Guest blogger: Brazilian Higher Education System: the right to develop research

This post is written by Daniel Guerrini who is a PhD candidate in the Graduation program in Sociology at  Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) in Brazil. Currently, he is a visiting researcher at University of Tampere in Finland having received a CAPES Scholarship. His PhD project is focused on the issue of institutional autonomy in Brazil, with using Finland as a contrasting case. In this post he sheds light on the Brazilian higher education system that appears to maintain a rigid and persistent institutional hierarchy in terms of autonomy.

In 2009 Brazil had more than 5 million students enrolled in its higher education system (HES). The majority of these students were enrolled in the private sector, corresponding to 74% of the total.  But there is a big and clear cut inside the system that divides higher education institutions (HEI’s) between those that develop research activities and those that don’t. The ones that develop research have specific funding mechanisms, controlled by academic councils, in addition to enjoying high levels of academic and institutional autonomy.

Taking into account this division, private institutions which develop research activities are responsible for only 29,8% of national enrollments (INEP, 2010), thus being less representative, in the competition between the most prestigious HEI’s. But all HEI’s are subjected to the same Federal law of education (nº 9394, of 1996) and a Presidential Decree (nº 5.773, of 2006). By analyzing them, we can have an overview of how this division in the system operates to better understand some internal particularities of the Brazilian HES.

Even though much of Brazilian scientific institutions where strengthened and/or created during the military dictatorship (1964-1985) and before, there has been some changes after the shift to a democratic political system in the country. These changes encompass the creation of funding agencies, regulating councils, as well as new rules for education. After the re-democratization of Brazilian political institutions (in 1985), the Ministry of Science and Technology was created (alongside the existing Ministry of Education), as well as a new law for higher education (in 1996). The HES had a great expansion after that period where new public institutions were created, but also incentives were given and funding mechanisms structured for students in private universities (e.g. the program named ProUni).

As I see this, the situation and trends described are attached to aspects of the Brazilian law of Higher Education from 1996 and the Presidential Decree from 2006. By analyzing them one can see that, despite the declared intentions of introducing measures of quality assurance in the system, what is done actually is the structuring of a privileged status for some institutions, where these end up having guaranteed means to define what the quality criteria are.

According to both cited rules there are three types of HEI’s, universities, university centres and faculties, whereas only the first ones are allowed to develop research activities. The faculties are the least autonomous institutions, and university centres are in the middle level according to a list of autonomy prerogatives stated in the law. These prerogatives are lent by the state to HEI’s as they advance in this hierarchy of status, concerning from basic procedural aspects of an institution’s activities (e.g establishing investment plans and contracts) to substantive ones (e.g. defining curricula content and degrees to be awarded).

According to the law every institution that is created must start as a faculty. In this level, every autonomy prerogative is evaluated by the Ministry of Education ex ante and then, after approved, conducted and executed by the institution. They cannot in any case develop research activities and only after years of evaluation faculties can apply for the university center status.

On university centre level the difference is that some autonomy prerogatives are now evaluated ex post by the ministry, and thus the institution can make changes (in vacancy numbers and diplomas to be awarded, for example) and submit reports to the ministry afterwards. University centers can develop research activities and thus compete for research funding, but they need to compete with institutions that are already well established in the system with no support attached to their newcomer situation.

On university level all autonomy prerogatives are lent to the institution by the state, and the ministry will evaluate it in a period of, at most, every 10 years (Brasil, 1996; 2006). To achieve the university status, according to the decree from 2006, the HEI must conduct research activities.

What is interesting is that the same rules state that public universities can be created through legislative acts without passing through the strict evaluation measures as must pass private institutions (Brasil, 1996; 2006). This explains why in 2009 97% of the enrollments in faculties and university centres were done in private ones (INEP, 2010, .zip). Public HEI’s are mainly concentrated in the university level (only near to 1,5% of enrolments are done in public faculties and university centres in the whole system) which is explained by the facilities they have while being created. There are some private universities which are well established in the research system of the country.

But these, as shows the example of the prestigious Pontifical Catholic University, which has a unit in most of the federative units of the country, were created between the 1940’s and the 1950’s, in the beginning of the Brazilian HES as such. Thus the prestige of these institutions was also secured by the federal law enacted in 1996, after which a great expansion of HEI’s took place.

Finally it seems that in this system research activities are held as a privilege granted by the state, within which public HEI’s have an advantaged starting point. To what level this also affects the relation of HEI’s with other spheres of social activity is a whole new discussion which would be worth addressing some other time.