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Democratization and Expansion of the Private: Barriers to Equity in Brazilian Higher Education

Over the past decades, marketization-focused public policies have significantly transformed higher education systems worldwide. In Brazil, where access to public universities is limited, there has been a rapid reduction of public financing accompanied by an expansion of private institutions. One example of such market-driven policies has been the transferal of educational financing from higher education to lower levels of education, also known as the structural adjustment policy recommended by multilateral organizations. Furthermore, national policies administered by the Ministry of Education, for example, the ProUni (University for all programme) and FIES (Student Financing Programme) have continued to marketize the HE sector by providing scholarships and/or unsubsidized federal loans to low-income students so that they can attend private universities. The objectives of these programmes are to democratize and expand equity in HE, however, by supporting access to private institutions only, there is evidence that undergraduate education can become disassociated from research, while students’ quality of education decreases along with their opportunities in the labor market.

With the expansion of private higher education, private institutions are tending towards 'full-fledged corporate organizations delivering enterprise education' while public universities and research institutes stagnate due to the extended lack of funding and budget cuts that have occurred over the past decades. In this post, I will highlight the wider implications of market-driven public policy in relation to the expansion of private institutions, particularly focusing on the perpetuation of three barriers to equity in the HE system: equity of access (entry to the system), retention (remaining within the system), and output (quality of education received).

Barriers to equity of access

Very often access to public higher education in Brazil is restricted to higher socio-economic groups. Contrary to the educational systems of many developed nations, in Brazil, while at primary and secondary level the private sector is most prestigious, in higher education, the best universities are public and funded by the government. This leads to the great irony of the Brazilian higher education system: given the highly competitive nature of the entry examination (nearly 10 candidates for every place), it is highly challenging to access a public university and receive free higher education without having previously attended a private school. This privileges middle-class students who can afford to pay tuition at a private high school, paving their way for entrance into a public university. The less prestigious private universities have less competitive admissions and therefore cater to people who work and pay tuition. Currently, students of low socio-economic status encounter barriers to accessing HE as their public educational backgrounds rarely prepare them for the highly competitive entrance to public universities.

Furthermore, given the singular focus on expanding access to private institutions, government policy still fails to successfully prioritize the needs of low socio-economic status students who achieve the necessary qualifications for entry to HE but are prevented from progressing due to financial constraints. The Brazilian government has instead continued with the privatization policies promoted by multilateral organizations that depoliticize the regulatory practices of the state in the area of public policy.

Barriers to equity: retention and output in HE

There is currently much interest in not just access to higher education, but also student success. The dominance of fee-paying private provision, combined with limited places in public institutions, creates a complex environment for policymakers to ensure that access, retention and educational quality are not determined by students' socio-economic class. Despite the use of programmes such as ProUni and FIES to support to low-income students into university, singular focus on the private sector promotes a false notion of democratization as it contributes to the maintenance of existing social stratification within the higher education system. A major concern raised by these policies is that along with the relocation of public funds into the private sector, the government is able pass on responsibility for addressing issues of inequity in the Brazilian educational system. This also has the knock-on effect of reducing investment in public higher education institutions, thus further limiting access, efficiency, and educational quality.

While these programs offer something of a palliative solution, producing benefits in the short run, they do nothing to genuinely address systemic social inequality within Brazilian HE, a situation which is all the more critical given the dubious quality of some private HE institutions. One of the underlying concerns regarding student retention is that such expansion programmes do not address additional financial support that public institutions may offer, including transportation, housing, subsidized food, costs of books, internships and research scholarships. This is evident in the case of Ana, a 19 year old student who works as a housekeeper for an average monthly salary of R$400 (roughly 200 USD):

My dream is to be able to attend Medical School, but even if I receive the Prouni scholarship, I will not be able to bear the additional costs of school. There are required books for medical school that cost on average R$200, R$300 [an estimate of $80, $100]. With my monthly salary - it is impossible for me to work, sustain myself and afford to attend this institution”.

It is understood that the Prouni scholarship can guarantee access, but does not offer additional resources to assist low-income students with the financial burdens of attending private HE institutions.

Alternatives to neoliberal conceptions of educational problems

"Market-driven policies do little to create solidarity between the state and the poor; but, rather, foster an educational environment devoid of what Freire terms “concientização” - the awareness of one’s place in society and ability to change one’s social circumstances." (Kempner & Loureiro, 2002)

Neoliberal structural reforms in the education sector have created a market in higher education and segmented university provision along a public/private divide. Such policies endorsed by multilateral agencies and enacted by the Brazilian government rely on competition and the private sector to attain efficiency and equity. While equality is defined as sameness of treatment for all, equity refers to fairness or justice and its promotion through public policy requires that individuals' needs and circumstances are considered when planning or designing initiatives. The integration of market-driven policies into the education system fails to take into account pre-existing social and cultural inequalities experienced by low socio-economic status students, which result from a legacy of unequal income distribution and educational neglect in Brazil, thus fundamentally undermining the pursuit of equity using these tools.

Since the 1990s, higher education has been positioned as one of the most important factors for the development of low-income countries, and yet multilateral organizations have recommended little investment in higher education for developing nations. Despite the most recent incentives to expand access to higher education – including through the development of private universities and the adoption of student loans – these changes have not, in most cases, brought about the hoped-for democratization as there has been scant impact on the inequalities within institutions or in wider society. Given the limited places on offer at public universities in Brazil and the competitiveness of entrance exams, broader reforms that address inequalities of access to the highest-quality secondary schooling will be necessary to truly expand HE access to those of all backgrounds.

It is understood by many authors that the primary problem of Brazil, and many developing nations in Latin America, is in its weakness in the face of economic forces that disengage the state from all sectors of civil society particularly the poor. Despite multilateral organizations' important influence on neoliberal practices in education, much can be said about the role of the Brazilian elite and government in exacerbating the process of privatization using reforms that diminish the role of the state in public policy. The expansion of access to HE primarily through the private sector is an important example of this trend. Further budget cuts to federal HE funding, introduced by the current far-right government, demonstrate an attack on public education in the country and establish a long-term ideological assault on public institutions deemed to hold a symbolic significance of ‘resistance, openness, and modernity’.


The complexity of the Brazilian higher education system, along with educational disparity between private and public provision poses challenges to policymakers aiming to promote equity - however, it does not render such a task impossible. I would argue that it is important for expansion of the Brazilian higher education system to occur primarily through the public sector, but that at the same time, inequity must also be addressed at the primary and secondary levels. Therefore, reforms should be implemented across the educational system and ensure that high quality schooling is provided to all. Until this can be achieved, HE institutions should adopt measures that compensate for, rather than perpetuate, inequities present in society. One possible measure would be to create opportunities for low socio-economic status students that have high academic potential but unsatisfactory requirements to enter university. At the heart of the reforms discussed here, however, the state is ambivalent: veering within one policy between the promotion of social justice and construction of a market-oriented system that fosters competition, expands access, yet ultimately thwarts the pursuit of equity in higher education.


Many thanks to this week's contributor Mariana Kakarakis, who can be contacted via her EPPE Network profile page.

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