Higher Education in Brazil from a systems perspective


CBESP XI, 2018. photo: Olaf Brugman (c)

Investments in higher education are needed to increase access to higher education in Brazil, to accelerate technological innovation, and to combat widespread corruption. These are some key conclusions of the 11th Brazilian Conference on Private Higher Education (“CBESP XI”), convened by ABMES, the Brazilian Association of Organisations Maintaining Higher Education, held in June on the Island of Comandatuba, Brazil.

The educational challenges for Brazil staggering: students with the weakest capacity to finance their higher education studies in general only have access to the more expensive higher education programs at private institutions of higher education, and much less to the federal universities which are free to study at. Simultaneously, the private institutions realizing these programs claim they do not have access to government funds to run the same services that federal universities are providing, and have to deal with the issue that their students very often need to close personal loans to study, with high rates of churn. Federal universities, on the other hand, were said to have a student base that is much more financially resilient, and there are more generously funded by the government. In the opening sessions of the conference, ABMES President Janguiê Diniz and federal judge Douglas Williams firmly called to action to combat corruption in Brazil, that is making education and other economic ecosystem services more expensive than necessary, eating into the capacity to allocate public funds to effective policies. In fact, according to Janguiê Diniz, education is the only way to reduce corruption. The rationale to choose education as a key instrument in combatting corrupting is according do Diniz, OECD policy research that finds a high negative correlation between quality of education and corruption. Currently, Brazil ranks 96th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2017. In terms of the level of adult education, OECD data show that 14.8% of adults between 25 and 64 years old had a tertiary education in 2015, while the average figure for all OECD countries was 35.7 in 2016.


Schermafbeelding 2018-06-16 om 16.17.55
Tertiary education by country, OECD, 2015-2016


The Brazilian higher education system still promulgates exclusion of students willing and intellectually able enter into advanced studies: about 17% of students coming from secondary education were said to continue to study at an institution in the higher education system. As a consequence, the higher education system generates much less highly qualified graduates than competing countries manage to do, which increases the innovation gap and diminishes economic competitiveness relative to more innovative countries. In other words, tertiary qualification in Brazil is less likely to have the power to fire up economic growth in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Another systemic effect at the national level was presented by Janguîe Diniz in his book launched at the conference: access to and quality of higher education correlate with lower levels of corruption and lower levels of non-functioning subsystems of society: education, health, security, employment, to name a few. In other words, higher educational levels and more effective educational system will enhance other functional subsystems in society.

62893d4a-74ec-479a-9e2a-246db5ee21a9At the CBESP XI, I saw a highly motivated privately owned educational sector, with a wealth of brands positioned to cater to the needs of various segments in the educational. market. It has developed a wealth of technological tools to support distance learning, something that does not exist to that extent in Europe. Also, the advanced institutions all are experimenting with new organizational concepts, such as agile working, start-up approaches to accelerate innovations, and with a rich choice of technology platforms.

Nearly 80% of all higher education is realized by privately owned companies. These educational institutions currently see no other options than to fund from investors and even more to charge their students hefty fees for courses ranging from vocational and professional training up to masters and doctoral programmes. The students in the private higher education generally come from poorer families than those in which parents could pay for their children’s privately owned secondary schools and that as a consequence can send their offspring to study for free and the government-funded and well to do federal universities.

In other words, From a systems perspective, we can say that at the level of the educational institutions, the privately owned institutions have access to knowledge and technology, have developed a rich set of formats and technologies to innovate full-time, part-time and distance learning. However, the picture at a higher system level, the level of the educational sector as a whole, could perhaps be characterised as too little and too late, and it must be concluded from there, that public policies and investments at all administrative levels are necessary to steer the access to education, its efficiency, and its effectiveness.

Let’s be mindful of the fact that the outcomes of the educational systems are produced by a variety of factors that the state most probably just cannot fix on its own without efforts and support from the private higher education sector. Therefore, the higher education sector should not discard opportunities to influence the conditions for and realisation of better education, by working with partners in society (government, secondary education, financial sector, the technology and services sectors etc) to develop local solutions that actually can work in practice in the short term, while also uniting to influence public policies at the level of the federal and state level. Tools like the Malik Supersyntegration are perfectly suited to integrate expert knowledge and together with partners diagnose the educational systems of Brazil and develop new solutions.

– Janguiê Diniz, Falta de Educação Gera Corrupção. São Paulo: Novo Século, 2018.
– Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index 2017.
– OECD statistics on education and educational policy.