly public.
When conversing with Brazilians about education, I explain that there are two types of universities, public and private, and use examples such as UC Irvine and Stanford University. They always respond by saying that I must appreciate going to a public university like UCI at no cost to the student, just like they do, instead of paying huge sums of money each year to attend a private university.
At this point I become embarrassed and iterate that even though UCs are public universities, they are not accessible to everyone, nor are they necessarily less expensive than a private university. I then have to try and explain how the university has become hostage to corporate outsiders who manipulate education as just another commodity on the market.
Brazilians do not understand (and rightfully so) why a place as rich and lavish as the U.S. does not support its students and its education system. Brazil, with an economy one-twelth the size of the U.S., manages to make its public universities public by allowing students to attend excellent universities at no cost to the student. Brazil has private universities for the elites as well, but the public has access to education, and the quality is excellent.
Specific to UCI, I describe how there is a really rich person, Donald Bren, who bought a part of the university and how it’s now named after him: The Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences. Again, I receive blank stares and looks of confusion. They want to know why a person can just buy education, simply because they are rich. I try to think of an answer that would be justifiable, but I cannot. What it comes down to is that our public education system is only public in name — it’s the students who have to take out loans to pay. In the U.S., education is like a commodity on the market (via deregulated capitalism), and students are commodities to be bought and sold (via student loans, fees, tuition, inflated book prices, etc.).
The American government needs to learn that education is a right for the entire population, not solely for the privileged few. What the education system in the U.S. does by default is discriminate on the basis of class and income. If one wants an education, one becomes a wage slave to large banks and corporations for decades. The counter-argument to this is that the quality of education will suffer if education is universalized. This argument is countered by the fact that education in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s was far cheaper than now and just as good.
There is no reason that a college education should be a commodity on the market where a student is identified not by the thoughts in their head, but by the ID number of their accrued interest. Think about the unknown people in the U.S. who will live and die without an education, people who may have had the ability to write better plays, conduct better science or create better music than any predecessor. They are not in college because they would have graduated with anywhere between $23,000 and $66,000 in debt — plus interest accrued over time. Surely they are out there, but we will not know them until they are given the opportunity to attend college without enormous debt. And we will not know what we are capable of until we emancipate ourselves from graduating as indentured servants to Citibank, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and their servant, the university.
Brazil has its share of social problems, but the one issue it has managed to do better with than the U.S. is education. Students at UCI must realize that there is another world possible for them, a reality where education is universal, excellent and accessible. The problem may seem enormous, but start small: stage sit-ins, march on Ring Mall or hold teach-ins during finals. Radical change starts by brainstorming in small groups. I’ve seen the other side of change, and I know that it’s possible.

Nathan Tumazi is a fourth-year international studies major. He can be reached at