A burning question for developing countries is whether low quality private higher education is better than none at all, in circumstances where public systems cannot meet soaring student demand. Brazil decided it was and set about rapidly expanding its higher education system, including by opening it to private institutions. Today the country has one of the largest private sectors in the world and it enrols a staggering 75% of all post-secondary students.
There are more than six million students in Brazil, in public and private institutions that vary greatly in quality, "some very good, some not so good", said Simon Schwartzman, president of the Institute for Studies on Labour and Society in Rio de Janeiro and one of the country's leading higher education experts.
There are two trends, one that "follows the expected model and improves research, and at the same time Brazil is trying to increase access to higher education using different policies", he told a seminar hosted by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET) and the Cape Higher Education Consortium in South Africa recently.
"The private sector has played a very important role in opening access, as in many other countries," Schwartzman said.
Brazil opted to provide higher education to a growing proportion of students, albeit of varying quality, on the premise that a country cannot develop optimally if it does not have a top end that performs strongly as well as broad participation. While expanding and improving its public institutions, other layers of institutions were created - including colleges and private providers - to widen participation.
Today the country has nearly 2,500 higher education institutions, and some 2,250 of them are private, including nearly 90 private universities. The sector has been growing at a rate of 10% a year, and it was recently reported that its number of students had topped five million. Private sector enrolment of 75% of all students compares to a regional average of 45%.
Path to development
The widespread model of higher education in Latin America, said Schwartzman, "is one of huge national universities that are open to everyone, with no entrance examinations. Many students fail, or stay on for years. Professors are usually not full-time and earn small salaries and so have to work elsewhere."
Brazil never adopted that model. Rather than having only national universities, it also has a federal system of states with their own universities. This system developed following 1960s reform, alongside the professional development of academics and growing emphasis on research.
"It became very expensive, with by far the highest costs in South America, at the European level," Schwartzman said.
At the same time, demand for higher education was increasing. "People moved to the cities with aspirations for higher education, which had previously been for men and for the upper middle-class but then became universal."
The decision was taken to allow a private higher education sector to develop, to respond to the rapidly growing thirst for education.
"Private institutions started by offering cheap courses for people who could not access public universities, for students who were older and for people who could not enroll on regular courses because they had to work during the day," said Schwartzman.
"Most companies that sell higher education are big businesses. But some institutions are non-profit or church-based and some are very small family-owned private colleges. Some colleges became universities specialising, for example, in law or economics."
Over time, many colleges began to integrate. Some were bought by others, some became national and some were bought by foreign groups. For example, a large American institution bought a university in Sao Paulo. Although it is unable to charge fees as high as in the US, the large volume of students make the university a viable commercial venture.
While the sector still caters for non-traditional students, Schwartzman continued, "we are now starting to have private institutions that cater to the high end, and they are competing with public universities. Some private universities have become very good and are difficult to get into, including business schools that are expensive and prestigious."
The lesson is that while private institutions may not always offer quality higher education, especially initially, those that do offer quality can become highly successful and overall quality can improve over time.
So Brazil has parallel higher education sectors: a network of some 60 institutions where the professors are part of the civil service, on the same pay scale with stability and very good job contracts. Quality varies, by institution and by department. There is also a 'second tier' of institutions supported by Brazil's 27 states, and the booming private sector.
For example, Sao Paulo is the richest state and has its own higher education system. There are three institutions, including the huge and research-intensive University of Sao Paulo, which produces around 12,000 graduates a year. The second, the University of Campinas, is mostly geared towards graduate education and the third is a collection of campuses in different parts of the state. Plus there are two federal institutions.
"Still, the highest proportion of students is in the private sector. Because Sao Paulo is the richest state, the private sector went there," said Schwartzman. The state has encouraged growth by giving a tax exemptions to private institutions if they admit a certain number of students for free. "If not, an institution has to pay taxes."
Despite its great diversity of institutions, in Brazil as in many countries the trend is for institutions to follow the model of the most prestigious among them, and the result can be an erosion of differentiation and academic drift towards the research university model. "Rather as in football, everybody tries to emulate the champion," Schwartzman said.
"When you say institutions must play different roles, people feel you are classifying them and are saying they will never be on top, and that this is undemocratic. We say some institutions must provide good but different education, but it is hard to win that argument."
For instance, said Schwartzman, the University of Sao Paulo created a campus for public and vocational programmes. "But what happened? The students wanted to do degrees and the professors wanted the same careers as others, and wanted to do research. The campus failed.
"But the reality is that instead of converging into one model, institutions are diverging. We have one segment of higher education that is close to the US model, then a much larger sector that is completely different."
Aspirations fuel growth
Brazil's job market places a high premium on education, so having a qualification is extremely valuable, Schwartzman said. This has helped to drive demand for higher education.
A country note on Brazil in the OECD's Education at a Glance 2011, published in September, revealed that only 6.2% of graduates are unemployed. Although Brazil has a below-average share of adults with upper secondary (30%) and tertiary (11%) qualifications, "employment among these adults, at 77.4% and 85.6% respectively, is higher than the average across OECD countries".
While in most OECD countries a tertiary graduate can expect to earn around 50% more than a person with an upper secondary education, the report said, "in Brazil this premium is 156%, the highest among all countries, and provides a solid incentive for completing higher levels of education."
Graduates with below-par qualifications tend to find work at a lower level, Schwartzman said. A large part of the population has a sub-standard secondary education, but nevertheless wants higher education. "If people can get a degree that is not demanding and is done in the evening, and they can learn something along the way, that's good. There is a demand for that."
There has been debate, he said, on the question of "some education or no education at all. Much of the private system provides this kind of education, often in business or in law".
For example, Brazil's law association runs a bar examination that must be passed if a law graduate is to practice: 80% of students fail. "Many law schools never get their graduates into the bar association, but they still attract students because, even if they cannot practice, they still have a degree and can do something with it."
While many in Brazil see private institutions as 'second-class', and although drop-out rates are high, the sector's extraordinary growth has driven the massification of higher education, and has raised the participation rate of school-leavers to 21% and the education levels of the populace.
According to Education at a Glance 2011, although by 2009 the proportion of Brazilian adults with a tertiary degree remained only 11%, because of its huge population this represents more than 10 million people.
"As such, Brazil holds 4.1% of the total population with tertiary education in OECD and G20 countries. This represents the 7th largest share among 40 countries with available data."
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