Brazil has a population of more than 211 million, but only 18% of adults between 25 and 64 years old have acquired an academic degree. Brazil has both private and public (federal, state and municipal) higher education institutions (HEIs) classified into four main categories: universities, colleges, university centers and federal institutes. Universities are the most complex institutions as they incorporate not only regular learning activities but also scientific research and extension programs. As these six facts about higher education in Brazil illustrate, Brazil’s higher education system faces some challenges, but it also demonstrates a great history of success and potential for improvement.
6 Facts About Higher Education in Brazil
- Government spending in public higher education in Brazil is low. The spending in public higher education institutions increased by 19% between 2010 and 2016, but spending per student was still below the OECD member countries’ average in 2016. In 2021, a substantial budget cut is threatening federal universities’ operations. The new budget is almost the same as it was 17 years ago when the number of students was half of the current number. The low budget affects the payment of utility expenses and forces the universities to cut financial aid to low-income students and research funding.
- Most bachelor’s students attend private higher education institutions. Although federal and state universities in Brazil are tuition-free, more than 75% of students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs attend private institutions. According to the 2019 census, there were more than 16.4 million admission spots that year, 94.9% at private and only 5.1% at public HEIs. Since 1999, programs, such as FIES (Student Financing Fund), finance tuition fees and allow students to start paying their loans after graduation, facilitating the access of students to private institutions. However, a study on student loan schemes in Brazil found out through simulations that there is an unsustainable repayment burden for many graduates. The study also suggested some possible solutions to the problem, such as “imposing a zero-interest rate whilst students are at higher education and whilst debtors are below the first tax threshold.”
- Social quotas facilitate impoverished people’s access to federal universities. In the last 15 years, 28 million people in Brazil transitioned out of poverty, but the system still favors the wealthy: the richest 10% of the population accounted for 61% of economic growth between 2001 and 2015. Business Insider suggests that federal universities’ admission systems favor this small portion of Brazilians who can afford private high schools where they have better opportunities of learning and, consequently, are more likely to succeed in the competitive public universities’ entrance exams. In 2012, President Dilma Rousseff signed a law that requires federal universities to reserve half of their admission spots for public high school graduates. Besides, half of the spots for public high school graduates go to people with a family income of less than or equal to one and a half of the minimum monthly wage per capita. ANDIFES’ surveys show that these people represented 70.2% of the undergraduates in 2018 compared to 44.3% in 1996 when the first survey first occurred.
- Racial quotas help to reduce the racial achievement and wealth gap. The law that emerged in 2012 to help public high school graduates and low-income students also guarantees that a percentage of federal universities’ admission spots go to those of African descent and indigenous people. This percentage varies according to their number in each state. Racial quota supporters see this law as an attempt to pay a historical debt with these groups and reduce inequality. Slavery was legal in Brazil until 1888 and left a legacy of profound racial inequality. About 125 years later, individuals of African descent earned “little over half of what white Brazilians did” and represented less than 30% of the country’s job market. In 2019, they represented more than half of higher education students in public institutions for the first time.
- Brazil’s public universities play a significant role in science production. Between 2013 and 2018, Brazil ranked 13th in the world in terms of its output of research papers with 280,912 papers added to the Web of Science. Fifteen public universities were responsible to produce more than 60% of this research output. Academic research benefits the world as a reliable source of information and insights that contribute to social improvements, such as the development of new technologies. The importance of university research is even more evident in the context of a pandemic. One example is the case of the Brazilian scientist Jaqueline Goes de Jesus who works at one of Universidade de São Paulo’s institutes and led the sequencing of the genome of a COVID-19 variant. Jaqueline’s accomplishment was all over the news and she even had a Barbie doll modeled after her as a recognition of her work.
- Brazil’s higher education institutions have international recognition. Seven of Brazil’s higher education institutions are among the top 10 Latin American universities in the 2021 Times Higher Education (THE) rankings. Universidade de São Paulo, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and PUC-Rio are examples of a state, a federal and a private university in the top 10, respectively. Universidade de São Paulo is the oldest university in Brazil, being “responsible for around 20% of all Brazilian academic output.” THE evaluates universities in the Latin American and Caribbean regions within five areas including teaching, research, research citations, international vision and industry investment.
Higher education institutions are like gardens in which good ideas flourish when they receive the right amount of nutrition. It is worth noticing that both private and public Brazilian HEIs excel among Latin American institutions. While budget cuts threaten the future of public universities in Brazil, they do not erase their history of research contributions to the global scientific community. Besides, affirmative actions play an important role in the democratization of access to Brazil’s public institutions and impact society as a whole. These six facts about higher education in Brazil give an idea of how much there is to learn about this country’s higher education system, which is both a matter of concern and a valuable source of national pride.
– Iasmine Oliveira