The Wind is Rising! – Current State of Educational Policy in Brazil


Lioudmila Batourina, International Partnership Consultant at ABMES


"The wind is rising! . . . We must try to live!" – this is how we can characterize the Brazilian educational policy. As long as the disputes among political parties, Ministry, Universities and Students do not abate in the country, education itself will be the first to suffer.

Brazil is a huge country with different cultures, traditions and problems, so different that no one questions the fact that there are several Brazils in Brazil. The difference is compounded by the crises and variety of ideas on how to overcome them, similar to any country in a transition period. In such a wide and diverse context, the development of a universal public policy is not an easy task. Any decision affects millions of people. For example, only in the field of higher education in the country there are more than 8.2 million students, this is almost the entire population of a country like Israel.

A bit of history

To understand the status of today Higher Education in Brazil it is important to know its short history. "In the early part of the twentieth century, there was not a single Brazilian university, while in Spanish America there were already 27. Until 1822, when Brazil had still been a colony of Portugal, rich families sent their children to study in the Portuguese universities of Coimbra or Évora. The first Brazilian university was created in a hurry, to be able to grant the title of “doctor honoris causa” to King Albert I of Belgium, on the occasion of the celebrations of the centenary of Independence.

As an emerging nation, Brazil was taking its first steps.

Industrialization began to develop from 1930’s and expanded to 1970’s. The Higher Education followed the same path. The first real university USP (University of São Paulo) was created only in 1935. Catholic universities came from the 1940's onward, and other public universities started appearing from the 1950’s. There were very few private institutions that were encouraged to be founded in 1965, thanks also to the first Law of Guidelines and Bases of Education in 1961.

In the 1970’s, with the surplus crisis, approved but not enrolled students for the Federal Universities due to the lack of vacancies, highlighted the necessity to solve the problems in a different way. It was the reason for the expansion of private higher education as a way to develop the country and supply it with trained professionals. University education was still the option for the top class and, thanks to the private schools, the middle class got also an opportunity to access education."[1]

Currently, there are 2,150 private higher education institutions in Brazil, representing 88% of the total. There are 25,000 courses being offered with 6.24 million enrolled students representing 80% of all students in the country.  In addition, private higher education sector is a real business partner:  its economic participation is 70 billion reais (17 billion USD $) in 2017, which is equivalent to 1% of Brazilian Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

In recent decades, the educational landscape of Brazil has undergone major changes. In addition to the growth of new courses and the increase in the number of educational institutions, mostly private ones, there has also been an increase in distance learning.

The latest data from the federal IBGE statistics shows that people with complete higher education have an average income about 3 times higher than people with secondary education. Despite this, only 17% of young people between the ages of 25 and 34 graduate from higher education institutions.

Since the approval of the National Ten-Year Education Plan (PNE) in 2014, it has been the guiding principle of the public policy to promote higher education in Brazil. The focus of the PNE was on increasing the number of students of the age 18-24 and increasing the number of vacancies in public universities. However, the experts from the company Educa Insights say that if the economic and political situa­tion in Brazil does not improve the plans will come true in 2037 instead of committed 2024. PNE was signed in the best economic period of Brazil, when the country was famous for its large budget allocated for the higher education. Recent political changes and economic crises have led to serious cuts in funding, and also have changed the vector of views on education, as well as on public property in general. After the inauguration of the new president in January 2019, the new Minister of Education emphasized that the focus would be on school education, since many activities have already been taken in higher education, both in the public and private sectors. The announced policy of reducing social prog­rams and social benefits made people worry about education even before the changes were actually adopted.

ProUni and Fies – democratization strategies of education

Expanding access to higher education continues to be a major problem in Brazil. Promoting internalization in universities, increasing the number of vacancies and creating mechanisms to include the marginalized population - these are some steps that need to be developed to achieve the PNE goal. On this long road, public policy plays a key role, although the financial problem is still a serious obstacle for young Brazilians to receive higher education.

One of the first negative facts, mentioned by the recent Forum of all nation-wide private universities, was that the government policies are going in the opposite direction of an inclusive process. That's because, while in Brazil the main graduation youth exclusion factor is income, the government has acted to weaken the government student loans.

In recent decades, the educational landscape of Brazil has undergone major changes. In addition to the growth of new courses and the increase in the number of educational institutions, mostly private ones, there has also been an increase in distance learning.

A recent study by the Brazilian Association of Private Universities (ABMES-Associaҫão Brasileira de Mantedoras de Ensino Superior) shows that 40% of Brazilians cannot afford tuition unless they have a scholarship or student loan; 36% of drop-outs are due to financial reasons; and the high cost of education is the main difficulty the students face (60%). Given that almost 88% of the country's higher education institutions are private, the need to find solutions is even more obvious.

There are two main federal programs, the main strategies for achieving PNE goals, that provide financial support to students: “University for All” (ProUni), that gives scholarships for students from low-income families, and “Fies” that gives out low-interest loans. In 2018, due to the economic crisis, both Programs were drastically reduced, while FIES is close to dying by now. This action has been heavily criticized by educational institutions and the general public.

The political situation in the country aggravated the situation even further. FIES promised to allocate funds for the beginning of the school year in February. However, the presidential election and political negotiations between various parties in the government, numerous dismis­sals in the Ministry of Education caused many administrative problems. As a result, the documents were not prepared on time, FIES money was not transferred to universities, and three months after the start of the school year, FIES students were not yet officially enrolled. The active position of the association ABMES mobilized the national press of the whole country, interested in defining the position of the government in the field of higher education.

The economic crisis has changed the market, the demand got lower and the strategies to capture students became more aggressive. To mitigate the situa­tion, some private institutions have created their own funding through partnerships with financial institutions. However, it is very difficult to arrange private financing on more favorable terms than public financing. The reasons for this go beyond the higher interest rates used by private institutions. For example, the requirements of banks for a payment guarantee, as a rule, are much stricter than those accepted by the government, which greatly complicates access to funding for those students who most need it.

Necessary investment

In 2017, nearly nine million Brazilian youths aged 18 to 24 had completed high school, but did not access higher education. The stock volume reaches almost 15 million people in this age group who dropped out from the education after or not even completing the basic school. These shocking figures were presented by the Director of Department of Regulation and Supervision of the Ministry of Education (MEC), Mark Heleno de Oliveira Júnior at the Brazilian Congress of Private Higher Education (CBESP) on June 6.

ABMES President Celso Niskier, Rector of UniCarioca University in Rio, presented a calculation made by the ABMES Association, according to which an investment of 64 billion reais (15 billion USD $) is required to achieve the PNE goal. “The government wants to save $ 1 trillion over ten years, and we are talking about 6% of the economy in five years,” says Professor Niskier, noting that there is a need for consensus between universities, government and the industry in financing courses related to the inevitability of technology. "Financing higher education is to generate more income, it is to collect more taxes and boost the economy from more skilled labor. Financing our young people is to build a better future for Brazil," said Niskier.

Government programs and labor market

The difficulty of access to higher education is opposite to the urgent need for graduates in the labor market, especially in the areas of health and high techno­logy. The ABMES study shows that these areas are more dependent on federal financial assistance, since traditionally medical and technological courses have higher tuition fees.

The shortage of qualified specialists, however, is a reality in almost all areas. To understand: teaching geography in schools in Brazil lacks about 17,000 tea­chers. Annually educational institutions produce only 50% of the required teachers of geography and 62% of the required number of teachers of the Portuguese language. Aware of this problem, the National Institute for Educational Research (INEP - Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisas Educacionais Anísio Teixeira) pushes universities to issue diplomas of humanitarian dis­ciplines with permission to work in schools even without studying pedagogy. However, this decision is far from the real reasons for the lack of desire to go to school, ranging from the low wages to the lack of didactic materials and disrespect on the part of students.

Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro

A study by the Varkey Foundation in 35 countries found that Brazil has the lowest prestige of the teaching profession. Only 9% of people think that students respect teachers in the classroom. Moreover, 88% of the population consider teachers as people with a “low social status”. Meanwhile, the profession of a teacher obliges students to devote 3-4 years of their life to obtaining a Bachelor's degree. Driven by INEP, the private educational sector may offer as many vacancies as necessary, but the problem will not be solved. The problem is not in the offer, but in the demand.

The lack of qualified teachers to work in the classroom is not something new. Statistics has been indicating a problem for several years. How can a country develop without teachers, engineers, doctors or IT specialists? There can be no economic and social development without solutions in the strategic sector, such as higher education, providing the market with qualified personnel.

Similar hot debates are going around medical courses. Last year the government of the previous president Michel Temer enacted the moratorium that has suspended the opening of new medical courses in the country for five years. Educational sector keeps pushing the cancellation of the moratorium, following high demand from the society for medical education. According to statistics, there is a vacuum of health professionals in some regions in the backlands after the closure of the program when Cuban doctors left Brazil. Medical associations, however, claim that statistics is misleading the reality; there are enough doctors in Brazil, but their vast majority is concent­rated in the capitals. They even suggest implementing a system of grads work distribution.

There are two main federal programs, the main strategies for achieving PNE goals, that provide financial support to students: “University for All” (ProUni), that gives scholarships for students from low-income families, and “Fies” that gives out low-interest loans.

For ABMES, freezing the courses is not a solution either, because every freeze creates a demand and generates the lack of supply. The correct solution, according to ABMES, is the opening of new medical schools following the same procedures as for the other courses, but with stricter rules. Meanwhile, associations of doctors must work together with the government on how to attract specialists to the backlands and create there decent working conditions for medical staff.

Budget and "artificial respiration"

It is expected that the difficult decision to freeze nearly 30 billion reais (148 billion USD $) in the country's budget due to lack of resources in many areas will affect in the country paralysis. In some areas, effects are already being felt, such as science and technology, scholarships, bank charges, a demographic census, and even Brazilian government commitments to international organizations. The situation tends to deteriorate and gets affecting more sensitive areas, because so far the economic zone does not see much of improvement. Perhaps, the government will go to some kind of unblocking the budget to give some artificial respiration for the "survival" of organs.

Education and politics

In March 2019, news from the Brazilian Ministry of Education (MEC) began to resemble news from the front line: crises and fights in the government that lasted from mid-January thundered over MEC, which owned one of the largest budgets of the federal government.

An internal ministry dispute broke out between two groups, each of which has its own clear idea of how educational institutions should work. The result of the dispute was the dismissal of more than a dozen high-ranking officials, the adoption of some decisions and their cancellations the next day, apologies and new decisions. In the field of education, the debate was about which go­vernment project should be implemented. Conflict groups are: the military wing, mostly generals who, among other ideas, defend opening military colleges in the capitals of states and the modernization of management in the offices; and the followers of the right-wing, whose main roadmap of this “ideological” group is to eliminate from the MEC any remnants of what they call “cultural Marxism” or “left-wing thoughts”. The revision of the tasks of the higher education affects, of course, primarily Federal or State universities. They are also called “public” because universities are open to the general public in certain disciplines, even if the person is not officially a student. The number of such places, of course, is limited and requires a previous higher education.

According to the Constitution, public universities are fully financed from the Federal or State budget, they cannot provide commercial educational services, all students receive free tuition, Master's and graduate students have access to a system of grants. Along with this, public universities have academic freedom in opening new courses and disciplines, in electing rectors and a number of other decisions.

A view of Rio de Janeiro.

Human history proves that the change of the ideology of the go­vernment causes the changes in the “ideology” of education. This process is observed now in Brazil. Aggregated by the mass media, it is unclear how it will end.

For example, there was a big media scandal when a student, inspired by a new ideology, recorded a video of the professor criticizing the government. President Bolsonaro posted the clip on his twitter, and the university was visited by MEC audit. Fortunately for the professor, everything worked out, because lawyers said that filming teachers in a class violated the fundamental rights of teachers and was unconstitutional.

Meanwhile the press has already switched to the news of budget cuts to three universities that contributed to holding student rallies in their campuses. The time was too short to pity these three “victims”, because a week later the news came out about a 30% reduction of the non-academic budget in all public universities in the country, but not just in these three. It shocked even “prosperous” federal universities who started alarming the public opinion, saying that in the next semester, with a new budget, they would have nothing to pay for electricity, cleaning and maintenance, which would mean basically the stop of classes. Such statements, of course, were immediately picked up by the media, raised petitions and demonstrations. The budget crash appeared to be vivid when the number of master and doctorate vacancies in public universities had to be cut.

Human history proves that the change of the ideology of the government causes the changes in the “ideology” of education. This process is observed now in Brazil. Aggregated by the mass media, it is unclear how it will end.

Conversations about the budget have not yet ceased, but the public began to discuss the news that universities were losing their former autonomy, and that the election of rector wouldn’t be valid until approved by the minister of education and the governor.

The ink of the press has not yet dried, when the news blew up the media: after the twitter of the President of the Republic about unnecessary costs of philosophy and sociology, the MEC reduced the government investment in these disciplines, stressing that the focus should be on the areas that would bring "immediate income to the taxpayer: veterinary, engineering and medicine."

As a result of these and other actions, big national demonstrations and strikes rolled across the country.

Media and mass hysteria went down in June with the start of examination period. Students, professors and universities administrators got overcrowded with the last lectures, tests, exams, paper work; the natural silence will probably last till October.

New program of the Ministry of Higher Education “FUTURE-SE”

Announced in July 2019 by the Ministry of Education, the Future-se (Future-Up) program has been the subject of discussion within and outside the academic community. Moreover, for one month MEC opened a platform for discussions. Everybody in the country can enter the site and express his/her opinion about the program or an idea how to manage it. The objective of the initiative is to strengthen the financial autonomy of federal universities, and to encourage institutions to raise their own resources and to contract Social Organizations for self-maintenance.

The program proposal is based on three axes, “three whales”: 1) management, governance and entrepreneurship; 2) research and innovation; 3) internationalization.

The most debatable part of the program is about management. The main ideas are about how to sustain and improve the financial stability; to improve transparency, organize real estate investment fund and to create public-private partnerships; open opportunities for donations and other support from the private sector. This part of the program has been created by the group of economists and has clearly expressed financial business vector.

The second part is about research and patents, technological parks and start-up centers.

This third axis is about internalization, which is very significant because, a few years ago, internationalization was only a differential, now it has become one of the three pillars of the largest project of the Brazilian Ministry of Education. The main objective is to improve Brazil's position in international rankings and to stimulate research. The program proposes some specific steps: to establish strong partnerships with foreign universities up to “sisters universities”, going from quantity to quality; to implement student and teacher exchanges as an educational routine; to ease recognition and validation of foreign diplomas; to involve private sector to increase the number of publications in English; to get distance courses from the world-known scientists; and even to sponsor education abroad for the most talented athletes.

Remarkable is that the participation in the program is on voluntary basis. For those Universities who will resist participation, the budget is promised to keep the same.

Public/Private partnership

Until now, with the exception of problems with student loans, the majority of private universities were not affected by the changes from the MEC. Since long ago they have developed mechanisms for crisis survival. Even more, at the Brazilian Congress of Private Higher Education (CBESP) on June 6, the MEC has positioned itself in favor of de-bureaucratization of the regulation process of higher education and improving the quality of teacher education in Brazil. "You have to know that the MEC in this government, wants to give more freedom to you. To produce, to work, to achieve the goals. The MEC will be an ally in this process", Minister of Education Abraham Weintraub said.

He then stated that the offers from the industry on improvements would be very welcome. In less than a month, to keep the momentum, the Forum of all private educational entities in the country created a document with thirteen proposals for improving current regulation, aimed at streamlining supervision and evaluation of higher education institutions, regulatory bodies, unloading staff involved and easing processes.

If these proposals are implemented, they will immediately affect the daily life of institutions, provide greater autonomy and will promote the development of private universities throughout the country.

Although the budget crisis was read a year ago, the situation got indeed rather alarming now. In fact, we have predicted that one day public institutions would start learning from private universities about methods and strategies for survival who seek permanently the improvement, modernization and expansion with quality of higher education. Since 1996 private education institutions, that have 85% of all Brazilian students, gained impressive achievements, though they have a long way to improve. What is clear is that the universities need to create a public-private symbiosis instead of neglecting each other.

An ancient Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” in Russian language has an opposite, optimistic interpretation and ends with: But if it really happened, then may you take advantage of the new endless possibilities! This is what we wish for Brazil!

The new program Future-se, based on the idea of the financial autonomy is the first sign that our predictions were correct. Most likely Brazilian public universities will have to open commercial places, as it has been done in Russia.  And then the real rivalry between the private and public sectors will begin which might result in some successful partnerships and in some sad closures. Today commercialization of public universities can’t happen without the change of the constitution that is a very long process. However, the situation in the country is changing so quickly that a month-ago news seems to be outdated. Voluntary programs like Future-se may help to make commercialization legal.

Era of changes

By now, it has become clear to all that the era of change has come. There are some initiatives of the government. The time is too short to tell whether they will be supported by the whole society or which results they will bring to Brazil. However, there is a positive point: the dead end of ideas seems to be over. The momentum can bring new leaders, able to encourage the country to follow.

An ancient Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” in Russian language has an opposite, optimistic interpretation and ends with: But if it really happened, then may you take advantage of the new endless possibilities! This is what we wish for Brazil!