3. Higher education in Brazil

This chapter presents a brief overview of the higher education system in Brazil and the underlying socio-economic context in which it operates. It starts with a short review of recent macroeconomic developments and demographic trends, before examining the main legal and administrative governance arrangements for the public and private higher education institutions that make up the federal higher education system and account for the vast majority of institutions and student enrolment in Brazil. The chapter then presents key data relating to the institutional landscape in higher education, types of programme offered, the teaching workforce, enrolment and attainment rates, a discussion of social equity and evidence about the learning and employment outcomes for graduates.


The statistical data for Israel are supplied by and under the responsibility of the relevant Israeli authorities. The use of such data by the OECD is without prejudice to the status of the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank under the terms of international law.

3.1. Focus of this chapter

Over the past decade, Brazil has seen rapid growth in participation in higher education, mostly enabled through the expansion of private higher education provision (de Magalhães Castro, 2015[1]). Enrolment in higher education increased from less than six million students in 2009 to over eight million in 2016, with over 75% of students now studying in private institutions (MEC, 2018 (unpublished)[2]). In the decade up to 2017, the tertiary education attainment rate among young adults in Brazil (aged 25-34) increased from 10% to 17%. The average rate of tertiary education attainment for this age group in OECD countries is 43% (OECD, 2018[3]).

The increase in higher education attainment in Brazil mirrors trends seen in other OECD and partner countries in the last decade, albeit from a lower starting base and with current attainment rates remaining low by international standards. Further expansion of higher education enrolment is an explicit objective of Brazil’s current National Education Plan, which aims for a third of 18-24 year olds to be enrolled in higher education by 2024 (MEC, 2014[4]).

This objective is consistent with policies pursued by governments across the world. Increasing levels of higher education attainment have long been associated with economic competitiveness in an increasingly knowledge-driven global economy (OECD, 2018[5]). As Brazil’s economy and labour market expand in more knowledge-intensive sectors, demand for higher-level skills is likely to increase.

However, with expansion, increased concerns about the quality of higher education in Brazil have emerged, particularly in some sections of the system (Salto, 2018[6]). Against this backdrop, Brazilian authorities have also focused considerable efforts on regulating private higher education providers and implementing mechanisms to assure the quality of higher education provision in all parts of the system. This report reviews the systems in place in Brazil to assure the quality of higher education. To provide context for the discussions of quality assurance that follow, this chapter provides a brief overview of the broad socio-economic context in which Brazil’s higher education system operates as well as key characteristics of the system itself.

3.2. The socio-economic context for higher education in Brazil

Economic conditions

Brazil’s economy is gradually emerging from the recession

In the early 2000s, macro-economic stability, positive demographic trends and favourable global economic conditions, including rising commodity prices, allowed the Brazilian economy to grow, leading to high employment rates, wage growth and an expansion of private and public consumption. The strong economic context, coupled with improving access to school education and extensive government transfer programmes have allowed an estimated 25 million Brazilians to escape poverty since 2003 (OECD, 2018[5]).

However, this model of economic growth reached its limits by the middle of the current decade. A rapidly-ageing population, deteriorating trade performance, political instability and rising public debt led to a deep and prolonged recession in 2015 that wiped out almost seven years of growth and doubled unemployment. Poverty levels have stagnated and Brazil remains one of the most unequal countries in the world. Nevertheless, since 2017, growth has resumed and annual inflation and unemployment have started to decline (Figure 3.1.)

Figure 3.1. GDP growth and unemployment in Brazil

Source: (OECD, 2018[5]) OECD Economic Surveys: Brazil 2018, OECD Publishing Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/eco_surveys-bra-2018-en

Stronger investment and productivity are key for future growth

In this context, the OECD’s most recent economic survey of Brazil (2018[5]) argues that stimulating growth and social progress will require strong investment across the economy. The OECD economists call for policies to reduce administrative burdens, simplify taxes and streamline licensing of economic activities. Raising productivity, which has been largely stagnant over the last 15 years, will also be crucial for future economic development. Improvements in productivity require not only more investment in physical capital, but also in the skills of people (OECD, 2018[5]). Ensuring access to high quality higher education for all will be key for productivity growth.

Demographic trends and social conditions

Brazil has a young population, that is beginning to age

At 25%, the share of young people (aged 15-24) in the working-age population in Brazil is currently high in comparison to most OECD countries. However, by 2050, the proportion of young people in the working-age population in Brazil is forecast to have fallen to below the average of OECD and selected emerging economies (OECD, 2014[7]). This will mean fewer young people are available to generate wealth to help support the rest of society and each individual will need to be more productive just to maintain current living standards. Studies suggest that a highly educated – and thus more productive - population will be key to responding to the challenges of a higher old-age dependency ratio (Dwyer et al., 2016[8]).

High levels of inequality

In contrast to many OECD countries, Brazil has seen a decrease in income inequality over the past decade. However, the Gini coefficient – measuring income inequality - remains higher than in any OECD country (Figure 3.2). Half of the population receives 10% of total household income, while the other half holds 90% (OECD, 2018[5]).

Figure 3.2. Income inequality
Gini coefficient, 0 = complete equality; 1 = complete inequality, 2017 or latest available

Source: (OECD Data, 2018[9]), Income inequality, https://data.oecd.org/inequality/income-inequality.htm

Significant inequalities also exist along geographical and ethnic lines. For example, a 2014 study calculated that the likelihood of a young, black woman living in the Northeast of Brazil being unemployed was 28.6%. This compared to an unemployment rate for white males living in the South of 7.6% (OECD, 2014[7]). Among the richest 1% of the population, less than one in five of are black or mixed race, even though these groups account for over 50% of the total population. Among the poorest 10% of the population, over 70% are black or mixed race (IBGE, 2014[10]).

Crime and corruption are widespread in Brazil

Brazil ranks 96th out of 180 countries in the latest Transparency International corruption index (Transparency International, 2018[11]). Scandals that surfaced in relation to corruption in public procurement, including by state-owned companies, and infrastructure concessions in recent years have created significant political turmoil. The OECD (2018[5]) has highlighted improving transparency and accountability as a key priority to tackle the root causes of corruption.

According to the latest OECD data, Brazil's homicide rate is 27.6 per 100 000 population, more than seven times the OECD average of 3.6 (OECD, 2017[12]). In addition to being a social and criminal justice issue, reports suggest that high levels of violence have a negative impact on economic growth due to the direct costs of crime and as an indirect constraint for business growth (World Bank, 2006[13]).

3.3. Governance arrangements, funding and key public policies for higher education

Governance of higher education

Responsibility for higher education is shared between the Union, states and municipalities

Higher education provision in Brazil is a shared responsibility between the federal government, the 27 federative units (the 26 states and the federal district of Brasília) and the municipalities. The federal authorities, state governments and municipalities are all permitted to create and fund the operation of public higher education institutions. In practice, the involvement of state and municipal authorities in providing higher education varies considerably between states across the country. The federal government, through the National Education Plan, establishes the national strategy for higher education. It has also assumed primary responsibility for funding student aid programmes, is responsible for the external quality assurance of federal public higher education providers and has exclusive responsibility for licensing and assuring the quality of private higher education providers throughout the country. State governments are responsible for regulating and assuring the quality of state and municipal public institutions in their territories.

Ministry of Education steers, regulates and supervises the federal higher education system

The federal Ministry of Education (Ministério da Educação, MEC) is responsible for establishing national education policy at the federal level, as well as co-ordinating the different levels and parts of the education system. The federal higher education system comprises both federal public higher education institutions and all private higher education institutions in Brazil.

In higher education, MEC is currently responsible for establishing, funding, steering and regulating the federal Higher Education system, through its different secretariats (Figure 3.3), which, at the time of writing, are:

  • The Secretariat for Higher Education (Secretaria de Educação Superior, SESU) establishes, funds, and steers the network of federal universities and is, de facto, responsible for developing the overall strategy of the federal government in higher education.

  • The Secretariat for Vocational and Technological Education (Secretaria de Educação Professional e Tecnológica, SETEC) co-ordinates, monitors and evaluates vocational education and training in the country, including the (relatively small) network of federal institutes of education, science and technology that provide Advanced Technology Programmes (cursos superiores de tecnologia) alongside non-tertiary professional programmes.

  • The Secretariat for Regulation and Supervision of Higher Education (Secretaria de Regulação e Supervisão da Educação Superior, SERES) supervises and regulates the system, including the approval of new institutions and programmes. SERES is the main ministry department involved in the Brazilian quality assurance system for undergraduate education and some types of professionally oriented (lato sensu) postgraduate education (the Sistema Nacional de Avaliação da Educação Superior, SINAES).

Figure 3.3. Current governance arrangements for the federal higher education system in Brazil (November 2018)

Note: This figure does not provide a complete overview of the education system in Brazil, nor does it include the different state and municipal level governance systems.

Source: (MEC, 2018[14]), Estrutura Organizacional - Ministério da Educação (Organisational Structure - Ministry of Education), http://portal.mec.gov.br/institucional/estrutura-organizacional

MEC is supported in the regulation, evaluation and supervision of higher education by two main advisory bodies and two specialised implementation agencies with varying degrees of autonomy:

  • The National Council for Education (Conselho Nacional de Educação, CNE) provides advice for the development and assessment of national educational policy, including the National Plan for Education (Plano Nacional de Educação, PNE). The CNE is composed of 24 members nominated by the President for a four-year mandate. The CNE is composed of two chambers: one for basic education (Câmara de Educação Básica) and one for higher education (Câmara de Educação Superior).

  • The National Commission for Evaluation of Higher Education (Comissão Nacional de Avaliação da Educação Superior, CONAES), established in 2004, is an advisory body responsible for overseeing the implementation and further development of the national system of evaluation of higher education, SINAES. CONAES is tasked with assessing the mechanisms of institutional, programme and student evaluation, developing proposals for the development of higher education institutions, defining curriculum parameters for each field, articulating with the state education systems, among others.

  • The Anísio Teixeira National Institute for Educational Studies and Research (Instituto Nacional de Estudos e Pesquisas Educacionais Anísio Teixeira, INEP), established in 1937, is a semi-autonomous agency responsible for implementing SINAES. It coordinates the collection of data and is tasked with developing and implementing key elements of quality assessment in higher education, including the National Examination of Student Performance (Exame Nacional de Desempenho de Estudantes, ENADE), programme evaluation and institutional evaluation.

  • The Foundation for the Coordination of Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior, CAPES), established in 1951, is a public foundation under the responsibility of MEC. CAPES has been responsible for assuring the quality of academic (stricto sensu) postgraduate programmes since the mid-1970s. CAPES operates an extensive system of accreditation and quality rating of postgraduate provision based primarily on peer review. In addition, the Foundation provides public funding to research and promotes international scientific co-operation.

The Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communication (Ministério de Ciência, Tecnologia, Inovações e Comunicações, MCTIC) provides funding for research and innovation in higher education institutions, primarily through its associated executive agency, the National Council for Research and Development (Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico, CNPq).

Funding higher education

A hybrid higher education system, with significant private provision

The Brazilian higher education sector is classified as a “hybrid system” (Ferreyra et al., 2017[15]), with significant public and private higher education sectors and differences between these in terms of funding. As established in the 1988 Constitution, public institutions may not charge tuition fees to students and rely almost exclusively on public funds for their operation. As in other countries, there are opportunities for public institutions to obtain resources from other funding streams (Corbucci and Fonseca Marques, 2003[16]), through donations and by providing services. However, consolidated recent data on these funding streams are not available for public institutions in Brazil.

Institutions in the private sector receive no direct institutional subsidies and depend on income from student fees. Private institutions are free to determine the level of fees charged (Dwyer et al., 2016[8]). In 2017, students in the private sector paid an average monthly fee of BRL 898 (EUR 281) (SEMESP, 2017[17]), although this figure masks considerable variation between institutions and programmes.

Private institutions may benefit from indirect public subsidies, through public grant and loan programmes provided to low-income students attending private institutions (FIES and PROUNI – see below). Students in public institutions do not have access to publicly funded maintenance grant and loan schemes. Private not-for-profit institutions may also benefit from indirect tax and social security exemptions, which were estimated to amount to BRL 9 billion in 2013 (Davies, 2017[18]).

Public spending on higher education is slightly below the OECD average

Total public expenditure in Brazil on educational institutions from primary to tertiary level represents 5% of the country’s GDP. This comparatively high level of public expenditure mostly reflects comparatively high spending on primary to post-secondary non-tertiary education (4% of GDP) (OECD, 2018[3]). However, these data do not take into account private and public spending on student support schemes (as opposed to institutional subsidies), which through assisting students to pay fees, form an indirect subsidy to private higher education institutions. If this expenditure were accounted for, studies suggest that expenditure on tertiary education institutions in Brazil as a percentage of GDP would be higher than the average in OECD countries (Nascimento and Verhine, 2017[19]).

Figure 3.4. Total expenditure on educational institutions as a percentage of GDP (2015)
From public, private and international sources, % of GDP.

Note: Data for Brazil take into account public expenditure to public institutions only (federal, state and municipal-level institutions). Private spending and public spending on student support schemes (as opposed to institutional subsidies), which through assisting students to pay fees, form an indirect subsidy to private higher education institutions are not accounted for.

Source: (OECD, 2018[3]), Education at a Glance 2018: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/eag-2018-en

In 2015, public subsidy per student to public tertiary education institutions in Brazil, including research and development (R&D) activities and adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP), was USD 14 261. This is close to the level of public subsidy to public institutions in OECD countries such as France (USD 14 386) and the Netherlands (USD 14 369). These data refer exclusively to public spending per student in public institutions, as private institutions do not receive direct public subsidies and data on private spending on public higher education in Brazil are not available. The figures thus reflect spending levels that affect less than 25% of Brazilian students.

Figure 3.5. General government and private expenditure per full-time tertiary student in
In equivalent USD converted using PPPs for GDP, by level of education, based on full-time equivalents

Note: * Data for the United Kingdom refer to institutions that formally have private, not-for-profit, legal status, but which have historically been government-dependent and are considered to be public institutions in national policy documents. Data on private expenditure on public higher education institutions are not available for Brazil, although in the absence of tuition fees, private revenues are likely to be low.

Source: (OECD, 2018[3]), Education at a Glance 2018: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/eag-2018-en

Expenditure per tertiary student declined at the beginning of the current decade and in 2014 was equivalent to 80% of the total value for 2010. In comparison, expenditure per student at primary, secondary and post-secondary non-tertiary level had increased by 58 percentage points since 2010 (OECD, 2017[20]).

Public spending in tertiary education is comparatively centralised

While 92% of final funds for pre-primary and school education (after transfers between levels of government) are managed by regional and local governments in Brazil, around 80% of final public funds for higher education are managed by the federal government. The remaining 20% is managed primarily by state governments (OECD, 2018[3]). The significance of the state and municipal public higher education sectors varies considerably between states in Brazil.

The federal Ministry of Education allocates operating budgets to federal higher education institutions on an annual basis, based on historical patterns for current expenditure and on funding formulas for capital expenditure. While federal institutions have a certain degree of autonomy in resource allocation, the Ministry allocates a specific share for current expenditure and another for capital expenditure (Corbucci and Fonseca Marques, 2003[16])

State-level universities receive funding from the state government. In some cases, the resource allocation for each university is tied to the state level budget. In others, such as the State of São Paulo, universities receive a specific share of state-level taxes. State-level institutions tend to have greater autonomy to allocate such resources internally.

Funding higher education is a politicised topic

There is growing controversy regarding the way higher education is funded in Brazil, as students from more advantaged backgrounds are more likely to access highly selective elite public institutions, which are free, whereas those from poorer backgrounds tend to attend fee-paying private institutions (McCowan, 2007[21]). This is widely seen to exacerbate socio-economic inequalities (OECD, 2014[7]). In 2017, the Brazilian Congress blocked a proposal that would have allowed public higher education institutions to charge tuition fees for specialisation and professional (lato sensu) postgraduate programmes (Portal da Câmara dos Deputados, 2017[22]).

In 2016, the Brazilian government approved an expenditure rule that sets a ceiling on federal expenditure for the next 20 years to stabilise public debt. In practice this will freeze future primary expenditure at 2016 levels, adjusting to inflation (OECD, 2018[5]). Previously the Constitution defined a minimum percentage of revenue to the education and health sectors – 18% of net tax revenue and 15% of net current revenue, respectively. The new rule also protects expenditure to these sectors, but alters the mechanism for doing so, by defining spending floors for education and health, whereby expenditure for these sectors should be no lower than their 2017 expenditure ceiling (IMF, 2017[23]).

Key federal government policies for higher education

Strategy focused on expansion and quality

In recent years, the federal government policy has focused on increasing access to higher education, in particular for disadvantaged socio-economic groups, as well as promoting improvements in quality. In 2014, the federal government adopted the National Plan for Education (PNE) for 2014-24, which sets 20 goals for improving access to education and quality from early childhood to adult education. Three of the goals relate explicitly to higher education (Box 3.1). INEP is tasked with monitoring implementation of the PNE and assessing results at the federal level. State and municipal level governments are responsible for the implementation and monitoring PNE in their jurisdictions.

Box 3.1. Higher education goals in the National Education Plan 2014-2024

Target 12: by 2024, raise gross enrolment in higher education to 50% and net enrolment1 to 33% of the 18-24 year-old population, ensuring the quality of provision and with at least 40% of new students enrolling in public institutions. Related measures include: infrastructure improvement, increasing the number of study places, raising completion rates, offering at least a third of classes in the evening, expanding student support systems, and adopting affirmative policies. In 2017, the gross enrolment rate was 35% and the net rate was 23%.

Target 13: by 2024, raise the quality of higher education and increase the qualification level of the entire teaching workforce in public and private institutions. Ensure that at least 75% of teaching staff have attained a bac’s degree and 35% a doctoral degree. Relevant measures include: improving the National System of Higher Education Evaluation (SINAES), encouraging institutional self-assessment, expanding the National Examination of Student Performance (ENADE) and ensuring that by 2024, three-quarters of students correctly answer at least 75% of the items on the exam. In 2017, 78% of teaching staff had Master’s degrees and 40% a PhD.

Target 14: by 2024, increase participation in stricto sensu graduate programmes. The goal is to award 60 000 Master’s and 25 000 doctoral degrees per year. Relevant measures include: expanding financial support to stricto sensu graduate programmes, articulating CAPES and state-level R&D support agencies and expanding the offer of stricto sensu graduate programmes. In 2016, 59 600 stricto sensu Master’s degrees were awarded and 20 600 PhDs.

Sources: (Presidência da República, 2014[24])Lei No.13005 - Aprova o Plano Nacional de Educação (PNE) (Law No. 13005 - Approval of the National Education Plan), http://www.planalto.gov.br/CCIVIL_03/_Ato2011-2014/2014/Lei/L13005.htm, (INEP, 2018[25])Relatório do 2º ciclo de monitoramento das metas do plano nacional de educação (Report on the second cycle of monitoring of the goals of the National Education Plan).

Modest expansion of public institutions and student support programmes for students in the private sector

Over the last two decade, federal higher education policy has been characterised by investment in expanding and improving federal higher education institutions and student aid programmes aimed at helping students from low-income backgrounds to access courses in the private sector.

The Programme for Restructuring and Expansion of Federal Universities (Programa de Apoio a Planos de Reestruturação e Expansão das Universidades Federais, REUNI), launched in 2007, provided funds to create additional study places and increase completion rates in federal institutions (Presidência da República, 2007[26]). In parallel, the “University for All” Programme (Programa Universidade para Todos, ProUni), created in 2005, provides tax exemptions to private institutions that offer free or reduced tuition fees to students from low-income families or who attended public upper secondary education. The Higher Education Student Funding Programme (Financiamento Estudantil no Ensino Superior, FIES), created in 1999, is a public student loan system which offers subsidised interest rates and comparatively generous repayment terms to students at private institutions. A reduction in interest rates and an extended reimbursement timeline introduced in 2011 led to a significant increase in demand for loans – from 34 654 in 2009 to more than 700 000 in 2014 (Salto, 2018[6]). In total, FIES and ProUni covered approximately 22 percent of all private HEI students in 2014, of whom 50% identified as black (Zalaf Caseiro, 2016[27]).

However, a report by the Federal Court of Accounts (Tribunal de Contas da União, TCU) showed that FIES’ expansion was conducted without adequate planning and that did not lead to a significant expansion of net enrolment. Given high default rates and the 2015 economic recession, the Brazilian government has since established a cap of 250 000 loans/year and stricter conditions (TCU, 2016[28]).

Quotas in federal universities aim to mitigate social inequities

With the aim of tackling social inequities in the student body in public institutions, the Brazilian government introduced the Quota Law (Lei das Cotas), approved in 2012 – an affirmative action law which imposes quotas on federal universities for the recruitment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. By 2016, 50% of enrolments were reserved for students from public secondary schools (25% for students with a per capita family income below one and a half minimum wages). Institutions are also be expected to respect minimum proportions of ethnic minority students, based on census statistics for the region where they are located (OECD, 2014[7]).

There have been moves to standardise admissions procedures

In 2010, the federal authorities introduced the Unified Selection System (Sistema Unificado de Seleção, SISU), with the objective of streamlining access processes for higher education. In the past, HEIs offered their own entrance examination (known as the vestibular) and the National Examination of Upper Secondary Education (Exame Nacional do Ensino Médio, ENEM) acted as a secondary school-leaving examination. Improvements to the ENEM content and administration, as well as a decision by the Ministry to use the ENEM as the only admission criteria for entry into federal universities (2009) have led to an increasing proportion of public and private HEIs using ENEM results to select students at entry. Institutions retain the autonomy to choose how to use students’ ENEM results. They might be the exclusive criteria or used as a complement to individual entry examinations. Programmes may also determine their own minimum grade requirements for overall ENEM results or for specific subjects (MEC, 2017[29]).

3.4. Higher education provision in Brazil

A diversified institutional landscape

A legal distinction between types of higher education institution

Public and private higher education institutions (HEIs) in Brazil are formally classified into three categories:

  • Colleges (faculdades): smaller, teaching institutions often dedicated to a specific field. Colleges currently account for 83% of HEIs in the country.

  • University centres (centros universitários): comprehensive institutions, mainly dedicated to teaching. University centres offer some post-graduate programmes and may conduct research, but there is no requirement to do so. University centres have greater autonomy in creating new programmes than colleges.

  • Universities (universidades): comprehensive institutions that are expected to conduct research and to offer post-graduate education. Universities also have autonomy to create new programmes.

Additionally, there are 38 Federal Institutes for Education, Science and Technology (Instituto Federal de Educação, Ciência e Tecnologia) and two Federal Technological Education Centres (Centros Federais de Educação Tecnológica, CEFETs), which are federal public institutions.

A higher education landscape dominated by private providers

The vast majority of new higher education institutions created in the last two decades have been private. In 2016, 87% of Brazil’s 2 407 HEIs were private institutions (MEC, 2018 (unpublished)[2]) the majority of which (88%) were categorised as colleges. These private institutions enrolled over 75% of undergraduate students. For-profit providers – legally authorised in 1988 – play an increasingly important role and are often controlled by large business groups, such as Kroton and Anhanguera, which are publicly traded (de Magalhães Castro, 2015[1]). In 2016, for-profit institutions represented 44% of the total number of institutions and 42% of students enrolled at ungraduated level.

Among the 296 public institutions, there are 107 federal, 123 state and 66 municipal institutions that enrol 15.5%, 7.7% and 1.4% of its students respectively (MEC, 2018 (unpublished)[2]). State and municipal institutions are mostly concentrated in the Southeast and Northeast regions of the country, whereas federal institutions are more evenly spread out across the country (MEC, 2018 (unpublished)[2]).

Table 3.1. Number of tertiary education institutions, by type and sector (2016)





University centre




2 407

2 004





























2 111

1 866




For profit

1 052





Not for profit






Note: IF = Federal Institutes for Education, Science and Technology; CEFET = Federal Technological Education Centres

Source: (MEC, 2018 (unpublished)[2]), Censo da Educação Superior 2018 (Higher Education Census 2018), Data supplied by MEC on 5 October 2018

Universities and university centres have higher levels of autonomy

The 1988 Constitution grants universities and university centres, whether public or private, higher levels of autonomy than colleges (faculdades), in particular regarding academic and administrative matters. They have the right to establish new undergraduate and lato sensu postgraduate programmes and alter the number of study places in existing programmes without prior authorisation from MEC2 and issue and register diplomas for their own programmes. Colleges must rely on accredited universities to register their diplomas. In addition, universities and university centres have the freedom to develop curricula - while following national curriculum guidelines - establish research programmes, allocate resources and expand geographic coverage.

However, public higher education institutions are subject to civil service regulations regarding their teaching workforce. They must follow strict remuneration and hiring procedures as permanent staff have the status of public employees. In addition, public institutions are subject to public sector regulations on purchasing and contracts. This has led many HEIs to establish separate foundations (fundações de apoio), subject to private law, that allow for greater administrative autonomy (Schwartzman, 2003[30]).

Undergraduate and postgraduate programmes

Different types of degrees in undergraduate and postgraduate education

Authorised HEIs may provide all kinds of undergraduate (ISCED 6) and postgraduate degrees (ISCED 7 and 8):

  • Bachelor’s degree (bacharelado): four-to-five-year degrees that usually lead to legally recognised and regulated professions (e.g. law and medicine).

  • Teacher’s license degree (licenciatura): four-year degrees that allow graduates to teach in pre-primary, primary and secondary education.

  • Advanced Technology Programmes (cursos superiores de tecnologia): three-year vocational and professionally-oriented programmes.

  • Specialisation (especialização): two-year programmes that are more professionally oriented, such as Master’s in Business Administration (MBAs).

  • Master’s degrees (mestrados): two-year programmes that may be professionally oriented or have a stronger academic focus.

  • Doctorate degrees (doutorados): four-year programmes with a strong academic and scientific focus.

Seven out of ten undergraduate students are enrolled in a bachelor’s degree (bacharelado). Nearly 20% of students at the undergraduate level are enrolled in a teacher training degree (licenciatura) and around 12% in vocational programmes (cursos superiores de tecnologia).

Table 3.2. Undergraduate enrolment, total and share
Number of students enrolled, by type of .degree and sector. In parenthesis the share of total enrolment (%).



Bachelor's degree (bacharelado)

Teacher training degree (licenciatura)

Advanced technology programmes

Other programmes




823,295 (10.2%)

328,032 (4.1%)

73,951 (0.9%)

24,175 (0.3%)

1,249,453 (15.5%)



305,990 (3.8%)

229,781 (2.9%)

79,726 (1%)

8,213 (0.1%)

623,710 (7.7%)



92,684 (~0%)

21,301 (0.0%)

3,323 (~0%)

27 (~0%)

117,335 (0.3%)


For profit

2,249,357 (27.9%)

593,227 (7.4%)

543,730 (6.8%)

1,015 (~0%)

3,387,329 (42.1%)


Not for profit

2,078,410 (25.8%)

348,153 (4.3%)

245,499 (3%)

2,365 (~0%)

2,674,427 (33.2%)



5,549,736 (68.9%)

1,520,494 (18.9%)

946,229 (11.8%)

35,795 (0.4%)


Source: (MEC, 2018 (unpublished)[2]), Censo da Educação Superior 2018 (Higher Education Census 2018), Data supplied by MEC on 5 October 2018

Growing postgraduate provision, with idiosyncratic programme classification

In contrast to the situation in most OECD countries, in Brazil, Master’s-level programmes (ISCED 7) are divided into two categories: “stricto sensu” and “lato sensu” programmes. Master’s degrees (mestrado acadêmico) and Professional Master’s degrees (mestrado profissional) are classified as stricto sensu given their strong academic and scientific focus. More professionally oriented, postgraduate “specialisation” programmes, including MBAs, are classified as lato sensu provision (CAPES, 2018[31]). Lato sensu programmes are not regulated individually. HEIs are allowed to offer them if they meet certain criteria related to staff qualifications and programmes, but institutions must inform MEC of their existence. In 2017, 22.5% of Master’s students were enrolled in lato sensu programmes (MEC, 2018[32]).

Brazil has witnessed a significant expansion of postgraduate education in the last two decades. The number of Master’s and doctoral programmes increased more than three-fold between 1996 and 2014 (Figure 3.6). The relative importance of Professional Master’s programmes has also been increasing since the late 1990s. By 2014, Professional Master’s represented 14% of all Master’s programmes offered and 11.4% of Master’s degrees awarded.

Figure 3.6. Number of stricto sensu master’s and doctoral programmes, 1996-2014

Source: (CGEE, 2016[33]), Mestres e doutores 2015 - Estudos da demografia da base técnico-científica brasileira (Master's and doctoral graduates 2015 - a demographic study of the Brasilian technical and science base), Centro de Gestão e Estudos Estratégicos, Brasília, http://www.cgee.org.br.

The publication of Brazilian science and engineering articles increased on average by 11.8% a year between 2003 and 2013 (OECD, 2016[34]). Brazil’s citation impact increased from 0.73 in 2011 to 0.86 in 2016. However, only 6.4% of Brazilian papers were in the world’s top 10% most cited, below China (11%) and South Africa (10.2%) (Clarivate Analytics, 2018[35])

Distance education has been expanding, particularly in the private sector

In the past decade, participation in distance education has expanded significantly from 4.2% of total enrolment in 2006 to 18.6% in 2016. The share of undergraduate students in the private sector that are enrolled in distance programmes, at 22%, is larger than in public federal (5.9%) or state-level institutions (7.3%). Currently 92% of students enrolled in distance undergraduate degrees are in a private institution (MEC, 2018 (unpublished)[2]).

Teaching workforce

According to the 2016 Census of higher education, there were 398 000 higher education teachers in the country, of whom 55% were in private institutions, 30% in federal institutions and the remaining 15% in state and municipal HEIs. On average, the ratio of students per teacher is 17.1 in Brazil, although this varies considerably across institutions and sectors, ranging from 10.7 in Federal faculdades to 21.8 in private universities (INEP, 2016[36])

The qualifications of teaching staff vary between institutional types

As shown in Figure 3.7, over 50% of teaching staff in private and public universities have doctoral degrees, compared to 30% in federal technical institutions, 23% in university centres and 18% in colleges. The prevalence of teachers with doctoral degree is higher in public HEIs (59%) than in private institutions (22%).

Figure 3.7. Share of professors by educational attainment, by sector

Source: (INEP, 2016[36]), Sinopses Estatísticas da Educação Superior – Graduação - INEP (Sinopsis Higher Education Statistics - Undegraduate Education - INEP), http://portal.inep.gov.br/web/guest/sinopses-estatisticas-da-educacao-superior

On average, across all institutional types, half of teaching staff (52%) are hired on a full-time basis, another 27% are hired as part-time staff and 21% are hired by the hour. In public institutions, the share of full-time professors is much larger (85%) than the average in private HEIs (26%), with the highest proportion for full-time permanent staff in federal institutions (where staff are civil servants). Data from Brazilian household surveys suggest the earnings of a median professor in higher education correspond to the 96th earnings percentile, which means that only four percent of workers earn more (Ferreyra et al., 2017[15]).

Table 3.3. Teaching staff by contract, sector (2016)




Per hour

Public (total)
















Private (total)








Source: (INEP, 2016[36]), Sinopses Estatísticas da Educação Superior – Graduação - INEP (Sinopsis Higher Education Statistics - Undegraduate Education - INEP), http://portal.inep.gov.br/web/guest/sinopses-estatisticas-da-educacao-superior

3.5. Main trends in participation, equity and outcomes

Participation and attainment

Increasing rates of enrolment and attainment

In 2017, 17% of 25-34 year-olds in Brazil had a tertiary education qualification, compared to 10% in 2007. Nevertheless, as noted earlier, tertiary attainment among young adults (25-34) in Brazil still lags behind the average of OECD countries (43%), and is below all other Latin American countries with available data: Argentina (18%), Chile (30%), Colombia (28%), Costa Rica (28%) and Mexico (23%).

Figure 3.8. Educational attainment of 25-34 year-olds (2017)
Percentage of 25-34 year-olds with a given level of education as the highest level attained

Source: (OECD, 2018[3]), Education at a Glance 2018: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/eag-2018-en

The higher levels of educational attainment are a reflection of increased participation in higher education. The total number of students enrolled in undergraduate programmes in Brazil has increased nearly four-fold in the last two decades, from 1.7 million students in 1995 to roughly six million in 2009 and over eight million students in 2017 (Figure 3.9).

Figure 3.9. Enrolment in undergraduate programmes

Note: Data include enrolment in distance and non-distance education.

Source: (INEP, 2018[37]), Número de Matrículas da Educação Superior Por Categoria Administrativa e Abrangência Geográfica (Enrolment in Higher Education, by region and administrative category), https://inepdata.inep.gov.br/analytics/saw.dll?PortalGo

Strong growth in enrolment in the private sector

Participation in the private sector has not only experienced a significant increase in absolute terms, but also relative to the public sector. In 2017, the private sector represented over 75% of enrolment in undergraduate programmes (INEP, 2018[37])compared to only 58% in 1994. However, the private sector’s weight is not as important in postgraduate education although the number of programmes in private HEIs has expanded significantly in the past two decades (CAPES, 2018[31]). Less than one in three postgraduate students is enrolled in a private institution and this share is even lower for those attending more academically-oriented (stricto sensu) programmes, in particular Master’s (15.4%) and doctoral degrees (11.5%).

Distance education has expanded, driven by the private sector

In absolute terms, enrolment in distance education programmes doubled between 2009 and 2017 and now accounts for over 1.7 million undergraduate students (INEP, 2018[38]). However, a more fine-grained analysis shows that expansion has occurred exclusively in the private sector. Since 2012, there has been a decline in the number of undergraduate students enrolled in public distance education programmes (Figure 3.10). Nearly seven in ten students enrolled in distance programmes were attending for-profit institutions in 2014 (Salto, 2018[6]). Tuition fees in distance education programmes are on average considerably lower than in classroom-based (presencial) programmes – BRL 279 compared to BRL 779 – and, in contrast to classroom-based programmes, fees have declined - by 19.8% between 2012 and 2017 (HOPER, 2017[39]).

Figure 3.10. Enrolment in distance education programmes (2009-15), by sector

Source: (INEP, 2018[38]), Número de Matrículas - Educação Superior - Por Modalidade de Ensino, Grau Acadêmico e Categoria Administrativa (Enrolment - Higher Education - by sector and category), https://inepdata.inep.gov.br/analytics/saw.dll?PortalGo

Equity 4and the socio-economic profile of the student population

Greater levels of equity but important gaps remain

Access to higher education has become more equitable in recent years. The share of students from families in the bottom income quartile who attend higher education increased from 9.7% in 2003 to 18.8% in 2013 (Nascimento and Verhine, 2017[19]). Conversely, the share of students from the top quartile has decreased by 17.5 percentage points in the same time period.

Despite improvements, as Figure 3.11 shows, individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds are still much less likely to participate in higher education. Moreover, as previously discussed, despite coming from poorer backgrounds, they are less likely to attend public institutions, which do not charge tuition fees. Less than 60% of students enrolled in public institutions graduated from a private upper secondary school, compared to70% of those attending private institutions (INEP, 2018[40]).

Figure 3.11. Share of enrolment in higher education institutions, by income quartile and sector

Note: Q1 refers to the 25% poorest individuals from the total population, whereas Q4 refers to the 25% richest.

Source: (Nascimento and Verhine, 2017[19]), Considerações sobre o investimento público em educação superior no Brasil (Reflections about public investment in higher education in Brazil), Radar: tecnologia, produção e comércio exterior, Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada, http://www.ipea.gov.br/portal/images/stories/PDFs/radar/170324_radar_49.pdf

Ethnic gaps in access to higher education have declined

Efforts to reduce inequities in access across ethnic groups, through affirmative action, have led to a significant increase in participation by black and mixed race students. The number of mixed race (pardo) graduates from federal universities increased from 28.3% to 37.7% between 2004 and 2014. The share of black graduates also increased in that time period from 5.9% to 9.8% (INEP, 2016[36]).

Distance education programmes attract more mature students

There is a large share of mature students (over the age of 30) enrolled in higher education. This share is more than twice as large in distance programmes (Figure 3.12). Whereas over 50% of students in on-campus programmes are aged 19-24.

Figure 3.12. Share of students in higher education by mode of study and age (2015)

Source: (SEMESP, 2017[17]), Mapa do Ensino Superior no Brasil 2017 (Map of Higher Education in Brazil 2017), Sindicato das Mantenedoras de Ensino Superior

Learning and employment outcomes

Tertiary graduates benefit from better employment prospects

In part due to the small share of tertiary-educated people in the population, those who do obtain a tertiary degree in Brazil can expect a notably higher earnings advantage than on average across OECD countries. Someone with a bachelor’s degree in Brazil earns over 2.4 times what someone who only attained upper secondary education earns (OECD average: 1.5) and someone with a Master’s, doctorate or equivalent earns almost 4.5 times more (OECD average, 2.0). These very large earnings premiums are common in Latin American countries with available data (Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico) (OECD, 2017[20]).

Figure 3.13. Relative earnings of adults, by educational attainment (2016)
25-64 year-olds with income from employment; upper secondary education = 100

Note: 1. Year of reference 2015. 2. Index 100 refers to the combined ISCED levels 3 and 4 of the educational attainment levels in the ISCED 2011 classification. 3. Year of reference 2014. 4. Earnings net of income tax. 5. Year of reference 2012

Source: (OECD, 2018[3]), Education at a Glance 2018: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/eag-2018-en

As in most OECD and partner countries, those with a tertiary degree in Brazil have better employment rates overall. At 6.5% in 2016, the unemployment rate for tertiary-educated adults in Brazil was about over four percentage points lower than for those who attained only upper secondary education (10.9%), and the inactivity rate was 50% lower (8% compared to 16% respectively). Again, these differences are much larger in Brazil than on average in OECD countries (OECD, 2017[20]). However, there is some evidence of a mismatch between the supply of graduates and the skills required in the labour market. Nearly 70% of managers in Brazil reported difficulty in filling positions, a larger share than in Argentina (41%), Costa Rica (40%) and Mexico (38%). According to the survey, the main reasons reported are lack of technical skills, lack of professional experience and insufficient number of applicants (McKinsey Global Institute, 2018[41])


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← 1. Gross enrolment rate is calculated reflecting all students, regardless of age. Net enrolment is calculated by dividing the number of students of a particular age group enrolled in all levels of education by the size of the population of that age group.

← 2. New programmes and increases in the number of study places in existing programmes in the fields of law, medicine, dentistry, psychology and nursing are subject to prior authorisation by MEC for all institution types. For law programmes, MEC consults the Federal Council of the Brazilian Bar Association (Ordem dos Advogados do Brasil) and for programmes in medicine, dentistry, psychology and nursing, the National Health Council (Conselho Nacional de Saúde) (Presidência da República, 2017, p. art 41[2]).

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