Public and private sector investment aims to increase higher education participation in Brazil

A rapidly developing economy with seven million higher education students, Brazil offers a mix of both public and private universities. However, limited access to the country’s public institutions – and ongoing concerns about the quality of its private ones – means that demand for an education abroad remains high.

As the country strives to fuel innovation and growth in its economy, the issue of access to quality higher education is taking greater importance: a new national plan is expected to raise education expenditure to 10% of the country’s GDP, and invest 75% of Brazil’s Atlantic oil revenues into education. In today’s post, we look at how the marketplace is changing in Brazil, and what the government is doing to increase access to both domestic and international tertiary institutions.

Public universities: excellent but exclusive

Brazil’s public universities are widely perceived as the nation’s leaders in tertiary education. The state-funded University of Sao Paulo (USP), for example, is consistently ranked as the top university in Latin America, and the Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP) and the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) are also regarded as “academic powerhouses.”

Many public institutions, such as the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA) – also known as the “MIT of Brazil” – have close ties with government and industry, making them key players in the country’s research, development and innovation (RDI) activities. In fact, research is primarily carried out at universities, where 69% of PhDs are found, as compared to less than 10% of PhDs in research centres.

But what is most notable about Brazil’s public universities is their offer of free tuition to those who can pass their rigorous entrance exams. Spaces, however, are limited. In 2010, only a tenth of Brazil’s approximately 2,400 universities or colleges were public and, as noted in an article in the International Business Times:

“…access is often skewed towards wealthier Brazilian students, since these students tend to pursue private [secondary] school education which gives them an advantage on competitive entrance examinations.”

More broadly, access to and participation in tertiary education in Brazil remains an issue.

Less than 15% of the Brazilian population aged 18 to 24 is enrolled in universities, compared to more than 36% in the US; and only 11% of Brazilians have a post-secondary qualification, as compared to approximately 40% of Americans.

The consequences of missing out on higher education are significant: university graduates in Brazil earn 2.5 times as much as those without degrees. At a more macro level, there are the broader societal and economic impacts of limited higher education participation, in terms of the role education plays in fueling growth, the development of a knowledge economy, and innovation.

Private universities: a booming market

Although private, not-for-profit religious universities have existed in Brazil since the 1600s, the Brazilian government passed legislation in the mid-1990s that allowed for-profit companies to enter the education marketplace as part of a bid to expand domestic options for higher education. An article in Forbes magazine recently noted that:

“This created a market opportunity that entrepreneurs answered and grew into a multi-billion dollar industry for private higher education institutions focused, not on academic research, rather on providing a college education to the increasing number of degree-seeking students.”

Today, approximately 73% of Brazilian students in post-secondary are enrolled at private institutions, and the industry is booming. Total earnings of companies in the higher education sector increased by approximately 28% from R$28.4 billion in 2011 to R$36.23 billion in 2013.

The past year also saw two companies file for initial public offerings – which are expected to collectively raise R$1.6 billion (US$730 million) – and several takeovers and mergers. The April 2013 merger of Kroton Educacional and Anhanguera produced the world’s largest education conglomerate, worth about R$12 billion and serving nearly 1 million students.

Experts say the Fundo de Financiamento Estudantil (FIES), a government programme that enables low-income students to attend universities, is partly behind the boom in the for-profit education market. However, the demand for distance learning and regulatory changes affecting online education are also fuelling growth.

Enrolment in distance learning in private higher education rose from 6,390 to 815,000 students between 2002 and 2011.

Questions about quality

Although the quantity of Brazilian post-secondary education options has grown, questions remain about the quality of education delivered by private institutions. There are few top private universities and they remain expensive. Others have been described as “little more than diploma mills of dubious quality.” And it has been suggested that the flurry of takeovers and mergers in the private sector threatens the diversity of school’s values, missions, and methods.

But concerns are also being raised about Brazil’s public universities, which have recently slipped in international rankings. In October, USP fell in the Times Higher Education rankings from 158th to join the 226–250 group, and UNICAMP disappeared from the top 300 altogether.

As reported in Science Guide, Brazil’s global innovation ranking accordingly dropped to 64 in 2013, a respective decrease of six and 17 points as compared to 2012 and 2011, placing it lower than Bulgaria (41), Serbia (54), and Thailand (58). The article goes on to note that “mobility needs to be improved urgently” if countries like Brazil wish to boost their higher education sector.

Increased student mobility

In light of these challenges, the Brazilian government is adopting a more proactive internationalisation policy, the highlight of which is the Ciências sem Fronteiras (also known as the Brazil Scientific Mobility Undergraduate Program or Science Without Borders).

Launched in 2011, the programme provides funding to Brazilian students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), enabling them to study abroad for one year. To enhance Brazil’s competitiveness in these fields, the programme plans to send over 100,000 Brazilian students abroad between 2012 and 2015, and, in a new development this year, will also fund an additional six months of intensive English study abroad.

Top destination countries for participating students include France, the UK, Canada, and the US; the latter hosts the largest number of Brazilian undergraduates: more than 4,000 Ciências sem Fronteiras students are studying at US universities this fall, approximately twice as many as compared to last year. They helped to boost the overall numbers of Brazilian students in the US to 10,868 in 2012/13, a 20.4% increase over the previous year, according to new Open Doors data. And more are coming; Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has stated publicly that she wants half of the 100,000+ Ciências sem Fronteiras students to go to the US.

Brazil’s government support, along with its robust economy, means that more students have the resources to study abroad, and for longer periods of time. Not surprisingly, this is making Brazil an attractive destination for college recruiters, particularly from the US.

American universities are increasingly seeking partnerships with their Brazilian counterparts, and some, such as Ohio State University, are renewing long-standing collaborations. Meanwhile, universities such as Harvard and the University of Southern California are establishing offices and outposts in Brazil.

It is activity like this that is prompting some experienced agents to predict that more Brazilian students will study abroad in the future, despite the country’s growing domestic higher education sector.

Please see our earlier article and video interview on Brazilian students’ diversifying demand for study abroad.

Brazil as a host nation

Brazil is also sending signals that it wants to become a destination for international students.

The Brazilian government is forging new international linkages in education, notably agreeing to higher education cooperation with its peers in the BRICS group of nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

It is also part of a collaborative plan to grant scholarships to African students – primarily from Portuguese-speaking nations – to study in Brazil; and it is looking to encourage more incoming European students.

Nevertheless, some have suggested that the Brazilian system of foreign degree recognition needs to be improved – in addition to other areas – if the country wants to attract more international students.

More expansion ahead

Higher education experts such as David Felsen (Saint Leo University Professor and Executive Director of International Programs in the Office of International Affairs) are predicting that:

“Over the coming decade, Brazil will likely see continued strengthening in the quality and range of programme offerings at its public, private not-for-profit, and private for-profit institutions. This will involve further internationalisation of its universities and the gradual rolling out of a greater number of distance learning programmes, as universities become more globally focused and engaged.”

Moving forward, higher education in Brazil is expected to experience both growth and change, reflecting its status as a rising global economic power.

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