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Universities and higher education in Brazil

Brazil adopts a mixed system of public and private funded universities. Public universities can be federally funded or financed by State governments (such as USP, Unicamp and Unesp in the State of São Paulo). Private schools can be for-profit or (in the case of Catholic universities), not-for-profit.


  • History 1
  • Categories 2
  • Degrees 3
    • Undergraduate degrees 3.1
    • Graduate degrees 3.2
  • Equivalence 4
    • Europe 4.1
    • USA 4.2
  • Vestibular 5
  • Grading System 6
  • Exams 7
  • Public and Private Universities 8
  • Niches of Excellence 9
  • Gallery 10
  • See also 11
  • Further reading 12
  • External links 13
  • References 14


In some of the Spanish colonies in the Americas, institutions of higher learning denominated universities were established as early as the 17th century. Nevertheless, with respect to the level of education, such institutions were similar to the most important Jesuit colleges in Portuguese colonial Brazil, particularly those located in the cities of Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, which likewise offered liberal arts courses in Latin, Greek, philosophy and theology. Upon graduating, students had the option of either becoming priests or continuing their studies in Europe, usually at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. After the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1759, other religious orders such as the Benedictines and Carmelites were charged with education in Brazil, alongside "aulas-régias" funded by the Portuguese Crown. In 1792, the Escola Politécnica was founded in Rio de Janeiro. Following the arrival of D. João VI and the royal court, other schools of higher learning, although not formally called "universities," were founded in Brazil, including those specialized in civil and military engineering such as the Academia Real de Marinha (1808) and Academia Real Militar (1810). Two medical faculties were also established, the Academia Médico-Cirúrgica in Salvador (1808) and the Academia Médico-Cirúrgica in Rio de Janeiro (1809). In addition, other technical courses in the fields of botany, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, and economy were created. Shortly after independence from Portugal, under the reign of D. Pedro I, faculties of law were founded in São Paulo (1827) and Olinda (1827). Many of those institutions served as nuclei that subsequently developed into modern Brazilian universities, i.e., the Federal University of Bahia, the Federal University of Pernambuco, the Federal University of Ouro Preto, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and University of São Paulo.

Higher Education institutions expanded throughout the twentieth century in Brazil. However, many of the students who had access to Higher Education came from wealthier backgrounds. An important development that affected Brazil’s Higher Education landscape transpired after the collapse of the twenty one year Brazilian military government (1964 – 1985) and the re-democratization of the country.[1] As part of Brazil’s negotiated transition from authoritarianism to democracy, a new Constitution of Brazil emerged in 1988. It came to be known as the “Citizen Constitution” (Constituição Cidadã), promoting the right to work, the right to a decent wage, the right to social security, and the right to education.[2] Furthermore, the new Constitution of Brazil, allowed public funds to be allocated to private, community, religious, or philanthropic schools for their support on meeting the rights to education.[3] This constitutional doctrine was an important turning point in the growth of Brazil’s private Higher Education sector, one that is financed through private investors and public institutions. In support of this educational movement, the federal government established a new policy in 1996 to liberalize the Higher Education sector, known as the Foundations and Guidelines for National Education law (lei 9.394).[4] Under this reformed system, Higher Education institutions could begin functioning as for-profit entities. Private Higher Education institutions had existed since the 1600s, but most were affiliated with the Catholic Church or were non-profit in nature.[5] This new policy paved the way for private enterprises to begin offering Higher Education degrees on a mass scale.

Nowadays, the Brazilian university system reflects world standards and some of Brazil's universities appear among the 200 best in the world. The University of Sao Paulo (USP), for example, is considered the best university in Ibero-America. [6] In the 2012 SIR World Report from the SCImago Institutions Rankings, USP was ranked 11th in the world.[7] Other Ranking systems show similar results: the 2012 University Ranking by Academic Performance (URAP) ranked USP 28th in the world,[8] and in the Times Higher Education report, "Top Universities by Reputation 2012", ranked USP among the top 70 universities in the world.[9] In the 2012 QS World University Rankings, under Rankings of universities in Brazil, the University of Campinas and the University of Rio de Janeiro were ranked 228 and 333 in the world, respectively.


Higher Education in Brazil is divided in three categories:

  • Universities are institutions that conduct research and community outreach, with at least one third of the teaching staff with PhD qualifications.
  • University Centers are multi-course institutions that are not required to carry-out research, but with autonomy to open new courses without seeking permission from the Ministry of Education.
  • Integrated Faculties and Schools of Higher Education are smaller institutions with little autonomy and must obtain approval from the Ministry of Education when opening new courses, certificates, or degrees.

In 2009, the federal government was overseeing 94 Higher Education institutions with centralized control (spanning all three categories); state governments were managing 84 Higher Education institutions; and municipal governments ran 67 Higher Education institutions, mainly providing technical courses in integrated faculties (see INEP, 2009). Most federal and state institutions are universities and tuition is free, while municipal governments tend to run smaller institutes, sometimes charging tuition. Private Higher Education institutions primarily fall within the latter two categories and charge wide-ranging fees, based on the degree programs offered.


Undergraduate degrees

In Brazil, these degrees are known as graduação:

  • Bachelor's (bacharelado): varies between 3 to 6 years to complete. Enables individuals to act as professionals in a certain area (e.g., lawyer, economist, physician).
  • Licentiate (licenciatura): varies between 3 to 4 years to complete. Enables individuals to act as elementary or secondary school teachers in a certain area (e.g., licensed teacher of Math, English, Biology, etc.).
  • Technology (tecnologia): varies between 2 to 3 years of full time studies to complete. This degree takes a shorter time period to obtain, with specific professional courses aimed at providing highly specialized knowledge (e.g., agribusiness technical degree, tourism management degree, etc.).

Degree programs in public universities are totally financed by the government. In private Higher Education institutions, however, the course fees and degree programs vary in price significantly. Although lower cost courses are available, fees for some degree avenues are very expensive.

Graduate degrees

In Brazil, these degrees are known as pós-graduação:[10]

  • "Lato sensu postgraduate" degree: this degree represents a specialization in a certain area, and takes approximately 1 to 2 years to complete. A lato sensu degree is not a door opener for the later pursuit of a doctoral degree. If one is interested in a PhD, a strictu sensu master's degree should be taken instead. MBA programs in Brazil are classified as lato sensu programs.
  • "Stricto sensu postgraduate" degree: this degree enables one to pursue an academic career. In chronological order:
  • Master's degree (mestrado): this takes 1 to 2 years of full time studies to complete. Often, a Master’s degree serves as an additional qualification for those in the job market, or for those who want to pursue a PhD. A stricto sensu master's degree in management is the equivalent of a full time MBA in North America.
  • Doctoral degree / PhD (doutorado): this takes 3 to 4 years to complete, and is usually used as a step-stone for an academic life.
  • Postdoctoral research (pós-doutorado): this is not an academic title; it usually denotes excellency in a field of knowledge acquired through supervised research after a doctorate.
  • Livre-docência: this is the highest academic qualification in Brazil. The livre-docência is similar to a Habilitation and the level of scholarship has to be considered higher than a PhD. The livre-docência requires the candidate to write a professional thesis, based on independent scholarship. In the state universities of São Paulo, for instance (Universidade de São Paulo, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, and Universidade Estadual Paulista), the livre-docência plays an important role for a career in the academia. Although, it has become rarer and almost unused outside São Paulo, as most federal universities don't require it anymore in order to apply for professor, with the exception of UNIFESP.


There is no unified academic credit system in Brazil. The regulating bodies of the Ministry of Education and associated legislation counts the hours of instruction. A full-time year of higher education takes between 800 and 1,200 instruction-hours in Brazil, which would be equivalent to 30 US credits and 60 European ECTS.


There is no formal treaty between the Brazilian Ministry of Education and the European Union's Bologna process. The following are rough comparisons:

  • the European First Cycle would correspond to the Brazilian undergraduate degrees of bacharelado, licenciatura, and tecnologia. The Brazilian "Bachelor’s degree" takes 3 to 6 years to complete,[11] which usually includes a written monograph or a final project; a European "Bachelor’s degree" can be completed in 3 years, after which many enroll in a 1 or 2-year-long "Master's degree" in the Bologna process. When comparing the former European national systems to the Brazilian system, the Brazilian "Bachelor’s degree" would be equivalent to the old German Diploma, the Italian Laurea, or the French "Magistère", "Mastère" or "Diplôme des Grandes Ecoles".
  • the Second Cycle in the Bologna process would correspond to the Brazilian master's degree, which usually takes 1 to 2 years to complete [12] and a "lato sensu postgraduate" degree, which requires the minimum of 360 hours of instruction.
  • the Third Cycle in the Bologna process would be equivalent to the Brazilian Doctoral degree.


A Brazilian bachelor's degrees could be compared to a four-year Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in the United States. Brazilian and U.S. Master's and Doctoral degrees are roughly equivalent. Technology degrees of 3 year of length could be also compared to undergraduate technology courses or with 3 year bachelor's degree, depending of the field of study. Technologist degrees allows the undergraduate to pursue Master's and Doctoral courses.


In order to enter a university in Brazil, candidates must undergo a public open examination called the Vestibular, which usually lasts between 1 and 5 days, and takes place once a year. Some universities may run the Vestibular twice a year. Offering more frequent exams is popular among private universities, while public universities usually run the Vestibular only once a year (in November, December, or January). The Vestibular can be compared to the SAT or ACT (test) in the U.S.

Universities offer a limited number of places, and the best qualified candidates are selected for entrance. The vestibular includes many subjects offered in high school, such as: Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History, Geography, Literature, Portuguese language, and a foreign language (usually the candidate can choose between English, Spanish or French). Since public universities are free of charge and there are a limited number of open slots, there is high competition with the Vestibular. There are nearly 10 candidates for every place in public universities; in private universities the ratio is less than two-to-one (see INEP, 2000 - 2009). Recently, some universities in Brazil began accepting students according to their high school performance and as a result a new entrance examination was designed by the Ministry of Education known as ENEM (Exame Nacional do Ensino Médio). ENEM has now been adopted by most public universities. In the future, both ENEM and the "Vestibular" will co-exist.

Grading System

There is a myriad of grading systems in Brazil. The most popular are:

  • Percentage point grading system: ranges from 0% to 100%
  • Scale grading system: ranges from 0 to 10 (0 represents the lowest and 10 represents that highest)
  • Stage grading system: usually uses letters ranging from A (best) to E (worst)

Below is a summary of the grading systems:

  • "A": 90%–100% (Excellent)
  • "B": 80%–89% (Very good)
  • "C": 70%–79% (Good)
  • "D": 60%–69% (Satisfactory)
  • "E": < 50% or < 60% (Failing grade)

Usually, the lowest passing grade in Brazil represents a 5 (5 out of 10 / 50% / "E"), but some universities adopt a 7 or 70% as the minimum passing grade. Universities are free to choose their grading system.


Exams are conducted by the professors and are decentralized: every professor is responsible for scheduling, applying, and scoring exams. In contrast to other countries, there is no equivalent in Brazil of centralized university departments that are in charge of scheduling and grading exams.

Public and Private Universities

Public universities usually offer the best quality education, and therefore competition during the Vestibular is fierce. Public universities usually run courses all-day, while private for-profit universities offer a mix of all-day long and night-only courses. The latter is increasingly popular for working adults to complete Higher Education degrees in Brazil. Recently, some public universities have introduced some night-only courses in combination with day-courses. Although public universities offer the best quality education and conduct research, there are continuous complaints from these institutions about being underfunded. Private universities tend to be smaller when compared to public universities, but often have more modern infrastructures and amenities (e.g., buildings and campuses).

The 1996 law "Foundations and Guidelines for National Education" (lei 9.394) opened the doors for many private universities to begin offering degrees on a mass scale. As a result, growth within the private Higher Education sector has provided more opportunities for students country-wide. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of available openings in public universities rose 60 percent. During this same period, the number of available openings in private sector institutions rose 185 percent (see INEP, 2000 and 2009). In 2009, there were 2,069 private Higher Education institutions compared to 1,004 private institutions in 2000 (see INEP, 2000 and 2009). The 15 largest companies in 2009 that ran private universities represented 27 percent of the total market, with yearly profits above 21 percent; and the country's private education sector became the tenth largest sector in the Brazilian economy, accounting for R$25 billion per year.[13]

There are currently more than 2,600 public and private universities distributed throughout Brazil, a number that is growing quickly.[14]

Elizabeth Redden in June 2015 reports that Professor Dante J. Salto has argued in the journal International Higher Education that:[15]

Brazil’s for-profit colleges enroll about a third of all students in higher education. The for-profit sector, which predominantly enrolls students in social science, business, law, education and health care-related fields, absorbs demand that the public higher education system lacks the capacity to meet, and is seen as an important player in helping Brazil move toward its policy goal of dramatically increasing higher education participation rates. The proportion of Brazilian 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in higher education (the country's net enrollment rate) is only in the teens, while the gross enrollment rate, which takes into account students of all ages, stands at around 30 percent.

Niches of Excellence

Brazil presents some niches of excellence in higher education, both public and private. Some of those niches, in spite of being recognized nationwide, are not recognized as universities and often do not appear on official universities rankings.

Some examples include: Instituto Tecnológico de Aeronáutica (ITA), a college sponsored by the Brazilian military, with graduates who are often employed within the Brazilian Aerospace Industry; the Instituto Militar de Engenharia (IME) (the Army's equivalent); or Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV), a foundation/think tank that offers Management and Economics courses, And of course Insper and IBMEC, which provide quantitative degrees focused on the Financial Market, as some Brazillian courses do not allow students to have an efficient quantitative notion to be able to work at the Financial Market. In 2010, Você SA magazine ranked the OneMBA program offered by FGV as the 1st Executive MBA in Brazil (for the third year in a row). [16]


See also

Further reading

  • Altbach, Philip. International Higher Education: An Encyclopedia. Vol. 1 (Routledge, 2014), entry on "Brazil"
  • Mainardes, Emerson Wagner, et al. "Marketing in higher education: A comparative analysis of the Brazil and Portuguese cases." International Review on Public and Nonprofit Marketing 9.1 (2012): 43-63.
  • Pedrosa, Renato HL, Eliana Amaral, and Marcello Knobel. "Assessing higher education learning outcomes in Brazil." Higher education management and policy 24.2 (2013): 55-71.
  • Schwartzman, Simon. "Higher education, the academic profession, and economic development in Brazil." in Philip G. Altbach, et al. eds. The global future of higher education and the academic profession: the BRICs and the United States (2013).
  • Schwartzman, Simon, Rómulo Pinheiro, and Pundy Pillay, eds. Higher education in the BRICS countries: Investigating the pact between higher education and society (Springer, 2015) ch 5 on "Demand and Supply for Higher Education in Brazil"; ch 14 on "Higher Education Policies in Brazil: A Case of Failure in Market Regulation."

External links

  • Ministry of Education (Ministério da Educação, or "MEC"): (In Portuguese)
  • National Institute for Research in Education (Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisas Educacionais, or "INEP"): (In Portuguese)
  • Graduate Coordination Body (Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior, or "CAPES"): (In Portuguese)
  • National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico, or "CNPq"):


  1. ^
  2. ^ Rizzini, I. 2011. The Promise of Citizenship for Brazilian Children: What Has Changed? ANNALS, AAPSS, 633, 66-79.
  3. ^ Ranieri, N. B. 2010. States and the Right to Education in the 1988 Constitution: Comments on Federal Supreme Court Jurisprudence. Projeto Direito Educação Inglês, 37-56.
  4. ^
  5. ^ McCowan, T. 2004. The growth of private higher education in Brazil: implications for equity and quality. Journal of Education Policy, 19(4), 452-472.
  6. ^
  7. ^ SIR - SCImago Institutions Rankings
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Ministério da Educação - Conselho Nacional de Educação, Câmara de Educação Superior. Resolução CES/CNE nº 2/2007 Resolução 4/2009. Retrieved from
  12. ^
  13. ^ Banco Santander. 2009. Entrando no Jogo da Escala; Apresentando Preços-Alvos para 2010. São Pualo, Brazil.
  14. ^ Universidades e Faculdades autorizadas no MEC
  15. ^ Elizabeth Redden, "U.S. For-Profits in Brazil," June 16, 2015Inside Higher Education; citing Dante J. Salto, "Brazil: A For-Profit Giant." International Higher Education 74 (2014): 21-22. online
  16. ^

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