HE hits record student numbers, but faces a decline

The number of students at Portuguese higher education institutions has peaked in the past academic year, and international students rose to 16.5% of the student body. But officials say proactive measures are needed to ensure that a projected future decline is not too steep.

Figures from the Directorate-General for Statistics of Education and Science (Direção-Geral de Estatísticas da Educação e Ciência or DGEEC), released in October 2023, show that Portugal had 446,028 higher education students in 2022-23, up 3% year on year and up 24% from 2015-16.

Four in five students were at public institutions, and 24% were enrolled in postgraduate studies (private and public institutions). Professional higher technical courses, which take two years and do not confer an academic degree, are also becoming more popular – up from 6,430 students in 2014-15 (first year recorded) to 21,263 in 2022-23, which are included in the overall numbers.

Statistics also show that foreign students represented 16.5% of the total student body in 2022-23 – a record for Portugal.

Of these, 17,822 came through part-course international credit mobility programmes, such as the European Union’s Erasmus+, especially from Spain, Italy, Brazil and Germany; and 55,775 came to pursue their entire degree, mainly from Brazil, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde and Angola (all Portuguese-speaking countries).

Regardless of these international entrants, the DGEEC argues that the country’s domestic student body remains strong and show that “Portugal is on the right track to achieve (…) an average higher education attendance rate of 60% among 20-year-olds”, and with half of people in the 30-34 age group holding a higher education degree by 2030.

According to the European Union statistical agency Eurostat, 34.5% of 20- to 24-year-olds were studying at Portuguese higher education institutions in 2021, below the EU average of 36.1%.

Eurostat added that in 2022, 43% of people in the 30 to 34 age group had attained a degree (short-cycle tertiary education, bachelor’s or equivalent, masters or equivalent level and doctoral or equivalent level) in Portugal, which was just above the EU average of 42.8%.

Experts see higher education shrinking

In raw number terms, however, Portuguese higher education may have hit its peak.

António de Sousa Pereira, president of the Council of Rectors of Portuguese Universities – Conselho de Reitores das Universidades Portuguesas or CRUP – and rector of the public University of Porto, in Portugal’s second city, highlighted that the country’s demographic decline (down by 2% in the last decade and falling) would hit student numbers.

He said this “negative demographic evolution”, with the lack of social action support mechanisms to help students and the low salaries offered to graduates in Portugal, would depress demand.

To avoid course closures, higher education entities must find “other organisational models”, forge consortiums and offer courses in partnerships, he advised.

One response for Portuguese institutions is “making an effort to recruit more and more international students”, by participating in international fairs and visiting secondary schools overseas, said Pereira.

Foreign branches also boost business. The public University of Lisbon has a campus in Shanghai, China, and the public Nova University Lisbon has a campus in Cairo, Egypt.

Portuguese universities may also “turn to international recruitment agencies”, whose activities “are very well structured”, he believes.

According to the OECD Education at a Glance 2023 report, Portugal is also among the OECD countries welcoming more foreign students for short-cycle tertiary programmes, which provide a short-term vocational-oriented training.

Pereira also sees universities offering more professional masters degrees, which “are shorter masters degrees and very focused on entering the job market”.

However, this may not suffice. “All Europe is experiencing the same demographic crisis and, therefore, all countries (…) want to create conditions to attract international students”, he noted, arguing that South America “will be a very important market for Portugal”. Thus, the local higher education system should hone attractive offers to students from this region too.

That said, while students from Portuguese-speaking African countries are also welcome, the CRUP president warned that these nations are “experiencing evolving, complex situations”, and need to develop their own sustainable higher education systems. Portugal cannot have a “parasitisation effect and prevent development” by recruiting too many students from Africa, he argued.

Moreover, Pereira is nervous about relying too heavily on China, with which Portugal has relatively close ties because of its former colony Macao, over which it relinquished control in 1999. He believes “China is permanently engaged in industrial espionage” and warned that “the international situation is very unstable” and international geopolitics “may make it inadvisable to receive Chinese students in large numbers” in Europe.

Such constraints may be of more importance, given that while Portugal has increased its foreign student numbers, it has some weaknesses in creating support structures for these students, especially regarding accommodation, which is extremely difficult to find, he observed.

Improving competitiveness is needed

Another focus of spending suggested by Pereira was research investment, since state laboratories, where most researchers work, “are in complete destitution”. He said that while in “Protestant countries, there is a tradition of sharing success”, which benefits universities through patronage, Portugal has a “Catholic culture of almsgiving”, involving smaller donations.

Furthermore, “a university career is very poorly paid”. Therefore, in the most competitive areas, highly qualified people work for companies rather than universities, Pereira stressed.

Pedro Correia, a law professor at the University of Coimbra and a Portugal justice ministry consultant, told University World News that Portuguese universities lack meritocratic hiring routines.

However, there are bright spots in Portugal’s higher education, which has “some interesting bubbles”, he said. One is the public Nova School of Business and Economics, reaching the top 15 of the Financial Times Masters in Management 2023 ranking.

The school “attracts many international students, from all nationalities” because classes are taught in English and staff are “highly competent in their area of expertise” and “great researchers”, which allows it to charge more than double for a masters degree compared to some other local universities, he argued.

Too much on offer but needs remain

Correia said such specialism could help combat a Portuguese higher education tendency to offer too many programmes – 97 institutions teach 5,387 courses, according to the Directorate General for Higher Education (Direção-Geral do Ensino Superior).

More focus is needed on science and technology, he said, so that 80% or more of Portuguese students should graduate in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, because Portugal needs “tens of thousands of engineers”.

He said more rationalisation was needed when universities merge, when ruling bodies should do more to dovetail courses from legacy institutions, reducing their number, he argued.

Professor João Guerreiro, president of the Agency for Evaluation and Accreditation of Higher Education (A3ES), told University World News that the “apparently excessive” number of courses was because of: new teaching areas, which result from new developments in science and technology; internal dynamics that are difficult to overcome, usually associated with specific choices made by groups of lecturers; courses that are created by international collaboration; and new distance learning courses, “which have represented a significant portion of the new proposals”.

Looking ahead, he said: “There will probably be some courses that, for various reasons, should be discontinued, particularly due to the small number of students seeking them,” mainly masters and PhDs.

Cooperation needed

Cooperation between universities may help rationalise course numbers, said Guerreiro, who noted: “There has been a dynamic of rapprochement and design of programmes in association”, in scientific research and advanced training, although more such initiatives are needed and the government should encourage this process.

He said Portuguese higher education must work harder to attract “new audiences, active citizens … who need to update and reinforce their knowledge to improve their performance and productivity”, and refresh its teaching staff, despite existing administrative and financial limitations.

Guerreiro wants universities “to define more clearly what is expected” from PhD programmes, ensuring they are linked to effective research projects, helping doctorate holders orientate their learning towards tangible societal benefits.

Indeed, scientific research should be integrated into research and development projects from the first years of undergraduate studies to fight school failure and dropout.

Should Portugal’s higher education undertake such practical reforms, while it may have fewer student candidates going forward, it can focus on quality rather than quantity in its universities and colleges.

* Portugal’s ministry of science, technology and higher education did not reply to University World News questions before publication time.