Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Will Affirmative Action in Brazilian Universities Aid Equality?

The library of the University of São Paulo is pictured above. // File Photo: University of São Paulo. The library of the University of São Paulo is pictured above. // File Photo: University of São Paulo.

The Brazilian government earlier this year passed a law that aims to reverse income and racial inequality by requiring public universities to reserve half of their admission spots for students from public schools, with a proportional number from the historically marginalized afro-Brazilian, mestizo and indigenous populations in each state. Will the new law dramatically reduce the country’s notable inequality, as supporters assert? Or will it put a ‘straitjacket’ on universities, as a senator who voted against the bill claims? What role does higher education play in Brazil’s social and economic development? Does Brazil’s debate over affirmative action have implications for other countries in the region?

Leandro Tessler, advisor on internationalization projects and strategies to the president of the University of Campinas: “Brazil’s debate over affirmative action has unfortunately been reduced to a discussion of quotas, as if this were the only possible affirmative action initiative. Affirmative action is legitimate in a country where nearly 90 percent of the enrollment of basic education is in free public schools, but less than 30 percent of the students in the free public universities come from public schools. University students are selected only by grades on tests, where the economic elite fares much better because they were educated in better private schools. The most controversial issue is certainly the use of skin color as a criterion. Unlike the diversity arguments used in the United States in the 1970s, Brazilian black movements claim the state must provide historical reparation to the black, mestizo and indigenous populations. In Brazil, the mestizo population is very high and there are no obvious criteria to establish who is eligible for the benefits. It is possible that quotas will contribute to a reduction in inequality. However, this will happen at the cost of leaving more talented youth out of the public higher education system. Only with massive investment in improving the public basic schools will Brazil have better opportunities for all. The dire side of using quotas as a mechanism of affirmative action is to give the impression that all evident deficiencies of the public basic education system are solved. They are still there. The debate about affirmative action has already reached neighboring countries that, like Brazil, have social or ethnic inequalities. This is the case in Colombia and Uruguay.”

José Goldemberg, professor emeritus at the University of São Paulo and former minister of education: “The new law won’t dramatically reduce the country’s inequality. Less than a third of Brazil’s 2 million university students attend public universities, to which the new law applies. The fundamental inequality is economic and a small fraction of children going to elementary school (to which access is free) reach secondary school. An even smaller percentage finishes secondary school. Government action is mostly needed at these levels, not at the entrance exams of public universities. It will certainly put a ‘straitjacket’ on universities. Affirmative action in entrance exams at public universities was adopted as a populist policy. Universities are really easy targets for the introduction of quotas since they are dependent on government funding and it is difficult for rectors to resist. In other areas of the government, it will be more difficult to enact them. Higher education in Brazil plays the role of preparing people for positions in the government and private sector as well as in research and development in order to increase the competitiveness of the productive system, an important component for the modernization of the country. Lowering university entrance requirements will hurt the capacity of already burdened universities to prepare competent people. Brazil’s debate over affirmative action does not have implications for other countries in the region. In Argentina, Mexico and a few other Latin American countries, there are no entrance examinations for universities. In others such as Chile, race is not an issue. And in others such as Bolivia or Peru, the indigenous population is a majority so the problem has not appeared.”

Tanya Katerí Hernández, professor of law at Fordham University School of Law: “There is a wealth of empirical data that strongly supports the prediction that Brazil’s new affirmative action law for public federal universities will be one useful tool among many for reducing the nation’s inequality. Before the enactment of the law, there were at least 80 public universities that had adopted affirmative action policies, and the studies of student outcomes have shown the programs to be quite successful. For instance, a study of student outcomes at the State University of Campinas found that students from socioeconomically and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds performed relatively better at the university than those from a higher socioeconomic and educational level. The study concluded that the need for hard work when striving for greater opportunity (as in preparing for the university admission examination without the proper training from the under-resourced public secondary schools) creates an ‘educational resilience’ that furthers performance once a student is admitted to the university. The educational resilience of the less-privileged students was manifested directly in higher grade point averages of the affirmative action students after only one year of university study in 31 of the 55 possible undergraduate courses. Overall, the relative performance of the affirmative action students was higher in 48 of the 55 courses. Studies of student outcomes at the University of Brasília, the State University of North Fluminense, the Federal University of Bahia, the State University of Rio de Janeiro and the Federal University of Espírito Santo similarly found that affirmative action students succeed once provided the opportunity of admission. Providing formerly excluded young people with the educational resilience to succeed, greater access to higher education and the economic mobility a university education provides is surely one important step for addressing social and racial inequality.”

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