The state university in Campinas, UNICAMP, one of the leading research universities in Brazil, has announced a new experimental procedure for student admissions. Instead of the traditional entrance examination, 120 students will be selected from all local public schools based on their scores in the National Assessment of Secondary Education – ENEM – one or two per school. The other innovation is that the students will not be admitted directly to a professional career program, which is the norm in Brazil, but to an initial two-years college-level course of general education, after which they can be selected to professional careers according to their achievements. In 2010, the University had 51,000 applicants, and admitted 1 in 15 for its professional degree programs.
Experiments of this kind have been carried out by other institutions in the past, in an attempt to address the issues of equity, the procedures for student selection and the characteristics of undergraduate education in Brazil.
Higher education has expanded significantly in Brazil in recent years, but access to the most prestigious institutions and degree programs is still strongly correlated with socioeconomic status, which in turn is related to family’s education, ethnicity and place of residence.
The Lula government placed a high priority on increasing access, stimulating admissions quotas at free public universities based on race and benefitting students coming from public schools; increasing the budgets of public universities willing to increase admissions; and giving tax exemption to private institutions willing to admit a number of these students for free. In general, access should not be an issue. In 2009 Brazil graduated about 2.1 million students in secondary school and had 3.1 million higher education openings, but only admitted 1.7 million to university study. Most of the empty seats in private institutions are virtual. Competition for places in prestigious, free public institutions such as UNICAMP can be fierce, and, given the bad quality of public secondary education, there are few candidates that meet the academic requirements of the best institutions. It is possible to increase access to these institutions by forcing the admission of more (and less qualified) students. Some institutions may be lowering their standards, or not allowing the less qualified to graduate. Others, however, are creating special programs for non-competitive students, opening evening courses or creating new, vocational careers.
In Brazil, students are admitted directly to a professional career, like in continental Europe, and it takes about four years to get their degrees, more in careers such as Engineering and Medicine. The fact that students have to select their careers at age 18 or so has been a matter of concern for many years, and there have several attempts, none successful (the first with the university reform of 1968), to create a first tier, “basic cycle” of general education of two years. The Bologna process in Europe has renewed the interest for this approach, and some institutions, such as the federal universities of Bahia and ABC (the industrial belt of São Paulo) have introduced it again in recent years
It is not clear why the previous experiences with basic cycles or college-type of education failed, but possible explanations may be that they lacked academic ownership and were perceived by both students and university faculty as a waste of time. The other reason is that most students enter higher education when they are older, study at night, and want to get a professional certificate as soon as possible.
Each institution has its own admission procedure, and, in large cities, many public universities get together to carry on a unified entrance examination, usually in two stages, one more general, the second by field, and students are selected according to their grades and options. The Federal government is working to replace this by a nationally unified entrance examination, believing that this would increase student mobility and increase access. This is now an extensive, content-based, two day test, and most universities today give ENEM some weight in their admission procedure. For 2011, the Ministry of Education has announced that 83,000 places out of 393,000 openings at 83 public institutions would be filled through this unified system. The Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, has decided to admit 20% of its students through quota programs and another 40% according to their scores on the ENEM. ENEM is gaining popularity as an admissions tool. In 2010 4.6 million students enrolled for the test, and one million applied for the 82,000 places at public institutions for the 2011 academic year.
ENEM has been plagued with implementation problems, and has been criticized for obstructing differentiation in secondary education by imposing an extensive and uniform curriculum on all students. It is not clear yet whether what effect moving toward a national exam will have on the issues of access and fairness in access to higher education as a whole.
If successful, the UNICAMP experiment may set a standard for other universities to follow. A crucial test would be whether the students admitted through this new procedure will be able to enter and complete successfully the most prestigious professional degree programs in the university.