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Academic policy

Limits challenged

Studies compare the performance of students who have benefited from affirmative action and show that many are successful academically

Fabiano Accorsi/Folha ImagemThere is new information for the debate on affirmative action programs for admittance to higher education in Brazil. A group of academic studies on the performance of benefiting students, especially those from public schools and socially underprivileged ethnic groups, is starting to assess the efficiency of the initiatives put in place by more than 40 Brazilian universities. The programs are divided into two major groups. On one hand, there is a quota system, which in general sets aside a percentage of university places for low income students, blacks or native Indians. First implemented between 2002 and 2003 in the state universities of Mato Grosso do Sul and Rio de Janeiro, there are now several institutions using this system, especially federal universities. On the other hand, there are systems that award bonus points in the college entrance exam for students from public schools, as well as for those who declare that they are black, of mixed descent, or native Indian. This was implemented in 2004 by the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and adopted, with certain variations, by the University of São Paulo (USP), the Fluminense Federal University (UFF), the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN), the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) and the Fatecs, i.e., the technology schools of the state of São Paulo. This system does not establish a minimum number of university places, but increases these groups’ chances of gaining access to higher education by means of the college entrance exam.

Regarding students’ performance, the Unicamp system yielded the most significant results. A paper published in a recent issue of Higher Education Management and Policy, published by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), presents the data that formed the basis for establishing the bonus point system and its initial results. The study shows that the students entering Unicamp between 1994 and 1997 and who came from public schools performed better, academically, than students from private schools, taking into account, for both groups, students who entered the university with similar grades in the entrance exam. The phenomenon, referred to as “educational resilience,” is known to educators and concerns students’ ability to achieve social and academic success despite exposure to personal and social hardships. One of the possible explanations is the special ability of those low income students who have a strong educational background to deal with adversity, a valuable quality in a university’s competitive environment. This situation is seldom shared by their middle class school mates, whose families, in general, spared them from any adversity.

Evidence of this behavior has helped shape the Affirmative Action and Social Inclusion Program (Paais), which has benefited students from public schools since 2004, by giving them an extra 30 points, plus another 10 if they are black or native Indian. This bonus is applied on a 500-point basis, ascribed to the average performance of all the students in each exam. The choice of these points was no accident. It is roughly the technical tie in the college entrance exam, within which the applicants’ performance fluctuation does not indicate an advantage: if the same applicants take other exams, their ranking will vary within this gray area. Thus, the idea is to help public school students, black and native Indians, by breaking this technical tie within a sample of applicants with very similar academic performance. “What our data showed is that aside from the social inclusion issue and the promotion of diversity, this formula was also interesting for Unicamp from the academic standpoint, since students from public schools have historically achieved a higher performance relative to students from private schools at a similar knowledge level,” says Renato Pedrosa, author of the paper and a professor at Imecc, Unicamp’s Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science Institute.

In 2005, the program’s first year, the admission of public school students at Unicamp rose from 29.6% of the total to 34.1%. Additionally, this share was not limited to the courses that are less sought after, as is usual: 34 of the 110 students admitted to the more competitive courses, such as medical school, came from public schools. The admission of blacks and native Indians increased 44% in relation to the previous two years, from 10.9% to 15.7% of the total – a ratio, however, that is still lower than the 23% of students in high schools in São Paulo with these ethnic backgrounds. The most significant data was the performance of public school students during their first year of college. In the college entrance exam ranking, their average was above that of the private school applicants in only 4 out of the 56 available courses. However, at the end of their freshman year, these students’ grade averages were higher than that of the students who had come from private schools in 31 of the courses. As for medical school, public school students had an average grade of 7.9, whilst their private school peers’ average was of 7.6.Preliminary results from the 2006-2007 school years show equivalent performance. “From the public policy formulation standpoint, our approach is a clear alternative to the quota systems used by many universities, as it develops a new concept of merit that benefits students with strong potential and provides for diversity in the academic environment,” says Renato Pedrosa.

Danilo Verpa/Folha ImagemIn 2006, the University of São Paulo decided to adopt a program similar to the Unicamp one. Called Inclusp, it grants a bonus of 3% to the grades obtained in both phases of the college entrance exams for applicants who went to public schools for all of their high school course. Of the 2007 enrollments, 2,719 were public school students, i.e., 26.7% of the total. This ratio was higher than in the preceding couple of years: in 2006, the ration was 24.7%, equal to 2,448 students. At the USP law course, for example, the number of public school students rose from 43 in 2006 to 76 in 2007. There were 28 students in the medical school in 2007, and only 9 in 2006. Data on these students’ performance after their freshman year in college shows that both groups – those that were given the bonus and those that were not – had similar academic performances. The average grade of the Inclusp students at the medical school was 7.2, identical to that of the other students. There was also a tie at the law school: the average grade of both groups was 7.2. As for the general performance of the institution’s students in 2007, those who had benefited from the bonus points achieved an average grade of 6.3, vs. 6.2 among the others. “These results show that the program’s underlying hypotheses makes sense, but we must still assess more years to draw conclusions from a historical series,” says Selma Garrido Pimenta, Dean of Undergraduates Studies at USP. “Inclusp is bringing public school students closer to the university, as we had hoped. Many public school students wouldn’t even consider sitting our college entrance exams, if they had no chance of passing. The first results show that not only are they admitted, but they are also able to adapt to the university’s competitive environment.” USP, which chose not to grant bonuses to ethnic minorities, will further enhance its affirmative action program. Last month, the establishment of a series of assessments of public school students in São Paulo in their three last years of school was approved. Students who wish to sit these annual exams and who perform well in them will be given an extra bonus in the regular college entrance exams, in addition to the 3% bonus currently granted.

Both USP and Unicamp chose not to adopt a quota system, considering them incompatible with the concept of acknowledging merit that guides their academic relations. There is a fear that admitting students with weak academic backgrounds, as a result of fixed quotas, may hinder teaching and research excellence – USP and Unicamp account for more than one third of the Brazil’s academic work. “There is a background discussion in the affirmative action debate about the role of research universities such as Unicamp within society,” says Leandro Tessler, coordinator of Unicamp’s college entrance exams and professor of the Gleb Wataghin Physics Institute (IFGW). “There are people who believe the university’s role is to promote social inclusion. We believe that the objective should be to attract more talented youngsters, so much so that we offer our college entrance exam in 20 cities in 9 Brazilians states, to ensure diversity,” says Tessler.

Those who favor quota systems evidently have another opinion. “The experiences with quotas and other initiatives show that it is possible to attract public school students at the same level as those from private school, even if they don’t rank among the top scorers in college entrance exams,” says Antonio Sergio Alfredo Guimarães, a USP professor and an affirmative action scholar who also specialized in the sociology of social relations. “In many cases, the students do not lack the ability to learn, their motivation and performance during the course offsets any educational discrepancies. Our society is increasingly democratic and it is a matter of principle: the objective is to increase inclusion and ensure that the intellectual elite is not confused with the financial elite, so that talented but poor people aren’t simply excluded. The objective is to correct this perversion of the system.”

If there is one consensus among those that favor quotas and those who are against them, it is that the root of the problem lies in the terrible conditions of most government middle and high schools. But those in favor believe it does not make sense to wait for this historical issue to be solved. “The statistics speak for themselves. Only 7.1% of Brazilians aged 18 to 25 manage to enter the Brazilian higher education system; however, among whites, the rate for this age group is 11.2%, whereas for blacks, it is never over 2.3%,” says André Brandão, a professor at the Fluminense Federal University and organizer of the book Cotas raciais no Brasil: a primeira avaliação, compilação de artigos com experiências de várias universidades (Racial quotas in Brazil: first assessment, compilation of papers with case studies from several universities), released in 2007.

Tuca Vieira/Folha ImagemThe college entrance exam performance of students aided by the social or ethnic quota systems is, in most cases studied, worse than that of the bonus system that Unicamp uses, especially in the so-called high prestige courses, in which the competition for a university place is even greater. But the available assessments do not confirm the fear that the quota students would be incapable of keeping up with the other students or that there would be an immediate impact upon the teaching quality. A group led by professor Jacques Velloso, from the School of Education at the University of Brasília, has tracked quota and non-quota students’ performance (20% of the available places are reserved for blacks or people of mixed descent) at the institution since 2004 and has produced a significant number of studies on the subject. The analysis of the student rate in the year of 2005 shows that, contrary to expectations, the students who benefited from the quotas and left the courses was 9% of the total vs. 16% for non-quota students – which can also be seen as a manifestation of educational resilience. “A possible explanation is that poor performance in certain subjects, which is generally the cause for dropping out, is primarily related to the student’s lack of motivation rather than to an alleged academic inability to finish the course,” says Claudete Batista Cardoso, in her master thesis that assessed the quota system at UnB, under Velloso’s supervision. Contradictorily, dropping out is greater in courses with less social prestige, which are precisely those sought by blacks and people of mixed descent, probably because of the modest income these careers provide. In the courses with less prestige (teaching degrees), the drop out rate reached 17%, vs. 10% in the more prestigious courses ( bachelor’s degrees).

At UnB, the academic performance rate of students who entered the university in the second half of 2004 showed that quota students’ performance is, in general, worse than that of non-quota students. “However, it also showed that in all courses there are blacks with high performance, and that, in most of the groups, about one third and almost one half of the quota students performed better than most of the students on the course, achieving 70% at medical school, an exceptional level,” Velloso states. “The data is surprising, but not as much, if one considers that the admitted quota students themselves are an elite within their group, even if they are a second elite, compared to students who are neither black nor of mixed descent,” says Velloso. As we know, blacks abandon school before whites and only part of them finish high school thereby being able to qualify for higher education. According to 2001 information from Saeb (Basic Education Assessment System), blacks account for 12% of the students who finish fourth grade in public and private schools. However, among those that finish high school, only 6% declare themselves as black.

In 2004, the average performance of the applicants from UnB’s quota system in the college entrance exams was significantly lower than that of the other students in three areas of knowledge: the Humanities, Sciences and Health. Considering the groups of greater social prestige in each area of these courses , the differences would be approximately 25%. In the groups of lower prestige in the three areas, the gaps were smaller, below 20%. The performance panorama drastically changed during the 2005 college entrance exam. The greatest gap between applicants of both segments was equal or smaller than just 10%. “In the high prestige courses in the Humanities area, the average grade of the quota students was only 1% below that of their classmates from the general entry system; in other words, there was no significant difference between the two groups,” says Velloso. One explanation for the change could be that a number of blacks from a better socioeconomic background became excited about attempting the college entrance exam after extensive media coverage of the quota program.

The available data shows very significant performance variations between the universities that have adopted racial or social quotas, but the expected deterioration in the academic level does not appear to have materialized in most institutions. There is obviously some problematic data: during the 2003 college entrance exam at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (Uerj), on ten courses, students were admitted (via public school quotas; within these, there were quotas for blacks) who had achieved only 4 to 7 out of a maximum of 110 points in the exams. A 2006 study by historian Wilson de Mattos at the State University of Bahia (Uneb) reached a more exciting result when comparing the grade averages on the courses that implemented quotas for blacks vs. that of the other students. With a sample from 11 departments of the institution’s several campuses, considering the averages per department and the performance in the first and second semesters of 2003, the quota students’ grades were different from the other averages by only a few decimal points or less. In two departments, the black students’ average grade was higher than that of the other students”, also by decimal points. A poll carried out with 557 professors at four universities that implemented the quota system – UnB, the Federal University of Alagoas (Ufal), the State University of Bahia (Uneb) and Uerj – suggests that the system was accepted by the professors. Only 9.7% of them believe that the academic level has fallen. Most of the professors (79.6%) stated it was unchanged and 10.7%, that it had improved. The research was carried out by researchers André Brandão, José Luís Petruccelli and Renato Ferreira, from the Public Policies Laboratory of Uerj.

The examples of the quota systems that essentially privilege public school students are the most accepted ones, while those that institute racial quotas are more subject to controversy. One of the most polemic methods is UnB’s racial quota system, which, instead of adopting the criteria of self-declaration of ethnic background, used, up to last year, photos of the quota applicants to evaluate them. The photo system was abolished in 2008, but the possible disqualification of applicants who misstate their racial background is a threat still in effect. This is an especially difficult decision in a country such as Brazil, which has such strong miscegenation. Ufba decided to include self-declared black students as a sub-quota within the 45% quota for public school students – and has not encountered difficulties in filling up its places with these demands. “Because the university is recruiting people from the same social class, exaggerations in the self-declaration make little difference,” explains professor Antônio Guimarães, from USP. Uerj and the Norte Fluminense State University (Uenf) changed their systems one year after implementation, turning the quota for blacks into a sub-quota for public school students, and demanding evidence of the applicants’ low income – they realized that during the first college entrance exam, only blacks with privileged socioeconomic origin passed the exam. Experiences vary according to regional needs. The State University of Mato Grosso do Sul (Uems) holds 20% of its places for blacks and 10% for native Indians. The Federal University of Alagoas has also implemented a peculiar split. 20% of the spots are set aside for black students of mixed descent who study in public schools, but there is a gender demand as well – of this total, 60% of the places are reserved for women of African descent and 40% for men.

Patchen.diversityInternational experience shows that there is no ideal affirmative action model. Racial quotas are established in countries with a strong social discrepancy and racial tension, such as South Africa and India. Preferential treatment and the reservation of university places are also in effect in Israel, China, Australia, the Fiji Islands, Canada, Pakistan, New Zealand and the states of the former Soviet Union. In Israel, special measures were adopted to admit the falashas, the Ethiopian Jewish community. In Germany and Nigeria, there is affirmative action for women; in Colombia, for those of native Indian origin; in Canada, for Native Americans, women and African Americans. In Portugal, for students from the former Portuguese colonies in Africa. In South Africa, the 1996 Constitution provided for the use of affirmative action policies in order to guarantee access at several levels for the blacks who were victims of the apartheid regime. “As frequent as they may be, the affirmative action programs are usually temporary, and for most of their supporters, it is usually not a good idea to proclaim affirmative action as a principle or permanent aspect of a society,” wrote Eglaisa Pontes Cunha, author of a master’s degree thesis on the performance of quota students at UnB, in 2006.

In the United States, the country usually regarded as the patron of quotas, the situation is far more complex that it would seem at first sight. Technically, the reservation of university places for ethnic minorities has been forbidden since 1978, when the Supreme Court ruled on the notorious case of Bakke vs. the directors of the University of California. After being denied admission to the Medical School at the University of California at Davis, Allan Bakke, a white man, filed a law suit claiming he was a victim of racial discrimination. His claim was successful in the regular courts, but the University appealed. In 1978, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of Bakke, deeming that admission programs that reserved university places based on race were unconstitutional. However, the decision favored affirmative action, providing schools with the possibility of considering race as one of the factors to be taken into account in the admissions process. The American selection process, which varies from state to state and from institution to institution, encompasses a series of affirmative actions. Most states grant benefits to their own citizens, in the form of points or affordable tuition fees (education is paid for in the United States), and also have methods that ensure ethnic diversity on their campuses. The state universities of California, for example, are required, by law, to admit the 12% top graduates of its state public schools.

In the Brazilian case, it will only be possible to carry out a better assessment of affirmative action programs in a few years. In the last two years, changes in the demand profile have been visible, but their effects are still unclear. Data from the University of Brasília regarding 2006, included in the master’s degree thesis presented last month by Claudete Batista Cardoso, shows that the percentage of students enrolled through the quota system increased from 15% of the total in 2004 to 17% in 2005, then dropped sharply to only 10% in 2006. According to Claudete, a possible explanation for the drop is that it was influenced by the significant increase of private university places in the Federal District area, associated with the start of ProUni, the University for Everyone Program, which provides scholarships for low income students to attend private colleges and universities. “A considerable part of the quota students have a much lower social background than the non-quota students, which has a negative impact on their chances of successfully passing very competitive exams; it is possible that many students who thought of enrolling in the UnB quota program decided to register for the ProUni scholarships instead,” Claudete states. In USP’s entrance exams, despite the Inclusp affirmative action program, the number of public school students fell from 49,340 in 2006 to 46,309 in 2007 – a result attributed to the increase in private university places and the success of the ProUni program.

Other evidence suggests, however, that the assumptions underlying the affirmative action programs will not be adversely affected. Studies by researchers from the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC) and UnB suggest that a possible increase in the number of federal university places, as promised by the Ministry of Education going forward, would have little effect upon the reduction of racial inequalities. Simulations show that if the number of places offered by both types of institutions suddenly doubled and there were no quotas, the ratio of admitted people of African descent would remain practically unchanged. “This information clearly shows that even if the number of available places grows significantly, the chances of African descendants enrolling in the courses would not change substantially,” says professor Jacques Velloso, from UnB. “The data also helps to put the quotas into perspective. There are two sides to the story: first, they are a small, yet necessary adjustment for past social and racial inequalities; second, it is mandatory to effectively democratize basic public education, offering a sound academic background to all of those who would not have access to it under normal circumstances due to their color or social class.”

As stated by sociologist José de Souza Martins (a retired full professor from USP and a critic of affirmative actions), quotas and bonuses do not really address the real issue. “Justice is when the quality of education is improved and when equal opportunities are provided for everyone, and not only for some. Alternatives such as quotas mend the inequality but do not solve the issues,” he says. “The Law of Basic Tenets and Guidelines of National Education established that Brazil should have implemented full time schooling through high school as of 2002. This didn’t happen. Instead, quotas were discussed. The proposition is to recruit students with less potential and exclude those with greater potential. How does society benefit from this’ It doesn’t. It just makes believe that justice was done,” says the professor.