Brazil is the smallest and probably the least-known of the BRICs. It doesn’t have a big economy or a big diaspora like China or India, and it isn’t a former superpower like Russia. But it is still the second-largest country in the Americas, and with more Brazilian students heading abroad, it’s a country well-worth knowing more about. So here goes:
First, it’s a pretty young system. The first functioning university – Universidade de Sao Paolo (USP) – was founded in 1934 (prior to that, individual faculties of law and medicine existed, but did not comprise a full university). That’s maybe not a huge surprise given that former colonial master Portugal only got it’s second university (Coimbra) in 1911. And until 1968, there really wasn’t much by the way of a full-time teaching corps: most profs had jobs elsewhere, and taught part-time for the prestige.
Second, it’s an odd two-tier public university system. There is a system of federal universities, which are quite prestigious (locally at least); but each state has its own system. Most of the latter aren’t considered to be all that good, except in Sao Paolo where the state pours in a ton of money – USP is generally considered the country’s best. And then there are the federal and state government-run systems of “non-university higher education institutions”, which are usually stand-alone faculties rather than a separate level of education, like community colleges or fachhochschule. As in most of Latin America, the teaching mission tends to be given greater priority than it is in North America, with research restricted to a fairly small number of faculty. Also, as in most of the rest of the continent, public higher education is free.
But of course, one of the reasons Brazilian public higher education can be free is that only a little over 20% of Brazilian students are fortunate enough (read: sufficiently academically gifted) to attend. The other 80% of students go to private institutions. Some of these are old, prestigious, mainly Catholic institutions; but since the late 1990s, most of the enrolment growth has been in for-profit institutions. Quite simply, as Brazil massified its higher education system (it currently enrols close to 7 million students), the decision was taken to outsource that task to the private sector, much as was done in Chile and South Korea. On the face of it, this was in keeping with other neo-liberal reforms of the 1990s, but it was a policy that the left adopted for itself once Lula da Silva became President in 2003.
In this situation, equity is always a question: isn’t it the case that the poor are paying for higher education while the rich get to go for free. Well, it is certainly inequitable. But the fact is that the student population in both sectors looks pretty similar: in fact, the very poorest seem slightly more likely to attend public than private higher education (though the numbers are still fairly small). And in the private sector, the arrival of private providers seem to be driving costs down: average tuition in the private sector fell substantially over the last decade, as these institutions searched for new students in less wealthy parts of the country – for the most part, this was the result of the Lula-era policy of offering substantial tax benefits to private higher education providers who hit certain participation targets for disadvantaged students.
One Brazilian higher ed innovation that deserves wider attention is something called the Provão (literally, “Big Test”). In the mid 1990s, when university quality was an issue, the national ministry introduced a test in certain fields of study (3 at first, growing later to 26) to measure students’ competency at graduation. In design, it was much like the Collegiate Learning Assessment in that captured “value-added” by simultaneously testing first and final-year students. Unlike CLA exams, though, results of these tests were released, which allowed comparisons to be drawn between the quality of graduates from each institution; these also played a role in accreditation and re-accreditation decisions. You can imagine how much universities loved this.
Interestingly, it was the replacement of the Provão, rather than support for private institutions, which became the election issue of 2002. By 2005, Lula had replaced the Provão with something called ENADE. In conception, this was somewhat similar to Provao, but with some key differences – early musings about ditching the test entirely were not greeted favourably by the public. It is now a lower-stakes test (samples of students are tested, rather than all students), it focusses more on value-added (it now has a first-year and fourth-year structure similar to the American Collegiate Learning Assessment), and it is less obviously a regulatory control mechanism. It also now contains a general learning component, instead of being exclusively about domain-level learning. In other words, it’s awfully close to what AHELO was trying to achieve.
Funny how it can be done there, but not here, isn’t it?