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USP and Unicamp are adopting new strategies for attracting students from public schools

EDUARDO CESARStudents at Unicamp: pilot course EDUARDO CESAR

The two main research universities in the country have introduced new strategies for expanding the number of students coming out of public schools. The main initiative comes from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), which in 2011 created a two-year pilot course for 120 students from local public schools , who were selected according to their performance in the National High School Exam (Enem). “As a good part of the students in public education do not even think about doing the Unicamp entrance exam we decided to go after them,”  says Unicamp’s Graduate pro-dean, physicist Marcelo Knobel, one of the brains behind the initiative. At the end of the pilot course, and depending on the performance of each one, the students will be able to go into regular courses at the university without having to do the entrance exam. Called Profis, an acronym for Programa de Formação Interdisciplinar Superior [Higher Education Interdisciplinary Program] the initiative is looking to expand the number of economically underprivileged students in the institution. Since 2005, Unicamp has had a program that offers bonus points on the marks obtained in the entrance exam to those coming from public schools, with extra bonus points for black, colored or Indian students. “The bonus points in the entrance exam will continue but they have a restriction: they only benefit those who have the initiative to sit the entrance exam,”  says Knobel.

Within the scope of its Social Inclusion Program (Inclusp), the University of São Paulo (USP) has improved its bonus program for the entrance exam, which since 2007 has benefited students from public schools. The maximum bonus marks in the entrance exam for students who had always been educated in public schools, was 3% in 2007 and rose to 12% in 2009, and has now reached 15%. The bonus mark is cumulative and grows in the same proportion as the performance of the candidate. “The lack of knowledge of pupils from public schools about USP is so big that many think it’s a university they have to pay for,”  say the Graduate pro-Dean of USP, Telma Zorn. What is new is that USP has abandoned the idea of having a specific test in public schools just for third year high school students. Now the program will be expanded to second year students who take the entrance exam within the scope of Fuvest as trainees – candidates who have not yet concluded high school but who already want to gain experience of doing the university entrance exam. Part of the 15% bonus comes from this participation. “With the incentive to do the entrance exam as trainees we are seeking to encourage public school pupils to start their preparation for the university entrance exam earlier and to look for better quality education,”  says Telma Zorn.

According to Ms. Zorn, almost all the 12,000 trainees who sit the university entrance exam every year come from private schools. “We want to reverse a culture of self-exclusion from USP and from the major universities, which has been prevalent in the public education network for decades, create for pupils and their teachers a future project, bring the best pupils from the public schools to USP and favor those who suffer from considerable social and economic disadvantages,”  she says. In this sense, observes the pro-dean, only those pupils who do all their elementary and high school education in public schools will be able to benefit from the maximum 15% bonus, while those who only study at high school level in such schools will receive maximum bonus marks of 8%. “This procedure guarantees that the pupils who benefit most are those with major social and economic disadvantages, with a family income between 1 and 5 minimum salaries. To guarantee quality these bonus points are performance-related and the ceiling will only be reached by candidates who achieved 60 points in the first phase of Fuvest.” As from the 2010 university entrance exams, pupils from technical schools were also able to compete for the program provided they have only studied in the public education system.

EDUARDO CESARScientific career
The inclusion of economically underprivileged pupils in higher public education, still strongly dominated by middle class pupils from private schools, is the main ambition of the two programs, but they are also trying to attract a greater number of young talented people to a scientific career, a recurrent concern in research universities. “If our project is successful naturally some of these students will have careers as researchers. They have the potential for this: they are the best in their schools,” say s Knobel from Unicamp.  “Post graduation collapses if it is not well supplied with undergraduates and undergraduate school collapses if high school does not function well. In the medium-term this imbalance may deeply affect the expansion and quality of the country’s graduate programs,” says Telma Zorn from USP, who has been encouraging the contact of needy students with a scientific career – the university abolished work grants, in which students received an amount of money for doing small service jobs, and substituted them with scientific initiation grants.

The concern is in line with one of the conclusions of the Paulista Conference of Science, Technology and Innovation that was held in April 2010, according to which the deficiencies in elementary and high school education are the major issue when it comes to training human resources in the state. The target of tripling the number of researchers active in the state –  from the current 50,000 to more than 150,000 –  faces a barrier: the number of places for higher education is greater than the number of people concluding high school. To increase the number of researchers it would be necessary to improve the quality of high school teaching in order to have candidates in number and quality that are superior to those of today.

The measures adopted by USP and Unicamp seek to preserve assessment based on merit  – the two institutions chose not to establish quota systems, like the ones that exist in federal universities, because they consider that reserving places can punish high performing pupils from private schools. The bonus marks in the entrance exam, in practice, end up serving as an incentive for pupils who were already close to being accepted. In the pilot course at Unicamp, on the other hand, only the best pupils from the schools are accepted. There is certainly no lack of criticism in the strategies of the two universities. In the case of  Unicamp, the main restrictions relate to the purpose and duration of the course. “Unlike what has been said this is not a luxury entrance exam preparation course,”  says Marcelo Knobel.  “We’re investing in a general education, covering ethics, literature, history, physics and biology. This is nothing  new. In the United States, the liberal arts colleges fulfill the function of giving this type of background education to the student. Neither is it a leveling course, since the idea is to discuss questions in a broader way,” he says. The time invested by the students in an intermediary course between high school and traditional higher education has been the target of criticism. “But it’s common for candidates for a place at Unicamp to fail at their first attempt and have to do up to two years at a university entrance exam preparation course to be successful,” says Knobel, who points out an advantage of the model: “It avoids an early career choice, which is the cause of university drop-out. The two years of studying before the university experience can lead to a more mature choice.”

Priscila Aparecida da Silva Cardoso, 17, one of the pupils on the pilot course, exchanged a guaranteed place on the publicity course at PUC in Campinas, for a ProUni grant, because of the opportunity of getting a possible place at Unicamp at the beginning of 2013. “When I found out about the program I thought it was fantastic. To get into Unicamp I’d have to have taken a university entrance exam preparation course and work. Now I can improve my education and choose a course that I really want to do,” says Priscila. The daughter of a homemaker and construction foreman, she always studied in public schools –  her performance in the Enem exam stood out in the Culto à Ciência State School in the Campinas central region. Nevertheless, she did not manage to pass the Unicamp entrance exam to study economics and food engineering.

The bonus systems at the two universities are also the target of criticism – the experience of the last two years shows that there was a restricted impact on the inclusion of those coming from public schools. One hypothesis is that the supply of other options for students from public schools, such as the example of ProUni grants, led to a stagnation in the number of those enrolling from public education, despite the initiatives. In 2005, the first year the bonus program was introduced at Unicamp, the admission of students coming from public schools was 34.1% of the total, compared with 29.6% the previous year. Still, this percentage fell in subsequent years, until it dropped below 30% in 2009. In 2011, there was a reaction and it reached 32% of the enrollments. The difficulty was also observed at USP, which, with variations, does not manage to get beyond the 25% ceiling.

EDUARDO CESARFor anthropologist and specialist in higher education policies, Eunice Durham, the bonus program has had no effect on making access to USP more democratic and a minimal effect on those leaving public high schools. “However good the intentions were, the program merely feeds the illusion on the part of USP that it is contributing to making public education more democratic,”  wrote the professor in an article published in October 2009. “If you want to promote the entry of low income students it would be better to offer a bonus to poorer students and not to those coming from public high schools, where the income is very variable,”  she said. The professor argues for offering free pre-university entrance exam courses using new technology. “It might have a wider effect and give USP the opportunity to study the deficiencies in public high school education in depth.”  She cites the example of the Paulista State University (Unesp), which offers pre-university entry exam prep courses on its campuses. Of the 4,586 students on these courses in 2010, 1,480 passed the university entrance exams, 1,085 for public universities and 395 for private universities.

Unesp adopted the pre-university entrance exam strategy because it already has a good proportion of students coming from public schools –  somewhere between 35% and 40%. This is the result of its location  in an inner state area where the quality of high school education is, on average, better. For Herman Voorwald, state education secretary, who until January was the dean at Unesp, the advantage of university entrance exam prep courses is that they give the students the chance of entering university on their own merits. “But it’s important that universities have policies for encouraging entry. This program at Unicamp, for example, is very intelligent,”  he says. Voorwald emphasizes, however, that it is fundamental for universities to participate in the effort to improve the quality of public high school education. “They are helping in various ways and it is this that will guarantee the expansion of access for less privileged pupils,” says the secretary.

In the case of institutions that adopt quotas, there are difficulties of another nature. The Federal University of the ABC (UFABC) created a broad scheme to guarantee that quota students remain. Fifty percent of the places are reserved for those leaving public schools and of this quota, almost one third is earmarked for students who declare themselves to be black, colored or Indian. The institution has 4,184 students and 1,500 of them receive grants of R$ 300. A recent survey carried out by the UFABC showed that quota students have a performance ratio of 2.0, while non-quota students reach 2.08. Quota students that receive grants, on the other hand, have a performance of 2.05. Selection, therefore, has not managed to fill all the vacancies. A survey in 2010 showed that 38.7% of the institution?s students declared they were quota students. This proportion is higher than the 33% recorded in 2009, but still far from the 50% offered in the entrance exams. As happens with many universities the UFABC has a dropout problem . “We don’t have consolidated data, but drop-out is not always bad news. Ours are four-term courses and students enter the UFABC in May, but later pass the entrance exam for universities like USP and Unicamp and transfer to them,” says Joel Pereira Felipe, pro-dean for Community Affairs and Affirmative Policies at the UFABC.

The bonus programs, despite their limitations, have been proving efficient for attracting high potential students. In 2005, 34 of the 110 students studying medicine came from the public school system and 22 of them were only admitted thanks to the bonus system. “Until the fourth year none of them had given up, nor did they have their enrolment frozen because of poor academic performance, but there were eight students from the private system who were in this situation,”  says professor Renato Pedrosa, coordinator of Unicamp’s Entrance Exam Permanent Commission. Among the possible explanations is the special ability of poor but well-educated students to face up to unfavorable situations, a quality that is not always shared by colleagues from the middle class. In the case of Unicamp, there is evidence that the bonus system is attracting a new public. “The participation of the public school is taking place from regular schools, not technical schools as happened in the past,” says Pedrosa. “In 2000, more than three quarters of the enrolled students who came from the public system had studied in technical schools. Today this group corresponds to some 35% of the students from the public school system.”