Brazilian education has expanded very rapidly in recent years, due mostly to private institutions, that now account for 75% of the total enrollment. Most of these institutions are for profit, and provide low cost, evening courses in the “soft” fields (management, law, accounting, education). In the last several years, the federal government has tried to increase access to public institutions, through affirmative action for students coming from public schools and black Brazilians, by creating new federal institutions and by expanding the existing ones.
Recently, the government announced the creation of four new federal universities in some of the country’s poorer states (Bahia, Pará and Ceará), plus 47 new campuses at existing universities, as well as a large number of federal institutes of technical education in partnership with municipalities. In 2009, there were 3.7 million students in private institutions and 1.3 million in the public sector, of which 752 thousand were enrolled in federal institutions. The current project is to add 250 thousand students in federal universities towards a total enrollment of more than 1 million in this sector. In addition by creating new technical institutes, the government hopes to increase enrollment in technical education by an additional 600 thousand students, a dramatic expansion from only 54 thousand students in 2009.
How good are the existing institutions and what can one expect from the new ones being created? In the mid 1990s, Brazil introduced an assessment system for higher education based on tests administered to students in different disciplines in the year of their graduation. The average of the outcomes in each course was used as measure of its quality. At the same time, the government introduced a series of minimum requirements for private higher education institutions in order to obtain authorization to operate and have their degrees legally accredited. In 2004 these procedures were modified and brought together into a National System of Assessent of Higher Education (SINAES), supervised by a National Accreditation Council (CONAES) and implemented by the National Institute of Education Research (INEP), an agency of the Ministry of Education.
The 2009 higher education census, the latest available, listed about 63 thousand course programs, that have to be assessed, according to existing legislation, every three years. The assessment includes in situ visits by external reviewers as well as the student exams. All data are combined through complex statistical procedures leading to a ranking of the course programs in five categories, and these rankings, plus the information coming from a separate assessment of graduate education and research, are combined again to produce a five-point ranking of each institution. These rankings are published in newspapers and in the Ministry of Education site, and, supposedly, courses and institutions coming out in the lowest rank are subject to closer inspection and, in extreme cases, must close down.
This is a gigantic and very expensive system, and it has been criticized on several grounds. The courses and institutions are ranked, but there are no minimum standards, meaning that it is impossible to interpret the meaning of these ranks. The private sector complains that they lose points and get lower ranks than public institutions because they have few full-time professors with higher degrees, since they are (mostly) teaching-only institutions. There are no data on employment for students after graduation so students cannot ascertain the quality of the course programs from the perspective of the job market.
Finally, while private institutions can lose students and eventually be closed down if they come out poorly in these assessments, public universities are autonomous and immune from sanctions from the Ministry of Education. The state universities of São Paulo – including the University of São Paulo (USP), the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and the State University of São Paulo (UNESP), among the best universities in the country, have refused to participate in the national assessment system.
In principle, new institutions and course programs have to go through a process of authorization and accreditation to function, but public institutions created by law do not have to follow these procedures. Recent newspaper reports suggest that most of the federal universities created in recent years lack proper facilities and academic staff, and the federal technical institutes, created recently though an upgrade of existing secondary level technical schools, are going through a prolonged strike because of the lack of adequate working conditions.
The federal government has not announced how it will assure that the new institutions and campuses will meet proper standards of quality, and it is doubtful that the current assessment system will be able to assure these standards.