By Creso Sá
On June 30 the Conference Board of Canada’s Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education released the report High Inequality, Higher Education – Merit, Access, and Equal Opportunity in Brazil. The goal of the report is to highlight policy efforts to address social inequality through higher education. Regrettably, the report contains serious factual errors and achieves no useful purpose. Its mischaracterizations are actually a disservice to higher education policy debate in Canada.
To begin with the positives, a study on Brazilian higher education policy is a valiant effort to look beyond the obvious “peer countries” that dominate most policy discourse in Canada. It identifies well known policy initiatives in Brazil related to access: the advent of quotas for university students from underrepresented groups, the standardization of university entrance exams, and the laissez-faire expansion of the private for-profit sector.
One of the report’s major flaws concerns the discussion of the national university entrance exam (ENEM). It is presented as a government attempt to enforce meritocracy in university admissions, and in the report’s framing, an instrument to facilitate social mobility. All of this is simply factually incorrect.
University admissions have always been based on institutional entrance exams (called Vestibular), hence ENEM did not change historical practice. Besides, ENEM has nothing to do with promoting equality. The federal government created it in 1998 as a voluntary secondary education assessment test. In 2010 the Ministry of Education and federal universities began using it; the former as a requirement for applicantions to federal financial aid, and the latter in lieu of their own entrance exams. ENEM has caught on at a great cost to the federal government and has been mired in implementation problems and controversies.
The report goes on to discuss the impact of ENEM on accessibility – higher income students from good private schools get disproportionately admitted to the best universities and most competitive programs. The problem is, this has always been the case, as scholars have pointed out for decades. Hence, there is absolutely no new lesson to be drawn from ENEM on this front. The lessons that it does raise due to the above mentioned problems are not discussed.
The study repeatedly makes unsubstantiated assertions. For instance, it claims the federal government has consistently placed a high priority on addressing social inequality through multiple policy initiatives. This is inconsistent even with facts discussed in the report. The no-tuition policy in public universities, untouched by every president and congress, is highly regressive as the report correctly asserts. (In short, the well off disproportionately attend selective public institutions for free while lower income students attend lower quality private universities, paying tuition.) How can Brazil simultaneously have a multi-partisan political commitment to equality of opportunity, as the report cheerfully claims, and continue to subsidize the wealthy?
Another example is the description of the Science Without Borders program as a “highly successful niche initiative,” on the basis of … no evidence. As I have discussed elsewhere, Science Without Borders was an exemplary case of the sort of populist, poorly designed policy that plagues Brazil. It diverted billions of reals (about US$1.8 bn) from national science agencies to achieve no clear outcome and solve no discernible problem, before being suspended last year as the economy faltered.
Brazil has a large private sector that has for decades enrolled between 70%-80% of post-secondary students, which the reports describes as unusual. However, many other Latin American, Asian, and Eastern European countries have also expanded post-secondary enrolment by allowing private institutions to emerge and grow over the past fifty years. This feature of Brazil’s system does however have major implications for the reach of policies to promote social mobility: do they apply to the minority of students enrolled in public universities? To the majority in private institutions? Both? The report fails to provide clear measures of the scale and scope of the various policy efforts reviewed.
The conclusions offer no meaningful analysis on the material reviewed, but rather truisms such as no single policy is a panacea, followed by a feeble, almost apologetic justifications for the project. Had the study been more well grounded, it would find and perhaps take advantage of certain similarities between Brazil and Canada that go largely unnoticed by policy analysts. For instance, both are federal countries that engage in multi-level governance in several policy fields, including higher education; both have continental territories that are unevenly populated, with indigenous peoples inhabiting remote areas and having less access to educational opportunities.
In general, we should cultivate a cosmopolitan outlook in higher education policy debate by broadening our horizons, rather than reflexively importing ideas from you-know-where. But that requires more work, thought, and insight than what is evident in this document.
Employing the report card methodology the Conference Board likes to use, the study gets a B for originality, but a C- for the incomplete literature review and a D for argument and analysis. The best thing the Conference Board could do would be to exercise some intellectual humility and revise this document. A re-write is encouraged and will be considered for a revised grade.