PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil – Brazil’s federal universities will offer 243,500 new enrollment opportunities by 2012, a record increase for South America’s largest country, according to the Higher Education Census.
In 2003, when President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took office, the higher education system had the capacity to accept 109,200 new students annually.
Total enrollment in college-level courses also grew, from 527,700 in 2003 to 696,700 in 2009.
These figures reflect the ongoing expansion plan of Brazil’s federal higher education system, which in a little more than eight years has seen its budget doubled by the Federal University Expansion and Restructuring Program (Reuni), according to the Ministry of Education (MEC) on Feb. 24.
In 2003, Brazil’s 45 federal universities had an operating budget of R$9.6 billion (US$5.8 billion). But in the next seven years, the country opened 14 universities, and federal spending on education is expected to reach R$23.6 billion (US$14.2 billion) in 2011, according to government budget predictions.
The money will be shared by all 59 institutions of higher education.
The Reuni program also provided funding to create 126 university campuses. The number of cities that are home to these campuses has more than doubled, going from 114 in 2003 to 230 in 2010.
Felipe Rocha received two benefits from the increase in the federal investment in education.
He recently enrolled in one of the new slots offered in 2011. He’ll attend one of Brazil’s newly opened institutions of higher education, the Federal University of Latin American Integration (Unila).
Unila, located in the city of Foz do Iguaçu in the state of Paraná, will have a student body of 600 in 2011.
All of the courses offered at Unila are aimed at promoting the socioeconomic, cultural and political development of Latin America, in an interdisciplinary and multicultural environment.
The proposal caught Rocha’s attention. The 35-year-old native of Rio de Janeiro chose to study political science and sociology as a way of learning more about social movements and improving relations with neighboring countries.
“I always wanted to know more about Latin America and its realities,” he says. “There are students from [the states of] Amazonas, Maranhão, Ceará, São Paulo, as well as from Uruguay, Paraguay… We recently had a tapioca contest (tapioca is a typical food from the northeast of Brazil), and there was even a Uruguayan version.”
Aid program supports students
Rocha needed the help of student aid in order to live so far away from home.
“I live in the university dorms, I have a meal plan and I receive transportation vouchers,” says Rocha, who interns as a teacher’s assistant at the university. “Without that, it wouldn’t be possible for me to study here.”
The federal government began funding student aid in 2008, with an initial investment of R$125 million (US$75 million). In 2011, MEC expects to spend R$395 million (US$238) on the National Student Aid Plan (Pnaes).
With the rise in enrollment, the federal government also had to hire more professors and administrative specialists. There are 69,000 teachers and 105,000 specialists working at the 59 universities.
“We are growing at a rate that almost outpaces our ability to keep up,” says Andrea Ciacchi, dean of continuing studies at Unila. “Sometimes there is a lag, but it always works out.”
With 17 years of teaching experience, Ciacchi – an Italian who speaks perfect, almost accentless Portuguese – says that the structure of the university is entirely new and is being built from scratch.
“In three years, we’ll have our campus. In the meantime, we’re working out of the Itaipu Technology Park, which has provided us with everything we need,” he says.
The university has students from Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. This year, it will also begin receiving students from Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador.
Professors from several Latin American countries also have been hired as instructors.
“The idea is to train professionals in a variety of areas, to give them the opportunity to participate more broadly in the job market, with a focus on integration between Latin American countries,” Ciacchi says.
Unila is one of the 14 new Brazilian universities opened since 2003.
Three other universities designed to promote regional and international integration are the Federal University of the Southern Frontier (UFFS), the Federal University of Western Pará (Ufopa) and the Federal University of Luso-Afro Brazilian Integration (Unilab).
Higher education moves inland
The increase in the number of universities, the increase in the number of enrollment opportunities and the expansion of the geographic coverage of the institutions as a result of Reuni also have changed the profile of the student body.
Students are no longer seeking a university education exclusively in state capitals and large cities.
“Nowadays, things are moving inland, which is a positive development, since it facilitates access for the students,” says Eduardo Rolim de Oliveira,” president of the Porto Alegre Council of Union Representatives for Federal University Professors (ADUFRGS) and vice president of the Federal University Professors Forum (Proifes).
The last time the country experienced such a significant expansion of higher education occurred during the administration of former President Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-1961), Oliveira says.
“The Lula administration deserves credit because federal universities were stagnating, with private institutions now accounting for two-thirds of university enrollment,” Oliveira says.
Another important aspect, according to Oliveira, is the inauguration of the four innovative universities – Unila, UFFS, Ufopa and Unilab – which offer unique opportunities to their students.
Oliveira also highlights the positive impact made by the creation of federal institutes of education, science and technology. These are institutions of higher education specializing in professional and technological training and are focused on research and continuing education.
“The creation of enrollment opportunities didn’t just happen at the university level, but also at the institutes, especially in the area of technology, which had serious gaps,” Oliveira says. “It’s very important for the whole country.”
The main challenge is guaranteeing the growth in higher education is sustained, without sacrificing quality, Oliveira says.
“The decision to maintain this program can’t be left up to each administration,” he says. “We need to greatly increase the number of people receiving higher education in order to fully transform ourselves into a developed country.”
Oliveira also says all Brazilians should be able to attend universities for free.
He says expanding the number of evening courses will make it easier for the working population to attend college.
“Universities should be open to all of the public,” he says. “It’s a democratic idea, open to everyone, both rich and poor.”
The 14 new Brazilian universities