18 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Affirmative action students equal or outperform peers

Brazilian university students who are awarded quotas for race and low income or receive specific scholarships or loans have similar or better academic results than their classmates, according to a recent study, thus disproving the argument in Brazil that quota receivers displace better-qualified students and become worse professionals.

The study, by Jacques Wainer from the federal state University of Campinas in Brazil and Tatiana Melguizo from the Rossier School of Education of the University of Southern California in the US, analyses the performance of more than one million students in the National Performance Exam, or ENADE, in 2012 (technology and social sciences), 2013 (health sciences) and 2014 (exact sciences and humanities), one third of the national total.

It compares ENADE exam grades of students who received no benefit with those who accessed higher education through affirmative action (racial or social quotas for blacks, mixed race and indigenous people), had low-income student scholarships in private institutions (ProUni) or received government-sponsored student loans (FIES).

“We found that quota students and those financed by FIES showed no important difference from their class colleagues. Those with ProUni scholarships had much better marks than their classmates,” Wainer told the Brazilian news agency FAPESP.

The researchers defined an “important difference” as that occurring when 5% of students obtain marks immediately above the average and when 5% of them have marks immediately below the average.

“If we accept that ENADE is a good instrument for assessing qualifications of university graduates we must admit that… the qualifications of beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries for performing their professional activities are similar,” he adds.

Complete picture

The researchers say their work is a step forward as it provides a complete picture for the first time. Previous studies on the same subject measured student performance in a single university (Universidade Federal da Bahia and Universidade de Brasilia).

In Brazil, the higher education inclusion debate started with the topic of admitting black Brazilians but soon moved on to the income factor, opening the doors of universities and higher education institutions to state school students. Such schools cater for low-income children and youngsters and generally provide lower-quality education.

Federal and municipal higher education is free but private universities and institutions are paid. Of the latter, only religious, community and philanthropic institutions are not for profit.

Financing of higher education has not so far ensured equality of access: more than half of students in higher education come from the highest-income families. This compares badly with the 5.7% from lowest-income families who study in state institutions and the 3.5% who study in private institutions.

As for race and ethnicity, more than half of white 18 to 24-year old students are in higher education, compared to only 28.2% of black students.

An August 2012 quota law decreed that state universities and technical institutes must set aside 50% of places, as a minimum, for state primary and secondary school students, proportionally distributed among black, mixed race and indigenous students from low-income families, defined as those on a minimum salary or below. The law had to be implemented gradually within four years.

The paper was published in January in SciELO, the scientific electronic library online, specialising in Latin American and Caribbean sciences.
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