According to the latest Higher Education Census by the Brazilian Institute for Educational Studies and Research (INEP), the number of private higher education institutions (HEIs) in Brazil has grown since 1969, in part thanks to reforms implemented during the military dictatorship (1964–1985). Philosopher Reginaldo Moraes, a professor at the Philosophy and Human Sciences Institute of the University of Campinas (IFCH-UNICAMP), explains that the reform relaxed the rules around opening new private institutions. It was based on the American university model, which among other things, uses a course credit system.
“The reform changed the way curricula were structed at public and private universities, which began offering core programs that could be supplemented by elective credits,” says the researcher, coordinator of a research project that compared higher education in four countries: Brazil, France, Germany, and the USA.
• A complex machine
Helena Sampaio, a professor from the Department of Social Sciences in Education at UNICAMP’s School of Education (FE), says that Brazil’s first private higher education institutions were established at the end of the nineteenth century. “The first Constitution of the Republic, passed in 1891, allowed the private sector to offer higher education,” she says. According to Sampaio, there were 24 public and private HEIs in the country by 1900, rising to 133 by 1930.
Through the 1968 reform, which actually came into force in 1969, the Ministry of Education (MEC) relaxed the rules on opening new private institutions, explains Moraes. “The expanding public university network required greater investment due to the increasing number of graduate and research activities, as well as the courses themselves,” says the researcher. Another aspect of the US model that influenced the Brazilian system was the way universities are organized into departments rather than life tenures, as used to be the case in France.
Moraes further describes how the 1969 reform led to a tenfold increase in the number of students between the 1960s and the mid-1990s. “At the time of this reform, there were approximately 100,000 students in higher education in Brazil, mostly in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo,” he says. In the 1970s, 50% of enrollments in higher education were in the private network, a percentage that passed the 60% mark in 1995.
Sociologist and political scientist Simon Schwartzman, a researcher at the Institute of Work and Society in Rio de Janeiro, sees a distinction between the situation in North America and Brazil, where today 50% of undergraduates are enrolled in institutions belonging to one of three giant corporations operating in the country—Kroton, Estácio, and Ser. Schwartzman believes the 1969 reform created an elitist and closed university model, through which higher education became more similar to the North American model, with public institutions performing graduate and research activities. “The Brazilian private sector, meanwhile, is composed predominantly of for-profit institutions, mostly offering night classes to older students with lower purchasing power who are unable to join public institutions. Private universities in the United States, on the other hand, whose model Brazil copied in the 1960s, are highly selective nonprofit organizations,” he says.
The spread of private HEIs in Brazil gained a new impetus during the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration (1995–2003), which passed legislation allowing the creation of for-profit institutions, says Gladys Beatriz Barreyro, professor of the Graduate Program in Education at the School of Arts, Sciences, and Humanities of the University of São Paulo (EACH-USP). In the 1960s, the private system consisted mainly of nonprofit schools started by religious orders—Catholic, Anglican, or Methodist.
The MEC is responsible for deciding whether an HEI is characterized as a university or not, and Sampaio notes that the 1988 Constitution established the principle of autonomy for universities. “As a result, after institutions were granted university status, they were able to start and end courses and increase and decrease the number of places without prior authorization from the National Education Council (at the time called the Federal Council). This encouraged the creation of private universities through mergers between isolated colleges,” says the researcher. Although universities can open and close courses autonomously, the MEC can choose not to approve them after the fact.
While private institutions have received tax incentives since 1945, it was in 1995, Moraes points out, that the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) began offering lines of credit to fund the construction and opening of these institutions through the Higher Education Institution Renovation and Expansion Program. The number of secular private HEIs had been rising since the 1970s, but it was in the 1990s that business groups surpassed nonprofit institutions and began to really dominate the sector.
In 2004, the MEC also began investing in federal universities with the aim of increasing the number of undergraduate courses available outside state capitals and in the North and Northeast of the country. The total budget for federal HEIs that year was roughly R$12 billion—a decade later, after the creation of 18 new universities and 173 new campuses nationwide, the annual budget exceeded R$40 billion. Enrollments in the North and Northeast increased by 76% and 94% respectively between 2003 and 2013.
Barreyro explains that since 2009, the landscape has changed again for private HEIs thanks to an influx of foreign capital. “While the sector has been influenced by the American model, the arrival of foreign capital and the growing number of students at institutions that belong to large educational corporations make Brazil a unique case,” says the researcher.
In the United States, Moraes points out, there are about 100 research universities, two-thirds of which are public and one-third private. Unlike Brazil, none of these institutions are for-profit, but all of them charge annual fees—although public HEIs charge less than private ones. Simon Schwartzman, from the Institute of Work and Society in Rio de Janeiro, explains that in the US there are two ways of continuing in education after finishing high school. The first is via community colleges, which provide shorter, two-year courses in areas such as business, health, arts, and languages. At the end of the course, students graduate with an associate degree. They can then use the credits from that degree to enroll at a university or college to study a bachelor’s degree, master’s, and eventually a PhD.
“In Brazil, we have imported this process on a small scale, through technology and engineering courses that usually last three years, like those taught at the São Paulo School of Technology [Fatec],” says Schwartzman.
Half of all undergraduate students are enrolled in private institutions owned by large educational corporations
Although most recently influenced by North America, Brazilian higher education also reflects the incorporation of French and German models. According to the book Modelos Internacionais de Educação Superior – Estados Unidos, Alemanha e França (International higher education models – USA, Germany, and France) (Editora UNESP), by Moraes, Maitá de Paula e Silva, and Luiza Carnicero de Castro, these countries served as references for Brazil’s earliest institutions, established at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Moraes explains that the French model, conceived by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), mainly involved teaching applied sciences to enable bureaucrats to perform administrative duties for the state, through the establishment of colleges that operated in isolation. The German system, meanwhile, is based on a project started by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), a linguist who founded the Humboldt University of Berlin in 1810 and proposed that teaching and research activities should be united through integrated courses, as well as advocating for autonomy from the central government.
Elsewhere around the world, the first universities were created in the twelfth century by the Catholic Church, which prioritized training in areas such as philosophy and theology. “In the nineteenth century, university models that opposed medieval Catholic teaching began to emerge, including the Humboldtian and Napoleonic systems. Both influenced the creation of the Brazilian university,” summarizes Carlos Eduardo Vieira, a professor of the history of education at the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR).
Maria de Fátima Costa de Paula, from the Education graduate program at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF) and coordinator of the Center for Higher Education Studies and Research, recalls that before the first universities were created in Brazil—the University of Paraná in 1912 (now the Federal University of Paraná), the University of Rio de Janeiro in 1920 (which became the University of Brazil in 1937 and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in 1965), and USP in 1934—there were already a number of isolated HEIs including polytechnic, law, and medical schools in Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, Recife, and São Paulo. “These schools reflected characteristics of the French Napoleonic model, initially focusing on vocational education,” she explains. “USP, meanwhile, in making research one of its primary activities, incorporated aspects of the German model,” says Costa de Paula. Although the Napoleonic model was initially focused on training professionals, some institutions were already conducting research activities before becoming part of the university system. In the nineteenth century, for example, the USP Law School divided its course into “juridical sciences” and “social sciences,” conferring doctoral titles to students after they presented theses, although these would have been very different to modern-day scientific manuscripts.