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Higher education

Barriers to inclusion

Affirmative action has yet to gain ground in Brazilian graduate education

Jônatas Moreira

Affirmative-action policies adopted at Brazilian universities in recent decades have helped widen access to higher education for low-income, Black, mixed-race, and indigenous minorities. But these policies have yet to become mainstream in graduate education, according to several surveys in the last five years by researchers at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP) and the Multidisciplinary Study Group on Affirmative Action at Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ).

The researchers analyzed the admission rules for 2,763 master’s and doctoral programs at public universities, published between 2002 and 2018. They found that the number of programs incorporating affirmative action had grown by 329.3% between 2015 and 2018—from 174 to a total of 737 programs. Although seemingly a large number, these programs represent just 26.4% of the survey sample. “While these initiatives are beginning to build momentum, there is still much ground to be gained,” says Anna Venturini, a political science researcher at CEBRAP and a coauthor of the affirmative-action studies.

Brazilian graduate programs first began to implement affirmative action in the 2000s, some on their own initiative and others as a requirement under state laws and university resolutions. In 2002, for example, Bahia State University (UNEB) introduced an affirmative-action policy for Black and indigenous applicants for master’s and doctoral programs.

But the movement only gained real traction in 2016 when the Ministry of Education published a directive requiring Federal higher education institutions to submit proposed measures for the inclusion of Black, mixed-race, indigenous, and disabled people in their graduate programs—in June 2020, the then minister of education, Abraham Weintraub, repealed the directive, only to have it reinstated days later. “These efforts have continued in recent years,” says Venturini, who has closely followed affirmative-action developments in Brazil since 2014. “Preliminary findings from our most recent survey show that Brazil had just over 1,200 programs incorporating some form of affirmative action in 2021,” says Venturini, who is now working to compile and consolidate a body of related data—even though there has been extensive research about undergraduate affirmative action in the US, the availability of well-structured data on these policies in graduate education is still limited. This makes benchmarking efforts difficult.

One of the most recent affirmative-action initiatives in Brazil was introduced at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP). In August 2021, the university passed a resolution requiring 69 graduate programs to set aside 25% of their spots for Black, mixed-race, indigenous, and quilombola applicants. “They can also expand the range of benefited minorities at their discretion,” says Fernando Atique, head of Academic Integration at the Associate Dean’s Office for Graduate Education and Research.

Alexandre Affonso

Although the MEC directive and university policies have helped to amplify affirmative-action initiatives, these have been unevenly distributed across academic fields. The expansion seen in 2018 was largely in the humanities, a field that accounted for 22.9% of the 737 programs incorporating affirmative action that year. “The humanities have a long tradition of research about social, economic, ethnic, and racial inequalities in access to higher education,” says Jocélio Teles dos Santos, an anthropology researcher at the Center for African and Oriental Studies, Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), who was not involved in the study. “Researchers in these fields are more likely to have a greater awareness of these issues and to implement strategies to mitigate them.”

Conversely, programs in exact and Earth sciences and engineering were the least likely to create affirmative action initiatives. “Our findings suggest that in graduate education, these fields in particular have been the most reluctant to introduce affirmative action,” notes João Feres Júnior, a political scientist at UERJ and one of the authors of the studies. This trend is clearly evident: of the 134 programs that have implemented affirmative action as an internal decision, 50% were in the humanities and only 1.5% were in the exact and Earth sciences.

Not a single engineering program in Brazil has adopted affirmative action voluntarily in the last few decades. “They only acted when prompted to do so by state laws or university resolutions,” says Venturini. “In these cases the policies apply to all programs across the board,” says the researcher, noting that programs can establish their own criteria for student admissions, unlike in undergraduate education.

Venturini believes the resistance seen in STEM fields could be related to what she calls “a culture of conservative meritocracy.” “The admissions processes for these programs attach less value to candidates’ backgrounds and assume the best-qualified candidates are simply those with the highest test scores,” she says. “But what they may not realize is that quota-aided students often have to work their way through university, which prevents them from engaging in activities that would give them a better shot at admission to a master’s or doctoral program—activities like scientific initiation programs, participation in research groups, and academic events.”

This kind of thinking is highly prevalent in STEM fields and makes them more resistant to policies designed to amend inequalities in higher education. “Many graduate program coordinators that I’ve interviewed said they didn’t care about a candidate’s skin color or background, but whether they were capable of keeping up with their coursework,” says Venturini. “Affirmative-action policies, they argue, are harmful to ‘the more capable candidates.’”

Adriano Senkevics, an education sociologist at the National Institute for Education Studies and Research (INEP), adds that these fields “have long been dominated by higher-education elites that are typically more resistant to change in their fields.” This means that change is unlikely to come from within these programs. “Affirmative action will only happen if it is mandated by universities’ central bodies or by law.”

Alexandre Affonso

In their studies, Venturini and Feres Júnior identified similar resistance when intersecting data on affirmative action policies with program scores in the most recent four-year assessment by the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES)—the CAPES assessment is used to measure the quality of master’s and doctoral programs in Brazil and to inform the distribution of research grants and scholarships. Those rated 6 and 7—the two top scores in the assessment—accounted for 11.5% of affirmative action initiatives. Those with ratings of 3 and 4 accounted for 71% of initiatives.

The pushback from better-rated programs, says Venturini, could stem from concerns around issues such as recurring thesis deadline extensions, lower student achievement, and impacts on publishing, and how this can affect the program’s quality and status. “So far, however, there’s been no evidence that changes in admission criteria for graduate candidates have had any negative impact on program performance or CAPES assessment scores.”

Of the 737 programs that have adopted affirmative-action policies in the last few years, 63.9% have done so through the quota system, in which a percentage of available spots is set aside for minority groups. Black, mixed-race, and indigenous students have benefited most from these measures. Some affirmative-action programs are also extended to people with disabilities, refugees, transsexuals, and transvestites. UFBA, for example, introduced a graduate affirmative-action policy for transgender people in 2017.

However, on closer examination of these strategies, Venturini found that in many cases, the admission process had changed little with the adoption of affirmative action. Quota beneficiaries and regular candidates go through the same stages in the admission process. “Minority candidates are often eliminated in the early admission stages because they lack requisite proficiency in foreign languages, for instance,” says Jocélio dos Santos, of UFBA.

As an example, he cites the graduate program in human rights at University of São Paulo’s prestigious School of Law (FD-USP). “Candidates lacking proficiency in a foreign language were disqualified in the first stage of the selection process, with only 4 of the 61 candidates passing the foreign language exam.”

Alexandre Affonso

FD-USP is now working to address this issue. Ana Elisa Bechara, the school’s associate dean, notes that in 2021 the school launched a pilot project with 20 extra spots for black, mixed-race, and indigenous people and people with disabilities. “Failing to pass the language proficiency test will no longer disqualify candidates,” she says. “Candidates can retake the language exam before the final qualification exam if they’ve passed the other stages in the selection process.” The school also has arrangements within the University and with student bodies to provide free language courses to minorities.

Rosana Heringer, a professor of sociology at the School of Education, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), believes “traditional admission criteria can undermine the effectiveness of strategies to expand minority access to graduate education.” Adriano Senkevics adds that: “Graduate education managers in Brazil are having to reformulate their programs to accommodate the needs of a new kind of student, and they have to realize that the barriers faced by low-income, Black, mixed-race, and indigenous people are not removed simply by creating quotas.”

Jocélio dos Santos suggests that graduate programs should lower the threshold score on proficiency tests for quota candidates. “At UNIFESP,” says Ricardo Bertolla, the university’s associate dean for graduate research, “we’ve introduced parameters that better reflect the reality of students applying for graduate programs.” One improvement, he says, was recognizing Portuguese as a foreign language for deaf and indigenous candidates.

But this can be problematic: some graduate programs are virtually impossible to pursue without some proficiency in English, explains Fernanda Estevan, an associate lecturer at Getulio Vargas Foundation’s (FGV) São Paulo School of Economics. “Virtually all the textbooks used in economics courses, for example, are written in English, and few have been translated into Portuguese,” she says. “So it’s pointless to do away with English proficiency tests if students will be exposed to English from day one in the program.”

Estevan explains that program assessment metrics are standardized internationally, and typically include the number of papers published in high-impact foreign journals, the number of collaborations with foreign-based researchers and institutions, and the number of postdoctoral internships abroad. “Of course our universities need to invest in strategies to fix historical inequalities in the research scene, but it isn’t easy if you’re going against the tide of what funding agencies and the scientific community itself require.”

Alexandre Affonso

Heringer believes, however, that many candidates are capable of pursuing graduate-level work without being proficient in English. “I don’t see proficiency in any given language as a measure of preparedness for graduate studies, but as something that needs to be included in students’ training throughout the program,” she says.

Some programs, such as at the Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences at the University of Campinas (IFCH-UNICAMP), are no longer administering proficiency tests during admissions, and are instead giving students a deadline by which to demonstrate their command of a foreign language. “We’re now more interested in the quality of research projects,” says sociologist Bárbara Geraldo de Castro, the university’s head of graduate programs. Measures such as these have helped to attract minority candidates to graduate studies, especially black and mixed-race students. “The number of affirmative-action candidates in our programs has grown significantly since 2016,” says Castro. She believes the biggest challenge, however, is student retention.

The absence of retention strategies can undermine the effectiveness of graduate affirmative action policies, especially at a time when funding for research grants is being curtailed. “Many programs require students to be devoted full-time to their studies,” notes Heringer. “How are these students—almost all of them economically disadvantaged—supposed to make ends meet without an allowance?” The approach taken for UFRJ’s graduate program in education is to use a unified admission process for all candidates that takes account not only of their performance during admission but also their social and economic status and whether they are affirmative-action beneficiaries. “We try to assess candidates on merit while also considering their backgrounds.” The problem, she says, is that for candidates to obtain a scholarship they often need to wait in line for another student to complete their program.

IFCH-UNICAMP prioritizes affirmative action candidates using two different ranking systems. “Some programs consider only the social and economic condition of candidates, while others separate candidates into two lists and award grants alternately to the best-ranked candidate overall and then to the best-ranked candidate in the affirmative action list, and so on successively,” explains Castro. This strategy created tensions when it was first introduced. “Many non-affirmative action candidates were angered at not being awarded a grant even though they were among the best-ranked applicants.” It got so bad that one morning students arrived at the university to find it vandalized with racist graffiti.

Retention policies need to include strategies to prevent quota-aided students from being discriminated against. “We’re working to prevent this problem from growing roots in graduate education,” says Atique of UNIFESP. “Many candidates worry that they’ll be retaliated against over their affirmative-action status.” We’ve since taken an approach of not revealing students’ status when announcing successful candidates. “These measures are important to ensure minorities can not only get into university but also complete their studies.”

Scientific articles
VENTURINI, A. C. Comparing diffusion patterns in affirmative action policies for graduate education in BrazilJournal of Comparative Policy Analysis: Research and Practice. 2022.
VENTURINI, A. C. Affirmative action for Brazilian graduate programs: patterns of institutional changeBrazilian Journal of Public Administration. Vol. 55, no. 6, pp. 1250–70. 2021.
VENTURINI, A. C & JÚNIOR, J. F. Política de ação afirmativa na pós-graduação: o caso das universidades públicasCadernos de Pesquisa. Vol. 50, no. 177, pp. 882–909. 2020.