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Brazil: Major new investment in public higher education

The government of Brazil announced in mid-August that it is taking significant steps to expand the country’s federal system of universities and institutes of education, science and technology. The plan was unveiled by President Dilma Rousseff on 16 August and involves the creation of entirely new institutions, the development of new campuses for existing universities and the transfer of control of some existing campuses to the new universities to be opened under this plan. In total, this effort should result in the creation of four new federal universities, 47 new campuses and 208 new units of the Federal Institutes of Professional and Technical Education distributed across the country. The expected investment by the government should reach at least BRL 2.1 billion (EUR 849 million).

Not unexpectedly, there are strong political and economic factors at play in this decision and in its implementation. The initiative is designed to expand access to higher education by some 850 000 places by 2014, with 70% of this uptake in student enrolment to happen in the institutes of education, science and technology. This should move the Brazilian university population close to the 1 million mark and increase the number of students in technical/professional higher education by more than ten times (up to 600 000). Furthermore, an overt effort is being made to bring federally-sponsored higher education opportunities to all corners of the country, in particular to the designated “territories of citizenship” (territórios da cidadania). These are communities that have suffered from “historic injustice” in terms of high levels of poverty and low levels of access to education and other social benefits.

The move to boost federal support for higher education is notable in the Brazilian context, which has a very large concentration of provision – some 75% of enrolment, in fact – in the private sector. The country is clearly betting on higher education as a sound public investment in economic development and social cohesion. But can it deliver, particularly in terms of quality? Critics note that quality assurance in Brazilian higher education is already on somewhat shaky ground. An extensive and expensive quality assessment framework – best known by its acronym in Portuguese, SINAES – publicly ranks university courses and institutions, but does not articulate a minimum threshold for satisfactory performance. In addition, the autonomous status of public institutions makes them immune from ministry sanctions. The quality-access dynamic will be just one of several key issues to watch as Brazil undertakes this ambitious new plan.

Presidency of the Republic (in Portuguese) Ministry of Education (in Portuguese) The World View, 20 September 2011 blog posting