The Factory of Illusions

Higher education in Brazil is like a lottery in which many people place bets, but few can win.  

March 17, 2019

Higher education in Brazil is like a lottery in which many people place bets, but few can win.  About 7 million students take the National Exam for Secondary Education (ENEM) annually, competing for about 300 thousand places in free, prestigious federal universities. Many who do not get high scores, go to private schools, mostly low-cost evening or distance education programs in the social professions. By 2017, 2.5 million people entered higher education, contributing to a total enrolment of approximately 8 million with 75% concentrated in the private sector. There were 1.2 million graduates that year. Data from the National Institute of Educational Statistics (INEP) show that after 4 years, only 11% had graduated and 31% of students had dropped out with a higher dropout rate at private institutions (37%) and distance education courses (42%).  and in the fields of mathematics, computing (40%), social sciences (35%). 

The filter actually begins earlier.  Access to elementary education is universal but the quality, especially in the municipal and state networks, is very bad; the great majority of students reach high school barely knowing how to write and do simple arithmetic. In 2018, 3 million young people entered high school, but only 2.3 million reached the third year. The situation is worse than a lottery because the dice are loaded: children from richer and more educated families who study in private high schools or pass the selection  process to enter a few well-financed federal high schools are more likely to succeed on the entrance tests, pursue the most prestigious careers or go to an elite private institution. Sadly, the vast majority get lost along the way.

A higher education degree in Brazil today generally leads to an average income of 4,600 reais a month (about US 1,250.00), compared to 1,600 for those with high school, and 1,350 for those who only finished elementary education. But income depends very much on career choice and the university the person attended. About half of those with higher education degree work in mid-level professions with monthly income closer to 2400 reais. In order to have greater prospects, one must enter a highly competitive career such as medicine or engineering, pass the lawyer’s professional exam or be selected in a difficult competition for public office. These opportunities are enjoyed only by the few.

Aside from the immense personal cost invested by millions who expend years, funds, and hope for a career they will never achieve, there is the public cost from maintaining the current system. According to data from the Treasury Department, national expenditures for higher education rose from 32 to 75 billion reais between 2008 and 2017, mostly in the form of salaries for full-time teachers at federal universities, while educational loans, most of which are never repaid, were granted indiscriminately to the private sector reaching  more than 30 billion in 2016, then repeated in 2017. All this to finance a sector with a more than a 30% dropout rate and too often questionable quality and relevance.

The Ministry of Education has designed a complex and expensive assessment system for higher education, with about 40 different tests given to new graduates and that leads to the publication of scores that rank results. However, the tests  lack adequate standards and only ranks degree programs and institutions; it does not provide information about dropout rates,  the employability of the graduates, or the efficiency with which institutions use public resources. Another illusory pretense is the supposed "inseparability of teaching, research and extension" enshrined in Art. 207 of the Constitution. As a result of this principle, 87 percent of federal and 80 percent state higher education instructors enjoy full-time civil service, permanent contracts  greatly raising costs, while actual research– regular, international quality  and of social and economic impact - is concentrated in a few institutions, where  few patents are produced and most of the published articles end up in  journals that nobody reads. Because of this universal imperative, many educational institutions are assessed for what they do not want to do, do not know how to do and do not need to do,  increasing the inefficiency and costs of the whole system It will not be easy to remedy this situation. It is not possible or desirable to reverse the clock and limit access to higher education, but it is possible to improve assessments and offer a range of study and training alternatives for people who enter higher education with different profiles and needs. Adopting a Bologna-type framework with a first cycle of 3 years of broad access, followed by masters or more advanced courses and expanding vocational education to begin in high school and continuing in in post-secondary institutes and specialized centers would make more sense. Moving from the traditional four or five-year system to this new model has not been easy in Europe, but it was possible, because of a clear vision of what was wanted and needed along with adequate incentives for institutions to respond. The private sector, operating on a business model, has already begun adapting to the conditions of Brazil’s economic depression and the resulting fiscal restraint. Private institutions are compensating for the loss of funds from government subsidized credits by expanding distance education and the offer of short-term vocational courses. The public institutions also need  incentives to compete and use their resources well.  Public subsidies must be based on key performance indicators for differentiated and realistic goals, new forms of governance and legal and institutional flexibility to manage these incentives. Additionally, more Brazilian students should share the responsibility of funding their education, especially through educational credits tied to future income. The market has its advantages, but also presents problems in a complicated sector like higher education when competition is driven by low costs and the marketing of illusions. Brazilian higher education needs a vision for the future, clearer rules of operation, more flexibility and more transparency. The Ministry of Education, as a part of the system with its own network of universities, may not be the best agent to change and regulate this system.


Simon Schwartzman is a Brazilian political scientist, working on the issues of social policies, science, technology and education. His most recent book is  Higher Education in the BRICS Countries - Investigating the Pact between Higher Education and Society. Dordrecht: Springer, 2015 (with Romulo Pinheiro and Pundy  Pillay). 


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