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Higher education

Number of students completing a degree at public universities in Brazil falls

The decline began in 2019 and worsened during the pandemic thanks to the suspension of in-person activities and postponement of the end of the academic year

Maíra Mendes

Since 2019, the number of students at Brazil’s public colleges and universities successfully completing their undergraduate degrees has dropped precipitously. There were 251,374 graduates in 2019, 3% less than in 2018. However, the situation worsened considerably during the pandemic, with the suspension of in-person activities and delays finishing the school year. In 2020, the number of graduates plummeted to 204,174, down 18.7% compared to 2019. It rose again in 2021, to 219,342, but this is still only on par with numbers from almost a decade ago. The data, released in November 2022, come from the most recent Higher Education Census by the National Institute of Educational Studies and Research (INEP), an agency of the Ministry of Education.

The causes of the phenomenon are diverse. With the worsening economy, many students have been forced to work to support themselves or help their families. “Some manage to reconcile employment and college, others have more difficulty and end up leaving their studies on the back burner,” notes pharmacologist Soraya Smaili, former dean of the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP). This trend, common in times of recession, had been observed in recent years, “but it got much worse with the pandemic,” adds the researcher, who is coordinator of the Center for University, Society, and Science Studies (Sou Ciência), a research task force focused on studies and debates on public policies for higher education and science funding in Brazil.

Extended course deadlines and decreased student retention due to the health emergency also had an influence. However, beyond the pandemic’s effects, experts attribute the drop to a lack of organization in the resources needed for keeping economically vulnerable students studying at public universities, such as scholarships and aid for housing, food, and transportation expenses. “The quota policy fostered a change in the profile of students entering undergraduate programs, and expanded access to higher education for low-income, black, brown, and Indigenous individuals in Brazil,” comments political scientist Elizabeth Balbachevsky, professor at the School of Philosophy, Letters and Languages, and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP). “This group is known to be more sensitive to variations in the country’s economic conditions and is, therefore, the most affected by the science and education funding crisis.”

The line item “other current expenses” for the 68 Brazilian federal universities plummeted 45%, from R$8.6 billion in 2018 to R$4.4 billion in September 2022, corrected for inflation, according to data from the government’s Integrated Planning and Budget System. This category includes funds for the purchase of consumables and payments for water, energy, per diems, and provided services, in addition to student financial assistance. The budget of the National Student Assistance Program (PNAES), used to provide scholarships, housing assistance, transportation, and food for students at federal universities, also shrank by 18.3% from 2019 to 2021.

Data from the most recent National Survey of the Socioeconomic and Cultural Profile of Graduates of Federal Institutions of Higher Education, released in 2019, indicate that 70.2% of students at federal universities have a monthly family income of at most one minimum wage (approx. R$1,100) per family member, with the average income estimated at R$640. The survey, conducted since 1996 by the National Forum of Associate Deans of Student Affairs, linked to the National Association of Directors of Federal Higher Education Institutions (ANDIFES), found that only 4.6% of students have an income greater than five minimum wages (approx. R$5,500).

The apparent increase in college dropouts could be masking other trends. In his doctoral research, defended in 2021 at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), sociologist Gustavo Bruno de Paula found that up to 80% of students who gave up on their undergraduate studies at federal universities between 2016 and 2017 later returned to higher education. According to some studies, it is not uncommon for these students to resume their education at private institutions that offer distance-learning courses.

Alexandre Affonso / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

This trend has advanced at an accelerated pace since 2010. During this period, the number of new online students increased by 464.1%, while in-person courses fell by 13.9%. Part of this shift is due to a decree published in May 2017, during the administration of President Michel Temer (2016–2018), making the rules for distance-learning courses more flexible.

Balbachevsky recognizes that distance-learning courses offer an alternative for many of those unable to enter or establish a foothold in public higher education, “but we need to pay attention to the quality of training being provided,” stresses the researcher. “Simply obtaining a degree through this type of program doesn’t guarantee that the individual will be able to compete professionally in the job market.”

The INEP data reveal another worrying statistic. Over the last five years, Brazilian public universities have begun to record successive declines in new registrants. In 2017, they admitted just over 589,000 new students. In 2021, there were approximately 492,000 new student admissions recorded. The number of participants in the National High School Examination (ENEM) has also dropped every year since 2016, when there were just over 5.8 million candidates. In 2021, that number was 2.2 million. “The problem seems to go beyond keeping students in school,” points out Smaili. “Many students feel unmotivated or think they’re incapable of getting accepted to a public university based on the education they received at school and don’t even register to take the exam.” Currently, only 23% of the Brazilian population between 24 and 35 years of age has a university degree, while the average for other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is 47%.

This phenomenon is expected to have important implications for educating new researchers. At the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), for example, the master’s and doctoral degree selection programs have been showing limited demand, possibly indicating a trend in professionals withdrawing from graduate programs. The Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) also measured a reduction in demand, especially in the areas of engineering and health sciences. Several programs had to carry out two selection procedures per year in order to fill all their vacancies (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue no. 315).

Renato Pedrosa, an associate researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies (IEA) at USP, draws attention to another aspect of the problem that has not yet been measured. “The pandemic has compromised the education of thousands of primary and secondary school students in public schools, many of whom will probably look to the quota systems to help them enter public universities,” he says. “It is true that the experience that’s been accumulated around quotas and other affirmative actions in Brazil has dispelled fears that there would be a drastic drop in the caliber of students and in the quality of teaching, but we still don’t know the extent of the impact of the pandemic on young people’s secondary educations in public schools. I’m afraid this is going to compromise the performance of students intending to enter courses that have historically had high levels of dropouts, such as bachelor’s degrees in exact sciences and engineering.”

Degree programs in the exact sciences, for which there is traditionally little demand, also deserve special attention, Pedrosa says. “These are complicated programs, with a lot of calculus, math, and physics, disciplines that require students have a solid basic education, and we know that math results in the high school completion assessments already showed serious deficiencies even before the pandemic,” he adds. Most Brazilian universities seek to provide economic conditions that ensure students will remain in school. However, in Pedrosa’s assessment, in addition to financial support, they will need to invest more in helping them with their academic difficulties, in the form of pedagogical and psychological support.

USP took notice of this problem when students returned to in-person activities. “Many students were on their way into their third year as undergraduates, but hadn’t yet set foot on the university campus,” observes Aluísio Segurado, USP’s associate dean of undergraduate students. To assist in the adaptation, the institution launched an academic mentoring program in early 2022, with scholarships for graduate students and postdoctoral research fellows. The objective is for them to help younger students in different stages of undergraduate programs and assist new entrants with scholastic reinforcement activities to get up to speed with their disciplines. “We are now working to make this program permanent,” he says.