Published on 2012/03/09

Exploring The Brazilian Higher Education System

There are two questions that I will answer with this post.

  1. How did the education system to get to a point where students are being falsely advanced
  2. What needs to be done to change this?

Exploring The Brazilian Higher Education System
The role of the educator has gone from a knowledge disseminator to lecturer of annoying classes in Brazil, and in order for the country’s higher education system to begin to improve, significant and sweeping changes are needed. Photo by Will Clayton.

Firstly, before I can write anything about that matter I need to contextualize my reality, which is the Brazilian higher education system! I am not really updated with other realities such as the North American reality or European, but in some points the Brazilian case may give some light to a deeper discussion and provide a better understanding of the main trends worldwide.

The first point has to do with elementary and secondary education. Most Brazilian students come from public schools that have been under-invested throughout the years. Education in that context is viewed as a social means to “take children off the streets” instead of providing proper education to create better citizens and professionals. Many schools programs have also been passing the students as a means of providing better statistics for UNESCO. As Brazil has been increasing of both political and economical importance on the world scene, some long term problems that would take decades to solve are being disguised using this system.

But how does that impact higher education?

The Brazilian higher education system is composed of free public and paid private colleges and universities. Technical courses is a trend available but not widely accepted by both the market (companies) and public opinions (the consumers of higher education). More than 95% of higher education students study in private institutions. Why is this? Because as the last decade’s public administrations did not invest well in education as a whole, they opened the possibility of a market to private institutions to cope with the high demand. As such, the Brazilian higher education system became self-sponsored (or family-sponsored) because loans were rare up to the beginning of the 21st century.

A bachelor’s diploma is not only a means of improving career and economical life but also a possibility to enhance in social status, as undergrad education was considered an elite’s advantage up to the 1980s. On the other hand, educational laws and rules are tough for educational organizations. A student does not pay in advance, he can stop paying his installments in a current year and the school cannot stop giving him the education for that year. After that, he has the legal right to ask for his report and transfer the credits to other institution, and so on. That creates a vicious circle, treating the student as customer and creating all the possible means to maintain him in your client portfolio. In that scenario, passing the student is a rather plausible (although unethical and, I should dare, illegal) strategy.

That is the answer for the first question. The higher education system has become “market-oriented”, treating education as a commodity and dealing diplomas instead of education. What needs to be done to change this? Well, to answer the second question, I really have my doubts. A opinion of mine is nationalizing the certificate system, bringing educational attainment under the responsibility of public officials. Government could be the issuer of diplomas and the tester of minimum skills. Higher education institutions would become centers of training and development.

What’s the impact? Institutions that do not provide proper education will have failing students. Students will avoid and even sue these institutions. This idea is a embryo, of course, as many courses has more serious problems (such as Med School, Law School, Psychiatrists etc. that demand a internship training).

This second answer is more a loose idea than an integrated solution to the entire problem. My real opinion is that elementary and secondary education should be re-structured to provide better prepared students. In Brazil, more than 80% of the entire education budget goes for the public universities (which, on the other side just provide less than 4% of the Brazilian students). As a result, most public universities rank higher than all the private institutions in evaluating tests. As an example, the bottom 20% of law courses at public universities scored in average the same as the top 20% from private institutions, using Enade (a Brazilian test to finishing students from all universities). Enade is a way to measure the quality of students finishing undergrad studies and, although it can be criticized as imperfect, is a measure instead.

My conclusion of this subject is rather unhopeful. If basic education is not taken seriously and even proper technical education valued as worthwhile, more unprepared undergrads will flood the market (which is good for the companies by one side as wages decrease with higher supply of workers). The educational market should value the teacher as a knowledge disseminator instead of a lecturer of annoying classes and some control should be put in the public administration hands to enforce that social responsibility. Utopia it may be but the prognostics are not much better!

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Readers Comments

WA Anderson 2012/03/09 at 11:58 am

Bringing higher education curricula under the government umbrella is a knee-jerk reaction we can’t allow.

Governments and politicians have pointed and specific desires that they will want emphasized (or under-emphasized) in the academy.

Imagine if Rick Santorum became President and we allowed him full control over what could and couldn’t be considered accredited higher education!

    Nikiforos J. Philyppis Jr. 2012/03/13 at 1:06 pm

    Mr(s?) Anderson. Thank you for your comment,

    I aggree with you on that subject. I am pinpointing that some evaluation of undergrad and grad students could help improve the quality of some institutions.

    Having a diploma that does not guarantee quaality of learning is damage to the student only. One pretends tyo teach something worthy and other pretends to learn.

    But the market does not pretend. You know when someone comes from a “good” or a “bad” institution. Higher Ed institutions should define its curricula.

    But to execute a professional position may be some testing would change it. In Brazil, lawyers and accountants must do a professional proficiency test. Defined by their sindicates.

    Doctors and psychologists must have a internship period. Why not other professions? Once again, I am opining on Brazilian cultural and educational reality. Cannot give further opinions on US Education and Institution.


    Nikiforos Philyppis

      WA Anderson 2012/03/15 at 10:42 am

      Hi Nikiforos,

      It is indeed mister!

      It’s true, we’ve definitely set ourselves a definition of “good” and “bad” institution, and “good” and “bad” degrees.

      I know I used the Santorum example but the point remains – politicians have independent and sometimes very divisive views and outlooks. I’d be worried about a political body having control over the curricula of higher education institutions and the learning of our future leaders.

        Nikiforos Joannis Philyppis Junior 2012/03/21 at 2:11 pm

        Prof. Anderson,

        I agree with your worries. Political agenda is bad influence in any academic circumstance.

        Thanks for your reply and sorry for the miscorrection on gender!

        Nice talking to you.


Miren Ivankovic 2012/03/14 at 8:47 am

Nikiforos, interesting article. I have written a similar article with US higher education in mind. I am not sure any government presence will yield decent outcomes since the dept of education in US has failed pretty much on all accounts with their initiatives. But, you are right, if public schools start acting like this is all a private market, we might see some failures. In Croatia, professors were paid under the table for grades! Free market? We give our exiting students ETS sponsored test MFAT and that gives us some sense of their learning accomplishments, but again, it compares the scores to other US college graduates. I agree that some other measures like passing CPA exam, or MCAT test or LSAT might prove useful, even though we will see a selection bias there.By passing unprepared graduates, their future employees will have to spend more money on more training and perhaps more turn-over.

Nikiforos Joannis Philyppis Junior 2012/03/21 at 2:36 pm

Prof. Ivankovic,

Yours were good remarks. Not only the market has to cope with lack of skills but also these schools are deceiving both the society (in a major level) and student/professional (in a minor level).

Diplomas became a commodity and, sometimes, are even faked. We had a recent news in a TV reporter where they filmed a man that sells fake diplomas of a respected private institution of Brazil.

When the reporter showed it to the vice-dean, he showed how crude and distant from the real document the fake one was. People buy that in order to deceive employers.

If we had any kind of working license (through a test maybe) these falsifications would be worth nothing.

Thanks for your participation.


Will Houghteling 2014/06/12 at 2:12 pm

This is an interesting piece – thank you!

Do you have any idea what % of Brazilian student live at home while studying during university? I hear it’s a large number, but any hard data? Thank yoU!

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