Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world and the largest country in South America. Its population is over 200 million people. Unlike many other countries with a colonial past, Brazil went through various types of government since its establishment in the early 1500s. Having gained independence in 1822, Brazil’s government system shifted from colonial to monarchical, to oligarchic, then populist, to military dictatorship, and finally, to the democratic republic formed in 1985. By 1988, the basis for modern Brazilian legislation was created with the newest constitution.
While the current system of education in the country is based on the last constitution, some of the tenets by which the Brazilian system operates date back to pre-republican times. In Brazil, schooling is divided into progressive stages based on age grouping. School is compulsory at the elementary level, from ages 6-14. High school usually spans ages 15-17. This stage of schooling has as recently as 2016 been considered for compulsory mandate as well. Other schooling options are technical schools, which provide technical degrees that can be obtained while attending high school. Technical degrees are usually provided by public institutions but not accredited by the Ministry of Education. Higher education is not mandatory and is aimed at adults 18 and over.
The decree on mandatory schooling and the state’s responsibility in education dates back to the 59th amendment to the Brazilian constitution made in 1971. The intent was to universalize basic education across the country. Clauses in the amendment ensure that the state provides coverage for costs associated with didactic materials, transportation, nourishment, and health assistance. However, this law is seldom enforced as the country’s 18% illiteracy rate demonstrates. Over 80% of the Brazilian population lives in urban areas, and despite its large manufacturing and service sectors, agriculture and mining are still leading industries in the nation. Rural as well as urban dwellers in low resource settings, especially in areas outside of the Southeast and ocean bordering regions, have a higher incidence of lack of access to education, as poor transportation and the need for labor hinder basic educational pursuits.
Path to Higher Ed: Private vs. Public
The Brazilian educational system is supervised by government offices at the municipal, state, and federal levels. Childhood education falls under the responsibility of the municipalities, while states and the federal district are tasked with the regulation and provision of primary and secondary education. This includes the federal government’s responsibility in providing education in institutions such as universities and regulating private ones.
Educational bodies in Brazil include the Ministry of Education (Ministério da Educação), the Coordination for the Improvement for Higher Education Personnel (Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior [CONAES]), and the National Committee for the Evaluation of Higher Education (Comissão Nacional de Avaliação da Educação Superior [CAPES].
Admission to universities is contingent upon completion of secondary school as well as entrance exam scores. Each university has conventionally held its own exam called a vestibular, which tests students on a variety of subjects. Brazilian students often resort to extra courses outside of normal schooling hours or after completing secondary school in order to prepare for this exam.
Another exam is the ENEM, the Exame Nacional do Ensino Médio. This exam was created as a means of assessing the quality of Brazilian education, and hundreds of universities have replaced their vestibulares for ENEMs for admissions. As of 2009, the Ministry of Education named the ENEM as the official university entrance exam. Because entrance exams are so challenging and the best universities in Brazil are public federal universities with limited seats, admissions are competitive.
Brazil has private and public universities. Unlike the U.S educational system, public or federal schools at the university level are considered more prestigious and require a competitive state examination for entry. Deficiencies and inequalities in the Brazilian educational system become eminent when looking at the path taken towards university entry.
Prior to a widespread affirmative action decision passed in 2012, only students that had the means to afford private schooling in the primary and secondary stages earned the scores required for entry at these federal institutions. Public schools at these levels are traditionally attended by lower-income students that may not be able to afford the extra preparation courses that some middle class and higher-income students can for university entry. The affirmative action law was passed in response to this issue, and required that half of the incoming class of each federal university be matriculated from public schools. The federal universities were given four years to implement the change in their admission processes.
At the university level, the “graduação” or “Bacharel,” the first level undergraduate program, is typically earned in 3 to 6 years of study. All programs require a research paper or project. The “mestrado,” or graduate-level program, is usually completed from 18 months to 2 years and always requires a thesis. A “doutorado,” or Doctorate degree, is usually earned in 4 years. Except for a few programs that allow for direct admission from an undergraduate program, most “doutorado” programs require students to have completed the “mestrado” prior to admission.