BRAZIL: Government under pressure to not botch exam

The troubled efforts of Brazil's government to build a national standardised university entrance examination received a major boost after the country's second-ranked university said it would accept results from the federal exam for courses starting in 2012.

The State University of Campinas (Unicamp) will allow students to use their results from the National Exam of Middle Education, known as Enem after its initials in Portuguese, so long as the Ministry of Education publishes results by 15 January next year.

For courses starting this year Unicamp and the University of São Paulo had both refused to consider applications based on results in the state exam, saying the ministry held it too late to allow timely processing of applications for the academic year starting in 2011.

The exam had been leaked, leading to a two-month delay in the sitting of the test while the ministry drew up a new paper. Both universities said the new timeline was too slow to meet its applications requirements.

As they are Brazil's top two ranked tertiary institutions, the decision led to a drop of 17.5% in students from the country's most populous state applying to sit the Enem, a blow to the government's efforts to turn it into a universal entrance exam.

Unicamp's admissions authorities say that Enem remains optional and will only be considered if it helps boosts a student's chances. The university will continue to run its own entrance exam.

"Enem, as an instrument for selection evaluation, is in principle good," said Renato Pedrosa, Director of Admissions at Unicamp. "It is a national exam, which means there can be analysis and comparison of candidates against other forms of selection."

But the troubled history of the Enem led Unicamp to retain the right to reject applications based on its results. "If there are problems and the results, for whatever reasons, are not available by 15 January we will not use the test," Pedrosa said.

Enem has had problems since being set up in 1998 as a means of improving access to tertiary institutions for poorer students.

As a national exam taken in centres across Brazil, it allows students to use one locally taken exam to apply for universities. Previously, universities held their own entrance exams, a process that worked against less well off would-be students and those in remote regions.

In its early years, universities were reluctant to give up their own entrance exams. Then, as the Enem gained wider national acceptance thanks to federal government influence over the university system, it was hit by scandals.

There was the leaking of the paper in 2009 followed by the subsequent delay in rescheduling the exam.

Then last year a printing error meant thousands of students received multiple-choice papers in which answer sheets did not match questions. The confusion threatened to end up in court as those who received the botched exam won the right to resit it, leading to demands that all 4.6 million students be allowed retake the paper.

Unicamp's Pedrosa said such past problems put an extra responsibility on the ministry. "It is important that the ministry manages to develop the exam process without problems. We will be watching what happens."