Brazil Invests in Rural Higher Ed

Some question the focus and quality of plans to add more than 800,000 places.
September 9, 2011

The Brazilian government is hoping that a $1.3 billion expansion of its public university system will stimulate development in some of the country’s poorest regions. The investment will go toward the establishment of four new universities, spread across 47 campuses, and the creation of 250,000 new student places.

The project, which is expected to be complete by 2014, will also encompass the construction of 208 professional institutes of education, science and technology, which will enroll 600,000 students between them.

It will be concentrated primarily in those rural regions with the lowest levels of income and education. Facilities will be built in 83 of the 103 Brazilian cities that have populations of more than 80,000 and annual per capita investment in education of less than $600.

Vinicius Licks, an associate professor at Brazil’s Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul and currently a Mason Fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, said the number of new university places being created was not hugely significant in itself. More important was their location in the northern states of Bahia, Pará and Ceará. Adding provision there would improve access for young people who could not afford to move to large urban centers, he said.

Licks also welcomed the Brazilian government’s decision to integrate the new facilities into larger infrastructure projects and industrial clusters in an effort to drive social and economic development in the regions.

Another senior Brazilian academic had mixed feelings about the direction of the investment.

Marcelo Knobel, vice president of undergraduate programs at the State University of Campinas, a public university in the state of São Paulo, said the "real problem" was in public basic education. "In my opinion, the focus of changes should be [at the lower levels], otherwise we will not have enough qualified students to attend postsecondary education."

But he added that the expansion of public higher education was also essential given that about 77 percent of university places were currently at private, for-profit institutions.

"The entrance system in Brazil is rather exclusive, with a selective entrance examination in good public universities," he explained. "Poor students have a big problem passing the entrance exams for public places, [so] the students from private schools and high schools are the majority in public universities. This scenario obviously has to change."

He also expressed concern about how the government would ensure quality at the new institutions. Public universities in Brazil were typically better than private ones, he said, partly because they tended to be research universities that recruited stronger faculty and selected students on merit.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Education said that the new universities would conduct research and would design their own recruitment procedures.

Simon Schwartzman, a former senior professor at the University of São Paulo, said the latter point suggested that the expansion was being driven just to increase supply "without any specific analysis of needs and means." He added: "Previous experiences of new federal universities established by decree in recent years are not encouraging."

But Licks said it would be possible for the new universities to provide high-quality education without hiring research-active staff, and he hoped that they would be able to break with the academy’s traditional veneration of research published in top journals. "While these can be important metrics in universities serving advanced economies, it is unclear how they will translate into a competitive advantage to poor rural communities in earlier stages of economic and social development," he said.

Tristan McCowan, a senior lecturer in education and international development at the Institute of Education, University of London, said Brazil’s latest expansion of public education was part of a "genuine and significant" program of growth started by the previous president, which had increased the representation of black and low-income students over the past decade.

"But these governmental efforts will need to continue for many more years in order to ensure that higher education is no longer the preserve of the elites," he added.


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