Cotas para estudantes no Brasil: o Debate|Student Quotas in Brazil: The Policy Debate

Publiquei no International Higher Education, revista editada pelo Center for International Higher Education do Boston College, o texto abaixo, disponível também no site do CIHE.

The following article was published in  International Higher Education, edited by the  Center for International Higher Education do Boston College. The text is also availabe at CIHE’s site.

Student Quotas in Brazil: The Policy Debate

Simon Schwartzman

The Brazilian Congress is discussing a bill requiring federal higher education institutions to introduce a 50 percent quota for poor, nonwhite applicants who are public-school graduates. The bill addresses that these students lack the opportunity to attend the best secondary schools, which are mostly private, and are in disadvantage regarding the entrance examinations of the best public universities in the country. This bill does not represent the first project for social inclusion in higher education in Brazil. From some years now, private higher education institutions can obtain a tax relief if they admit a certain number of students who pay no tuition or pay half the tuition rate. Many public universities have also created their own affirmative programs.

In 2009, there are about 5.8 million students in higher education in Brazil, 75 percent in private institutions. These student numbers form about 13 percent of the 18–24 age group—the net enrollment rate—(data provided by the National Household Survey of 2007). One of the main reasons for the low net enrollment is that 40 percent of the people in that age bracket have not completed secondary education. The quality of secondary schools, particularly in the public sector, is very low, and many applicants cannot pass the entrance examinations for the programs of their choice. About half the students in higher education are older and study in the evening.

Public higher education is free, and most of the best and more prestigious programs and institutions are public. The cost per student in federal higher education institutions equals around US$10,000 a year, by far the highest in Latin America. Most graduate education and research take place in a number of (but not only) public universities. Competition to enter the prestigious careers of medicine, dentistry, engineering, and law in these institutions can be fierce, with dozens of applicants per place, selected through written examinations. Expensive private secondary schools and cramming preuniversity courses prepare the students who can pay for these exams. Thus, only students from richer, better-educated families can likely get the necessary training and eventually enter these careers. For students from other social backgrounds, the alternative options are the less-competitive careers in public universities—teaching, social work, nursing, and others—or the private sector, which provides evening, nondemanding programs in administration, pedagogy, and other “soft” fields with affordable tuition fees.

Arguments for Quotas
This situation, however, is under change, with strong pressures and incentives from governments and social movements for public universities to expand and admit more students and a new trend for the creation of elite private institutions, particularly in fields such as economics, business administration, and law. Today, 35 percent of the students in public institutions have family incomes under 1.5 minimum wages (about US$300), compared with 25 percent in private institutions and 47 percent for the population as a whole. The national minimum wage (about US$200 per month) is established each year by the federal government and is mandatory for all labor contracts. Most secondary school students in Brazil (83%) attend public institutions. In higher education, however, 60 percent of the students come from private schools. These figures show that many students who would benefit from this bill are already in higher education, and many more are likely to be admitted as the system expands.

The most controversial aspect of the bill, however, is the racial component, because it is entangled with a prolonged and sometimes bitter debate about racial identity and prejudice in Brazil. The Brazilian statistical office has traditionally asked persons to classify themselves in terms of their color (white, black, yellow, and pardo—meaning to have dark skin, between white and black), with the “yellow” category being now divided into indigenous and Oriental. In the 2007 household survey, 49.4 percent considered themselves white, 42.3 percent pardos, 7.4 percent black, 0.5 percent yellow, and 0.3 percent of indigenous origin.

Given the high historical levels of miscegenation in the country, the boundaries between these categories are very fuzzy, and many whites would probably be classified as black in countries with more well-defined ethnic boundaries, such as the United States or South Africa. In spite of that, statistical analyses show consistently that pardos and blacks are economically more impaired than whites, and that blacks are worse off than pardos in terms of educational attainment. Social and racial prejudice in Brazil, however, is combined with high levels of intermarriage and conviviality between persons of various racial appearances. Education and the quality of jobs, and not race differences, explain the main social and economic differences in the country.

Supporters of race-based affirmative action in Brazil tend to lump the pardo and black categories in one group, which would include about half of the Brazilian population. As access to education has increased, the proportion of whites and nonwhites in basic and secondary education in Brazil is now similar to that in the population as a whole. In higher education, the proportion of nonwhites has grown from 22 percent in 2001 to 32 percent in 2007. In public institutions, the proportion is 38 percent and 30 percent in the private sector.

The various quota bills under discussion require that 50 percent of places in programs at public higher education institutions should be filled in by underprivileged students. None of the suggested policies, however, take into account most of these students’ inadequate academic requirements to complete the more demanding programs. If this legislation were enacted, it is likely that a large number of students would drop out, or public institutions may lower their standards, increasing the exodus of the richer and better-educated students to the private sector.

The quota bill would bring to public institutions a few hundred thousand students from a lower social background, displacing others who may likely also stand at the bottom of the entrance examination rankings. Social inequities within the higher education system would not change much, but high-quality programs and institutions can be affected by the forced admission of students unable to keep up with their standards.

Ongoing Problems
To make higher education in Brazil more equitable requires improving the quality and reach of secondary education, which would depend, in turn, on improving the equally precarious system of basic education. In the meantime, the controversies surrounding the quota bill have led to the neglect of the main issues concerning higher education in Brazil. Creating an effective differentiated system would provide alternatives for students with dissimilar backgrounds and needs. The system must protect high-quality programs from pressures to lower standards. Funding will be required for deserving students who need financial support, while tuition should be charged from those who can pay at public universities. A range of policies are necessary for public and private institutions to improve their quality and to use more effectively the public resources they receive.

Author: Simon

Simon Schwartzman é sociólogo, falso mineiro e brasileiro. Vive no Rio de Janeiro

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