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Several times in his blog last week (August 14), Simon Schwartzman has called readers' attention to recent higher education policies in Brazil aimed at bringing much greater racial and class equality to enrollments. Schwartzman zeroed in on new legislation that requires each faculty of each federal public university to take half its incoming class from public secondary schools (students who do their entire secondary time at public schools). To set the context, let us note that Brazil’s public secondary schools have trailed far behind private secondary schools academically, while public universities have generally led private ones. Let us note too that other countries, such as India, have also recently passed legislation with ambitious affirmative action goals.

What follows are one observer's skeptical reactions to the Brazilian legislation.  First, the Brazilian legislation is truly radical, which is neither good nor bad in and of itself, but more radical than sensible. Second, we can reasonably speculate on outcomes quite at odds with radical intention.

How radical? In considering this new legislation along with its very recent counterpart legislation on racial quotas to 50%, one gropes to identify any policies in world higher education history that have mandated such a large quota in favor of any group (whereas of course public policy has sometimes completely excluded certain groups).  Or that have mandated even small official admission favoritism for graduates of one secondary school sector over another. Moreover, Brazil’s mechanism of reform is massive imposition of national government power over university autonomy. In both scope and means Brazil's policies dwarf even the more controversial U.S. Affirmative Action policies in radicalism. Currently in the USA, the Supreme Court is  considering whether the University of Texas can consider race at all in its admissions decisions; those arguing that it can, emphasize that it can be only one factor among many. Or, to take a more proximate example from a country bordering Brazil, the ambitious access reform policies of recent Colombian administrations tackle access concerns in poor regions, minority groups, and especially lower SES groups with goals and incentives rather than quotas. Despite Hugo Chavez’s reckless expansion policies creating new public universities in neighboring Venezuela, no significant admissions rules have been imposed on the extant universities. I can think of no legislative policy in Latin American history as radical as the Brazilian in regard to group-based higher education admissions policy.

And the possible ironic anti-progressive outcomes? Schwartzman notes the first two possibilities, and I think the list can be expanded.

  • Increasing inequality between the advanced (and SES privileged) state universities of Sao Paulo, untouched by the legislation, and mainstream federal universities.
  • Well-off families who will send their children to public schools, hoping to achieve higher education access through the new quota, may well additionally invest in costly private tutoring for their own children, again giving them the advantage.
  • These new privileged public school entrants could bump aside students –from less-privileged backgrounds--who otherwise would have made the public secondary school quota for public higher education access.
  • Ill-prepared quota-admitted students may well drop-out at disproportional rates, risking costs to them (economic opportunity costs and psychological costs), and raising inefficient public expenditures. Alternatively, preoccupied by the drop-out specter, public universities may lower standards, itself a lamentable consequence and one that could spur further exit of well-prepared students to the private sector.
  • A shift of privileged students to the private sector could be particularly marked in competitive higher education fields—those fields which clearly have the highest SES students. They would switch to the sector where they can compete on merit. This too would have the paradoxical effect of boosting the private at the expense of the public sector in higher education.
  • Benefiting private universities could consequently raise their tuition, further diminishing their accessibility by students of modest financial means.
  • Further, some comparatively capable and high SES students may well give up on their preferred field, say medicine, where they can no longer gain entry, to a field in which they can gain entry. Which students would then be bumped aside in that second field? Without trying to predict all the knock-on effects in detail, one can at least worry about how healthy such shifts would be--for students and for society.

Other outcomes may not be anti-progressive, at least on the surface or immediately, but may nonetheless have perverse effects on society:

  • In secondary education, after the legislation presumably leads to some progressive shift in enrollment by middle classes to the public sector, can anyone reasonably predict the ultimate impact when the academically superior secondary education sector (private) is undermined?
  • Federal universities may seek ways to preserve their own standing through internal maneuvering that would undermine the intention of the legislation, as by reconfiguring the scope and shape of "facultades" through gerrymandering. Such maneuverings would hardly be driven by criteria of academic quality—and probably not by criteria of equity.

Anticipating unanticipated consequences is a tricky and risky undertaking. Probably not all those identified here will materialize; probably other unanticipated consequences will emerge. But the consequences identified here are anticipated both by logic and lessons of Latin American higher education history.

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