Compared to other Latin American countries, Brazil has not only a respectable number of universities, but they are also better equipped than other countries. In the 1960s it launched a major program to award graduate degrees.
The university system is made up of public (federal or state), Catholic, and private institutions. The structure comprises universities, faculdades (colleges), and isolated institutions. The purpose of higher education in Brazil is to implement teaching, research, and extension, although research is principally done in federal institutions. Universities also offer short training courses in many different subjects, serving the university population as well as the community. Private higher education has increased excessively in the last 20 years, creating 300,000 new vacancies for students. As a result, there has been a decrease of quality in these institutions, especially because they are profit-oriented.
The main objective of higher education is to professionalize students. This differs from the American system in which the student goes to college to acquire a general education then opts for professionalization. In Brazil the student immediately selects law school (a five-year course) or medicine (six years).
There are 127 universities in Brazil, 68 of which are public. Of the 894 institutions of higher education, 222 are public. Higher education careers are integrated in blocks (criteria used by CAPES) as follows: Ciências Biológicas e Saúde (Biological and Health Sciences), Ciências Exatas da Terra (Exact Sciences), Ciências Humanas e Sociais (Human and Social Sciences), Ciências Sociais Aplicadas (Applied Social Sciences), and Engenharias e Tecnologias (Engineering and Tecnologies).
In 1997, there were 1,945,000 students enrolled in higher education; in 2000 this number increased to 2,125,958. Women comprise 55 percent of the total number. It is estimated that 3 millions students will be enrolled by the year 2002. Once enrolled, 64.2 percent of the students who begin a course in higher education graduate. Most of these students study in private institutions, their average age is 25, and 53 percent of the students are 24 years old when they initiate their graduate studies.
As of 1998 the five largest universities in the country were: Universidade Paulista (state of São Paulo), 44,598 students; Universidade de São Paulo (city of São Paulo), 35.662; Unisinos (Rio Grande do Sul), 25,269; Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (Rio de Janeiro), 24,971; and Pontifícia Universidade Católica (Minas Gerais), 22,434.
In order to be accepted in a university, students have to pass a competitive entrance exam called vestibular. As long as they have finished their secondary education and have a diploma, grades do not factor into university selection. This gives an advantage to socially privileged students who get extra help from private instruction or teachers and do not have to work while studying. This system actually creates a social discrepancy, because rich students end up in federal universities that are free, while lower-income students enter private universities that are paid. In 2001, governmental measures were being launched in order to transform the system. Some universities had started making their own individual vestibular, and others had begun taking grades into consideration.
The Federal Education Council (CFE) determines the minimum curriculum and time allotment for the different courses. Each institution has the freedom to include additional subjects. Under the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a new legislation to evaluate the performance of institutions was introduced that required students to take an examination at the end of their courses. Those exam results, together with the evaluation of committees of specialists designated by the Ministry of Education, were expected to show how well the institutions and courses were performing. That evaluation would provide the government with data that would help it know where and how to best allocate money and efforts. Additionally, undergraduate teaching was prioritized, as investments totaling 70 million dollars were made to upgrade libraries, computers, and information technology.
In the Constitution of 1988 it was determined that student loans, previously financed by the Fundo de Assistência Social (Social Assistance Fund), were to be allocated from the resources of the Ministry of Education and administered by the Caixa Econômica Federal. The loans are mainly used by students to pay for tuition through monthly installments.
A financing program called Financiamento Estudantil (FIES) was created in 1999. Approximately 700 higher education institutions throughout the country have participated. In 2001, some 102,000 students received aid from this program, with total resources approaching $225 million.
Graduate schools have always been the jewel of Brazilian education. In the 1950s, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations gave grants to bring Brazilian students to the United States for their graduate studies. Since then, funds are given by several public agencies to finance graduate studies abroad and at home; these agencies include FINEP, FAPESP, CNPQ, and CAPES.
Many universities have their own master's and doctorate programs. Graduate programs are evaluated every two years and, according to their performance, receive public funds in larger or lesser amounts to promote research and pay fellowships for their students. In 1994, there were 18,900 students working on doctorate degrees; in 1999, that number jumped to 29,900—an increase of 58 percent.
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