Chapter 5. Higher education provision, access and support mechanisms

This chapter examines how Portugal might further widen access to higher education. It finds that that higher education programmes and their modes of provision are not sufficiently differentiated or flexible to meet the needs of all students, especially mature learners. Pathways that permit students to move from secondary to higher education are not yet adapted to the needs, interests and learning experiences of students enrolled in secondary professional education, limiting the continued widening and social diversification of higher education access. Student support – financial, academic, and social – is less developed than best practice found across the OECD, and adversely affects both entry into and success in higher education.


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.

Note by Turkey: The information in this document with reference to “Cyprus” relates to the southern part of the Island. There is no single authority representing both Turkish and Greek Cypriot people on the Island. Turkey recognises the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Until a lasting and equitable solution is found within the context of the United Nations, Turkey shall preserve its position concerning the “Cyprus issue”.

Note by all the European Union Member States of the OECD and the European Union: The Republic of Cyprus is recognised by all members of the United Nations with the exception of Turkey. The information in this document relates to the area under the effective control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus.

5.1. Introduction

An adequate supply of individuals qualified at higher education level is widely recognised as a key factor in enabling economies to shift towards higher levels of knowledge intensity and allowing industries to move up the global value chain. Internationally, increases in higher education graduate rates have typically gone hand in hand with improved adoption and absorption of technological and process innovations, advances in productivity and the wealth creation associated with this. These developments are driven not only by the advanced subject knowledge students acquire through higher education, but also the wider transversal skills sets they are able to develop through pursuing their education to a higher level.

Notwithstanding years of growth in higher education participation in Portugal, higher education attainment rates remain below the OECD average, and below EU and national targets for 2020 and 2030. In this context, the Portuguese system needs to widen access to higher education further, while also ensuring as many students as possible successfully complete their studies.

Effective higher education systems with high levels of participation and completion support and encourage diversity and flexibility in the provision of study programmes, while also ensuring their quality. Greater institutional and programmatic differentiation ensures that institutional profiles and activities respond to the varied needs and interests of their student population and society at large, and support the development of a broad range of skilled individuals.

In light of these considerations, this section of the review examines three important issues:

  1. 1. Is the education provided in Portugal’s higher education system adapted to the different needs of a broad range of student types?

  2. 2. Do admission procedures provide suitable pathways into higher education that are adapted to the needs, interests and learning experiences of different student populations?

  3. 3. Are there adequate financial and pastoral supports in place to help students complete their studies and to encourage young adults to return to education?

5.2. Context

5.2.1. Higher education provision

Portugal’s higher education system is based on a well-established binary system where polytechnics provide professionally-oriented study programmes and universities offer more traditional academic programmes based on the Bologna three-cycle system. Additionally, the introduction in 2014 of short-cycle post-secondary higher-education programmes, the Cursos Técnicos Superiores Profissionais (CTeSP), created an additional vocational learning pathway.

Few undergraduate programmes are offered on an evening or weekend schedule, or on either an accelerated or extended basis, particularly in public institutions. In total, 5.5% of seats accessible through the national entry regime are offered on an after-work or night-time basis.

Distance education programmes are offered both by individual higher education institutions and by the nation’s Open University, established in 1998. In 2015/16 the Open University offered 12 distance-learning undergraduate programmes and enrolled 4 820 students in first-cycle bachelor programmes, about 2.3% of the nation’s 211 600 undergraduate students (MCTES, 2017), while Portugal’s public polytechnic institutions offered another eight distance education programmes (DGES, 2018). In comparison, the Open University of Catalonia in Spain enrolled about 16% of its higher education students (IDESCAT, n.a), while the United Kingdom’s Open University enrolled about 7.5% of the nation’s 2 317 880 higher education students (Open University, n.a).

Few students are enrolled in part-time study, and few combine study and employment. In 2015, only 5.5% of higher education students (ISCED Levels 5 to 8) in Portugal were enrolled on a part-time basis compared to 18.3% on average across OECD countries (Figure 5.1). Across OECD countries it is common for student enrolled in higher education to combine academic and professional activities. Among countries participating in the OECD Survey of Adult Skills – PIAAC (OECD, 2013a), 39% of 16-29 year-old students combine both activities (OECD, 2015). Portugal also has a small number of higher education students who combine work and study – 8.5% in 2015/2016 – and this share has declined since 2012/2013, when this group represented 11% of all students (MCTES, 2017).

Figure 5.1. Share of part-time higher education students
Percentage of total students, total tertiary education (ISCED2011 levels 5 to 8), 2015.

Source: OECD (2018), OECD.Stat, Enrolment by gender, programme orientation and mode of study: Share of part-time students, (accessed 5 January 2018).

Portugal has established alternative pathways for mature students (over 23-year-olds) to enter higher education, which take into account students’ previous academic and professional experience. Mature students comprised a larger share of total enrolments in 2015 (5%) than they did prior to the programme’s adoption in 2005 (1.1% in 2004-05). However, the number of mature students enrolling for the first time – through the special examination, which includes an assessment of the candidate’s previous professional and academic experience, his/her motivation letter and his/her outcomes in exams set by each programme – has declined from over 10 000 students in 2010 to 4 680 in 2015/16 (MCTES, 2017). Thus, Portugal continues to have a distinctively small share of mature students entering its higher education system. On average, 18% of new entrants in higher education were older than 25 across OECD countries, compared to only 9% in Portugal (OECD, 2017a).

Study programmes in Portugal typically require extensive instructional contact. The 2011 Eurostudent Survey found Portuguese undergraduate students had the highest number of weekly instructional hours in Europe – 26 hours per week of taught studies,1 compared to the average of 18.5 hours. And while, on average, most Portuguese students are dissatisfied with their time schedules, this is particularly true for mature students. Only 14% of mature students (30 years old or older) indicated being (very) satisfied, compared to 31% of students under the age of 24 (Orr et al., 2011).

In stakeholder meetings, the Review team was told that instruction is often more flexibly organised and adapted to student needs in private higher education than it is in the nation’s public higher education institutions. However, the decreasing number of programmes offered by private institutions – and the concentration of this offer in Portugal’s principal metropolitan centres – limits the availability of these study options (MCTES, 2017).

5.2.2. Admission system to higher education

The Agency for Assessment and Accreditation of Higher Education (Agência de Avaliação e Acreditação do Ensino Superior, A3ES) assesses programmes’ and institutions’ teaching and physical capacity and the number of vacancies offered in previous years to set a maximum enrolment capacity for private and public institutions. In addition, the MCTES is responsible for setting the number of study places in public institutions offered through the General Access Regime (Regime Geral de Acesso, RGA). This decision takes into account the A3ES assessment. The number of vacancies available through the General Access Regime is then used as a reference point for determining the number of study places available for students entering via alternative pathways.

The numerus clausus instrument was implemented in the late 1970s to manage high demand for study places in higher education programmes (Fonseca et al. 2014). However, currently the number of vacancies in the system as a whole exceeds the total number of applicants due to the expansion of the system’s capacity and a decline in demand due to a declining young adult population (Teixeira et al., 2012; DGES, 2016). Therefore, the numerus clausus instrument no longer creates an aggregated cap for the system. Nevertheless, at the institutional and regional level, they may still impose a cap, in particular in prestigious programmes, institutions and most desirable regions in the littoral, where demand exceeds the number of study places.

Prospective students access undergraduate and integrated masters’ programmes (Figure 5.2) and post-secondary non-higher-education programmes through a number of different pathways – the General Access Regime, the Special Access Regime (Regime Especial de Acesso) and a number of special entrance competition (Concursos Especiais).

Figure 5.2. Pathways to higher education programmes (ISCED Level 6)

Source: DGES (n.d), Formas de Acesso – Diagrama, Direção-Geral do Ensino Superior, (accessed 5 January 2018).

The most common pathway for secondary education graduates or for those students who have successfully obtained an exam that proves their ability to enter higher education is theNational Entrance Competition (Concurso Nacional de Acesso), which is managed by the Directorate General of Higher Education (Direção Geral do Ensino Superior, DGES). 83% of students enrolled in universities and 65% in polytechnics were matched to their programmes through this stream (MCTES, 2017) (Table 5.1).

Table 5.1. Students enrolled in first-cycle degrees the first year for the first time, by type of entry
Percentage, 2014/2015

Type of entry competition

Public Universities

Private Universities

Public Polytechnics

Private Polytechnics


National competition






Local competition






Institutional competition




Special comptetion for over 23 year-olds






Change of degree






Special competition for those with a higher education degree






Special competition for those with a Technology Specialisation and TESP












Note: First-cycle degrees include bachelor degrees and CTeSP.

Source: MCTES (2017), Country Background Report, Ministério de Ciência, Tecnologia e Ensino Superior, Lisboa.

Through the General Access Regime, students take national entrance competitions (Concursos Nacionais) to access public institutions. Each higher education institution determines up to two secondary school leaving and higher education access exams (Exames finais nacionais do ensino secundário e acesso ao ensino superior) that are required per programme (except for Medicine, which can determine up to three exams). Candidates must obtain at least a minimum score in each examination, which is established by the institution. Additionally, the MCTES may also require students to take specific examinations for certain programmes; for example, physics and chemistry are required for engineering programmes.

Within the General Access Regime, private institutions and specific programmes in public universities, such as music, dance, theatre and cinema, may set their own entrance examination as part of the Institutional and Local Competitions (Concurso Institucional and Concurso Local, respectively). The institutional competition (Concurso Institucional) is the main pathway to access private HEIs – 62% of students in private universities and 47% in private polytechnics accessed higher education. On the other hand, few students enter public institutions via the local competition (Concurso Local) – 1% in universities and 2% in polytechnics (MCTES, 2017).

As part of the National Entrance Competition, students apply for study places through a central admissions portal and indicate up to six different pairs of programmes and institutions by order of preference. Based on these choices, students will select up to three subjects (out of 19) in which to be assessed. The content of the national entrance examinations is based on the upper secondary academic track curriculum, even though students from both academic and professional tracks are eligible to take the examinations.

Student selection for higher education entry is based principally upon grades and entrance examination results. Between 50 and 65% of a student’s admission score is based upon the student’s secondary school grades. Higher education institutions determine weights based on their overall priorities and the specific demands of the study programme. In addition, students’ scores on the entrance examination account for between 35 and 50% of their admission score. Importantly, students whose grade in a specific required subject falls below a minimum score cannot be admitted to the programme even if their average is above the threshold and there are vacant places in the programme. Another element to take into account is students’ ordered list of preferences (MCTES, 2008). In 2017, 70.6% of applicants were admitted to their first or second preference (DGES, 2017).

The Special Access Regime (Regime Especial de Acesso) covers exceptional cases for Portuguese and foreign diplomats, civil servants abroad, high-performing athletes, East-Timorese, and Lusophone African students with scholarships.

Special access routes to higher-education degrees also exist for adults over the age of 23, holders of Technological Specialisation degrees, Technical Professional degrees and other higher education diplomas. In these specific cases, public and private institutions organise their own admission processes and examinations. These access routes allow for students’ different needs and past experiences to be more adequately captured and recognised. In 2014/15, around 25% of enrolled first-time higher education students accessed their programmes via these special access routes (MCTES, 2017).

For graduate levels and short-cycle higher-education programmes, including the CTeSP, higher education institutions have discretion in the admission of applicants, who are required to have successfully completed lower education levels.

5.2.3. Support for higher education students

In addition to providing equitable and flexible pathways into to higher education, effective higher education systems subsequently support students – financially, socially and academically – as they progress in their studies.

Students are charged a tuition fee to study in public and private higher education institutions in Portugal. Tuition fees charged by public higher education institutions are set by government, and in 2017-2018 minimum fee was set at EUR 689 and the maximum fee at EUR 1 063,47 per academic year for full time study, according to the nature and quality of the programme (DGES, n.a.). Among the 27 OECD jurisdictions reporting tuition fee data for public higher education institutions, tuition fees for public higher education institutions in Portugal were 12th highest (measured in PPP): slightly lower than those in Spain and Italy, though marginally higher than those in Switzerland, Austria, and Hungary (Figure 5.3) (OECD, 2017a).

Figure 5.3. Tuition fees charged by public institutions at bachelor's or equivalent level
Current PPP prices, 2015-16

Note: For countries and economies for which only a range was available, this figure plots the average between the minimum and maximum tuition fee levels: Flemish Com. (Belgium), Latvia, Luxembourg and Portugal. Year of reference is 2011/12 for United States. Year of reference is 2013/14 for Israel. Year of reference is 2014/15 for Australia, Austria, French com. (Belgium) and Italy.Year of reference is 2016 for Korea. For New Zealand Estimates include short-cycle higher education and bachelor’s or equivalent programmes in universities only and exclude second programmes at ISCED 6, such as postgraduate certificates and diplomas. Data include goods and services tax (15%).For Austria, Flemish com. French com. (Belgium) and Switzerland, private institutions cover government-dependent private institutions only.

Source: OECD (2017a), Education at a Glance 2017: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

In 2016, 21% of students in public higher education institutions were beneficiaries of a needs-based scholarship (Bolsa de Estudo, BE) granted on the basis of students’ financial need, compared to 12% in private institutions (Pordata, 2018).

In 2018, students enrolled in CTeSP, Bachelors or Master degrees at a public or private institution were eligible to receive an annual amount between EUR 1 063 and EUR 5 698, the amount of which was calculated according to a formula that considers their per capita household income level and tuition fee (MCTES, 2017). Specifically, in 2017, the formula was: Benefit = (11 * EUR 421.32 + tuition fee [up to EUR 1 063] – C [household per capita income]

Aid applicants with household per capita annual incomes below EUR 7 804 were eligible for a scholarship. However, given the phase-out of eligibility for social scholarships, a household consisting of a single person with no children earning a minimum wage from full-time work would be ineligible to receive a scholarship.

For students undertaking their studies on a part-time basis aid awards are halved (Despacho n.º 5404/2017); however duration of their awards is extended (Diário da República, 2017b). Half-time students enrolled in programmes of three years or less are permitted two times the normal programme length (6 years) plus two additional years for a total of eight years of support.

According to the MCTES, roughly 46% of students receive the minimum scholarship which only covers tuition fees. Cerdeira (2008) estimated that tuition fees only represent between 11 and 17% of students' actual living costs.

Social scholarships are awarded after enrolment decisions have been taken. Portugal uses a nationally co-ordinated and sequential process of matching students and study places which is fully completed only at the start of classes. Consequently, the awarding of scholarships does not take place until after classes have commenced, and some students are required to begin tuition payments before scholarships are disbursed.

Social scholarship beneficiaries may receive complements to cover their living expenditures (i.e. transport, and accommodation). For example, a transport complement is offered to students who must travel between continental Portugal and its insular territories (or vice versa) to study (Despacho n.º 5404/2017) (Diário da República, 2017b). Students with special education needs may also receive complements for additional services or equipment they require.

A performance-based element is built into the social scholarship system: beneficiaries who obtained high grades in the previous academic year receive an additional annual merit-based grant equal to five times the monthly minimum wage – in 2017, this amount was EUR 2 650 (OECD, 2017b).

Two additional financial support schemes for students were created in 2014:

  • +Superior offers additional grants of up to EUR 1 500 to students who study in regions with lower demographic growth and excess higher education capacity in the interior of the country. Scholarships were initially allocated based on merit. Since 2016, eligibility has been limited to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. 1 320 scholarships were allocated in 2016/17. Additionally, eligibility has been extended to students moving between sparsely populated regions and those wishing to study in the Algarve, Azores and Madeira. CTeSP and mature students receive a 15% supplement (MCTES, 2017).

  • Retomar (“Retake”) was established to encourage adults to return to education. Grants of EUR 1 200 per year were allocated regardless of students’ financial needs. Criteria for grant allocation included a maximum age limit (29 years old) and prohibited candidates from undertaking other training (Público, 2016). In 2015-2016, there were only 333 new applications and 154 scholarships awarded. Retomar was suspended in 2016 (MCTES, 2017). Portugal is currently reorienting the programme towards ICT fields and reassessing the participation criteria.

A system of public lending for higher education students was established in 2007, providing loans ranging from EUR 1 000 to EUR 5 000 per year with an overall maximum of EUR 25 000. The interest rate was fixed and equal to the Euro Interest Rate Swap (EURIRS) plus a maximum spread of 1%. The spread was reduced on the basis of students' academic performance (0.35% and 0.80% for the 30% and 20% best performing students). Interest was collected during the school years and repayment started one year after graduation. The government guaranteed 10% of the loans by providing EUR 150 million to the Mutual Counter-Guarantee Fund (MCTES, 2017).

Few students have taken up loans. Portugal issued 21 000 public loans to higher education students between 2007 and 2014. In 2014/15 5.9% of students participated in the public loan system, and 759 loans were originated – a decline from 4 528 loans four years earlier (MCTES, 2017). As Ministry officials have acknowledged, this reflect as weak demand for loans and a limited supply of loans. On the demand side, the mortgage-based design of the loans puts students at risk in the event of unemployment or falling incomes. On the supply side, bank lenders have been reluctant to expose themselves to loan default, a concern heightened by the financial crisis.

Student borrowers have been principally from middle-income families, and disproportionately enrolled in private higher education institutions. Approximately 40% of borrowers have been enrolled in private institutions. Loans are principally taken out by students from middle-class families, and used to complement other sources of income in funding studies. Low-income students, believed by authorities to be averse to incurring debt, participate less frequently in the programme (MCTES, 2017).

Student lending through the programme was suspended in 2015 pending negotiations between government and banks to establish new terms for the management of lender risk. The student-lending programme is planned to resume and to offer loans on terms and conditions similar to those previously in effect, offering loans on a mortgage-style” basis.

If well designed and adequately provided, social and academic support for students can help them to succeed in their studies (Bailey et al, 2016). This is especially true for students at risk of failing behind or dropping out (Williams, 2017). Social and academic support for students in Portuguese public higher education institutions is limited. A recent MCTES report noted that 16 out of 40 public higher education institutions surveyed had established programmes to tackle dropout, and that 10 out of 40 public institutions offered students tutoring services. In 2015, less than half of public institutions – and only one private institution – produced reports on student dropout (DGEEC, 2017).

5.3. Assessment: Key points

Policy issue 5.1. Differentiation and flexibility in modes of provision and pedagogical approaches remains limited, jeopardising Portugal’s attainment goals

Portugal has succeeded in greatly expanding participation in upper secondary and higher education in the last decade, and as Figure 5.4 illustrates, the educational attainment profile of its young adult population (ages 25-34) has undergone a dramatic shift, with the share of the age cohort completing higher education rising from 13% in 2000 to 35% in 2016 (Figure 5.4).

Figure 5.4. Educational attainment of 25-34 year olds

Source: OECD (2017a), Education at a Glance 2017: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Nonetheless, Portugal’s 35% rate of higher education attainment among 25-34 year-olds still trails other OECD countries, and remains below EU attainment targets that it has embraced as national policy targets, both the 2020 goal of 40% higher education attainment among 30-34 olds, and the 2030 goal of 50% higher education attainment (MCTES, 2017; Eurostat, 2018). The focus of government strategy for raising attainment in the near term is to attract to higher education young adults who completed secondary education but did not undertake higher education, and those who entered higher education but left without completing a degree (MCTES, 2017).

Effective higher education systems, most especially those that aim to engage working adults in higher education, strongly encourage diversity and flexibility in the provision of study programmes. Portugal’s binary system – with polytechnics providing professionally oriented study programmes alongside universities offering more traditional academic programmes – ensures some degree of diversity in education, though less diversity and flexibility than the nation’s aims for attainment warrant.

The introduction of the Cursos Técnicos Superiores Profissionais (CTeSP) has helpfully added a new type of short-cycle higher education educational programme to the range of course offerings in Portugal. The introduction of CTeSP has clarified and strengthened the nature of short-cycle programmes by including a greater orientation on deepening knowledge and skills, more workplace exposure, and stronger links to the labour market needs. Additionally, the creation of new study options may prove to be particularly attractive to groups who have hitherto not pursued higher education and may help address skills gaps in the economy. Indeed, interest in CTeSP has grown fast and in 2016-17 over 11 000 students were enrolled.

When first designed, the CTeSP programmes offered a model of work-related learning that some viewed as insufficiently flexible. Some HEI instructors and administrators and their firm-based collaborators noted that polytechnics submitting CTeSP programmes were being told to concentrate student work experience in one semester. However, legislative action has since allowed work content to be distributed across the entire duration of the study programme (DL 63/2016 – article 40M).

There are risks and unknowns with respect to the CTeSP programme that merit careful monitoring. First, while CTeSP was initiated principally to provide a short-cycle qualification with recognition and value in the labour market, the students and professors with whom the Review Team met typically indicated that about half of CTeSP participants aim to continue their studies to the Bachelor level. The extent to which students who transition to bachelor-level studies are fully prepared to meet the demands of those programmes remains an open question. Additionally, it was acknowledged by HEI administrators and instructors that employers and the wider society do not yet have a clear understanding of the CTeSP credential and the labour market outcomes of initial cohorts completing a CTeSP are not documented.

Notwithstanding Portugal’s binary system and recent efforts to create greater diversity, the higher education system still does not provide sufficiently flexible and innovative programme provision, structure and curriculum, especially for non-traditional student populations.

Higher education programmes, including across polytechnics, often remain theoretical in focus, with limited co-operation with the outside world and a lack of attention to developing key competences students needed for the modern economy. Programmes often have rigid structures and are oriented to specific professions, providing students with limited flexibility in combining courses.

Traditional teacher-centred methods with a large number of lecture-based contact hours still prevail. Portuguese students, especially mature students, feel overburdened by the number of instructional hours. Research indicates that difficulty balancing school and work/family schedules is the most frequently cited cause of dropout among Portuguese higher education students (Williams, 2017).

Modes of provision are not aligned to the needs and interests of a more diverse student population. Flexible, part-time, evening and distance learning options are more limited than in many OECD countries, and opportunities to study on an accelerated or an extended basis are not widespread.

In addition to the CTeSP programme, Portugal has introduced some initiatives to widen participation in short, non-degree courses tailored to the needs of adult learners and closely connected to labour market demands (some of which can subsequently be applied to degree programmes) (OECD, 2018). However, few of these courses have been offered, and student numbers have been quite small (OECD, 2018).

A3ES has successfully established and implemented a respected external quality assurance system for higher education in Portugal, covering bachelor and master’s programmes provided in universities and polytechnics which provides a guarantee of basic standards and appears to have influenced the quality culture in Portuguese HEIs. While acknowledging these accomplishments, staff in higher education institutions noted in meetings with the OECD Review Team that the current quality assurance system also deters the introduction of more flexible, innovative, student-focused and competency-based programmes. As the system is moving towards a lighter touch model of quality assurance, based upon institution-level review, this could be an opportunity to shift from a rather prescriptive approach to one that encourages greater diversification and innovation in the development of new types of programme, instruction methods, curriculum and delivery modes.

Policy issue 5.2. Pathways from secondary to higher education limit further widening and social diversification of higher education access

In Portugal, general secondary education is organised according to four separate tracks. Tracks of study include the (a) scientific-humanities track, which is geared towards further studies at the higher education level; (b) artistic tracks; (c) technological tracks; and (d) the professional track (Cursos Profissionais). Additionally, secondary students may opt for education and training courses (Cursos de Educação e Formação); vocational courses; and apprenticeships. Upper secondary students outside the academically-oriented scientific-humanities track now comprise about 43.5% of upper secondary students – as compared to 29% in 2000/01 (DGEEC, 2016) (Figure 5.5).

Figure 5.5. Distribution of secondary students by track, 2000/01 and 2015/16

Source: Direção-Geral de Estatísticas da Educação e Ciência (DGEEC, 2016), Educação em Números – Portugal,$clientServletPath%7D/?newsId=691&fileName=DGEEC_DSEE_2016_Educa__o_em_n_meros_2016.pdf

Portugal’s centralised admission process to higher education, known as the Regime Geral de Acesso (RGA), or General Access Stream, provides students with a transparent mechanism for admission. Developing a single unified portal has also reduced the costs of students in applying to individual institutions, and the burden for institutions to manage applications.

The rapid expansion of secondary professional education, combined with the design of the Concurso Nacional, which is oriented to the traditional scientific-humanistic pathway, has resulted in a higher education entry regime that is no longer aligned to the contemporary profile of upper secondary education, or to the nation’s attainment goals. The RGA’s national entrance competition is based on secondary leaving examinations that are aligned to the curriculum of generalist (scientific-humanistic) upper secondary education. Students in the secondary professional track who aspire to enter higher education are required to take examinations in subjects which are not part of the curriculum they have followed, putting them at a disadvantage to enter higher education.

About eight in 10 students (79%) completing the scientific-humanistic track entered higher education one year after completing their studies, while 16% of those completing secondary professional track continued directly to higher education – 6% enrolled in a bachelor programme, and another 10% enrolled in a CTeSP programme. Among students completing technological courses 53% entered higher education institutions and 7% enrolled in CTeSP programmes (Figure 5.6), though they are few in number, comprised about 1% of upper secondary students (Figure 5.5).

Figure 5.6. Situation of secondary graduates one year after graduation, 2013-14

Note: CET stands for Curso de Especialização Tecnológica (Technological Specialisation Courses, in English).

Source: Direção-Geral de Estatísticas da Educação e Ciência DGEEC (2016), Transição Entre O Secundário E O Superior – Parte I,$clientServletPath%7D/?newsId=701&fileName=TransicaoSecundarioSuperior_DGEEC.pdf.

Wide differences in rates of higher education continuation between students in professional and scientific-humanistic tracks are likely to be the result of dissimilar interests, plans, and abilities of students enrolled in them. However, differences in academic performance may not fully account for low transition rates to higher education among secondary professional students. A DGEEC report (2016) showed that among the highest performing students in the 9th grade Portuguese language examination, only 56% of those in professional tracks progressed into higher education, compared to 89% of those in technological courses and 94% in the academic tracks (Figure 5.7).

In OECD member countries with secondary professional education programmes that are well aligned to higher education entry requirements, such as Finland and the Netherlands, rates of continuation to bachelor degree study are much higher than in Portugal. In Finland 17% of recent secondary professional graduates continued their education to bachelor degree programmes, while in the Netherlands 20% did so – principally in higher education professional institutions (OECD, 2017c).

Portuguese education authorities recognise that the current entry regime for higher education was developed during an era in which comparatively few students completed upper secondary education, and it now hampers wider access to higher education; they have organised consultation processes to identify policy responses.

Figure 5.7. Share of students enrolled in higher education institutions in 2014-15 according to their performance in 9th grade Portuguese language exam three years prior

Source: Direção-Geral de Estatísticas da Educação e Ciência DGEEC (2016), Transição Entre O Secundário E O Superior – Parte I,$clientServletPath%7D/?newsId=701&fileName=TransicaoSecundarioSuperior_DGEEC.pdf.

A 2016 MCTES study group (Grupo de Trabalho para a Avaliação do Acesso ao Ensino Superior) examined a range of impediments to raising higher education access and attainment, among them the limited pathway from secondary professional education to higher education. It outlined – without recommendation – two ways in which a “special contest for access to higher education for graduates of vocational courses” could be created. First, it noted:

“the use of the national examinations of the scientific-humanistic modality as a condition for the access of graduates with vocational courses to higher education could be discontinued, and instead “the curricular components of vocational secondary education” could be used as the basis of an examination that is “co-ordinated, elaborated and executed by polytechnic higher education institutions within the framework of a special competition with their own vacancies.” (MCTES, 2016)

Alternatively, Portugal could modify the existing examination framework rather than creating an entirely separate assessment framework solely for vocational students seeking polytechnic places. Instead, a single examination with diverse content could be offered, accessible in principle to all upper secondary students, and qualifying students for designated seats at either university or polytechnic institutions. With this option:

“…the current final exams of secondary education [would be revised], structuring its contents in general and other specific modules, the latter focusing on the specific subjects of each modality of secondary education. This system would avoid the multiplication of [separate] examinations…and integrate in a single examination the diversity of the subjects of the various modalities of secondary education. The application grade would be calculated considering the classifications of the referred curricular components and the classification of the entrance exam (general module and specific module), reserving a quota of the vacancies approved to be affected to this modality of access.”(MCTES, 2016)

The National Council on Education (Conselho Nacional de educação) (CNE) has also addressed this challenge, offering broad considerations – rather than policy options – that should guide the development of proposals (Diário da República, 2017a). New entry routes from secondary professional to higher education should not, it advised, “diminish the importance of the competition for access to the newly established professional higher technical courses (CTeSP)” or diminish the status of polytechnic institutions by creating pathways that were specific to polytechnic higher education institutions.

Policy issue 5.3. Financial and academic support for students

Portugal offers need-based grant assistance to about one in five higher education students, with modest additional support through public lending and specially targeted support. Whether this support is sufficient – in amount, timing and targeting – to permit all who wish to study the opportunity to commence and successfully complete their studies has not been subject to systematic evaluation. Given absent strong evidence about the behavioural impact of student support, general conclusions about its sufficiency are not possible.

Nonetheless, some basic design features of the student support system are visibly not fit for purpose. Ministry officials note that enrolment and attainment targets focus on encouraging adults to undertake higher education: both adults who studied and left their course without completing a qualification and those qualified to study (who completed upper secondary education) but chose not to study. For these prospective students, the current financial student support policies are ill-designed. Prospective adult students are typically employed, and many have family responsibilities. As they weigh the benefits and potential costs of higher education, they must take into account both its opportunity costs – e.g. lost wages that may result from a reduction in working hours – and its direct, out-of-pocket costs. The low threshold of eligibility for social scholarships means that a prospective adult student who had earned a full-time, full-year minimum wage – EUR 649.8 in 2018 (EUR 7 788 per year) – would have a household per capita income in excess of social support eligibility.

The +Superior programme, designed to encourage enrolment in non-metropolitan Portugal awards supplemental grant assistance during the school year after enrolment decisions have already been made, thereby undermining its ability to influence enrolment choices.

Portugal’s discontinued Programa Retomar targeted at young adults showed weak take-up due to strict criteria and inadequate levels of financial support (Politico, 2016). As a result it has since been reoriented towards ICT skills, under the Iniciativa Nacional Competências Digitais e.2030 (Portugal INCoDe.2030) which seeks to improve digital literacy and encourage specialisation in digital technologies to move Portugal toward a higher-valued added economy.

Box 5.1. Tracking and supporting at-risk students

Georgia State University (United States) has used predictive analysis to track all its students since 2012. This system provides the university with alerts based on around 800 risk factors for over 30 000 students. Over 51 000 interventions have been carried out based on these alerts since its implementation.

Tracking students allows advisers to intervene early at the first sign of a problem. The university is informed, for example, when a student receives a low grade in a course. The student is provided with immediate support to avoid future underperformance and drop-out.

Since adopting this system, Georgia State University’s four-year graduation rates have improved by six percentage points. The average time for graduating has decreased by more than half a semester. According to Georgia State University, the biggest gains have been witnessed by low-income, black students and Hispanic students. As a result, students from these minority groups now have similar or higher graduation rates to the overall student body.

Source: GSU (n.d), Leading With Predictive Analytics, Georgia State University official website,

Portuguese higher education students are provided quite limited access to academic support and guidance services. Moreover, higher education institutions serving students at high risk of attrition have not yet developed institutional capabilities to systematically track, contact, and support students who experience academic difficulties. The experience of moderately selective or open access higher education institutions elsewhere in the OECD suggests that these practices make a significant difference in student success (Box 5.1).

Box 5.2. Feedback reports to high schools

A number of US states, such as Utah, have developed high school feedback reports that provide “sending” high schools with information about the academic outcomes of their students who went on to enrol in a public college or university in Utah. Others, such as Kentucky, have developed reports that provide information on both higher education and labour market outcomes. In Kentucky, for example, high schools are provided reports about their graduates that inform them of attrition, remediation rates, credit accumulation, grade point average, and other measures of academic progression and success, as well as information about labour market outcomes.

Source: USHE (n.d), 2017 High School Feedback Reports, Utah System of Higher Education,, NKYTribune (2017), New report tracks Kentucky’s high school graduate and their success in college, transition to workforce, Northern Kentucky Tribune,

Portugal has taken steps in recent years to develop an integrated student-level education data system that collects and disseminates data on the higher education sector, including indicators on enrolment, completion and labour market outcomes. Completion of this work is needed to ensure that students have information about the risks and benefits of higher education when making choices about what and where to study. Additionally, information on students’ performance and progression can be used by the upper secondary education system to review and recalibrate its curriculum and practices to strengthen the alignment to the demands of higher education. These could be especially beneficial for Portugal’s upper secondary professional programmes, which have comparatively limited experience with the preparation of students for higher education study.

5.4. Recommendations

Recommendation for improving flexibility in modes of provision and pedagogical methods

5.1. Further improve the diversity of the educational offer

Remove obstacles in quality assurance and funding systems that limit the capacity of higher education institutions to offer part-time, distance and blended short cycle, bachelor and master’s programmes, and ensure that provision is adapted to a full range of students, including adult learners. Provisions in the guidelines that underpin A3ES decisions relating to quality assurance of programmes and unnecessarily limit flexible programme design and curriculum should be reviewed and eliminated.

Recommendation to widen access to higher education

5.2. Revise the higher education entrance examination system to ensure it is appropriately adapted to students from upper secondary vocational education.

To widen access to higher education, the entrance examination system for higher education should be aligned to the needs and profiles of students from both secondary professional and scientific-humanistic tracks. Following the option identified by the Working Group on the Assessment of Access to Higher Education (Grupo De Trabalho Para A Avaliação Do Acesso Ao Ensino Superior) in 2016, we recommend the addition of skills-focused examinations that reflect key aspects of the secondary professional curriculum to ensure that the knowledge and skills of students from vocational streams are properly recognised. Specifically, secondary school leaving and higher education access exams (Exames finais nacionais do ensino secundário e acesso ao ensino superior) should be designed to include additional modules that are aligned to the curriculum of the vocational stream. These should be accessible in principle to all upper secondary students, and be used to govern access to relevant programmes in polytechnics and universities. Vocational modules should be developed through co-operation between higher education and upper secondary educators. This will be essential to ensure take-up of the reform by students and higher education institutions, and the proper alignment of examinations to both the secondary curriculum and higher education programmes. It is crucial that new access routes be carefully developed and implemented with the wide engagement of HEI stakeholders.

In parallel, the Ministry of Education should ensure that the growing share of secondary professional students who continue to higher education are adequately prepared for success in their programmes, using feedback reports to equip teachers, school leaders, and families with evidence about the post-schooling trajectories of upper secondary professional students.

Recommendations for ensuring adequate financial and academic support

5.3. Improve student financial support policies

The current system of social scholarships should be subject to a rigorous review of its effectiveness in permitting all who might benefit from higher education to study.

The +Superior grant programme should be reviewed. If the programme cannot be designed so that grants are awarded prior to enrolment decisions – and therefore only subsidising enrolment decisions that have already been taken, then the programme should be discontinued, and those resources re-invested in other student support programmes.

Financial support policies for students should be adapted to the needs of working adults. For example, the aid eligibility methodology for social scholarships could adopt an income protection allowance for working adults. This allowance would permit those whose incomes are near the minimum wage to have some part of their earned income exempt from household per capita income calculations used to determine scholarship eligibility.

5.4. Adequately support students making the transition to higher education

Special attention should be given to ensuring that students are well-prepared and supported to complete higher education. Specific additional measures could include incentives (through performance agreements or other appropriate means) for higher education institutions and their staff to develop systematic co-operation and short-term staff exchanges or shadowing opportunities with upper secondary schools to help smooth and support transition to higher education. Co-operation and exchanges are potentially useful to raise awareness among students in secondary schools concerning the focus and challenges of higher education, so they can better prepare themselves. Moreover, they identify and increase understanding among teachers in both sectors of the biggest ‘gaps’ between what secondary education equips students to do and what higher education teachers expect them to do.

Additionally, developing and implementing systems at the higher education institutional level to monitor students’ performance and to signal difficulties would be an effective way to support early intervention and promote student success. Information on students’ academic performance (including particular deficiencies and gaps) could also be provided to upper secondary institutions through feedback reports, for example, to help review and recalibrate schools’ curriculum and teaching practices.

5.5. Encourage higher education institutions to offer more extensive academic and social support to students, in particular for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and mature students

To improve student success and to encourage adults to return to education, higher education institutions that offer well-designed social and academic support to students, such as career guidance, remedial courses, tutoring or psychological counselling, should be rewarded through performance-based funding. The institutional support practices eligible for funding should be evidence-based, and well-adapted to the profile of students served by the HEI.

5.6. Provide targeted support to encourage pedagogical training and reward good teaching performance.

Portugal should encourage and support pedagogical training for academic staff, targeting both new and established staff members and reflecting the diversity of requirements across student groups and institutions and increasing flexibility of the educational offer. Although some countries (such as the UK) have developed national academies focused on pedagogical development, others (including the Netherlands) have provided public funding to pedagogical capacity building initiatives organised by individual or groups of HEIs. Such an initiative could initially be supported in Portugal through pilot projects in selected HEIs. Additionally, the Portuguese government should explore ways to encourage institutions to include teaching performance as a key element in transparent, institution-wide systems of evaluation and promotion.

It is important for Portugal to include improvement of learning and teaching as a core objective in its national strategy for higher education and in institutional agreements to raise the profile of the issues at stake and incentivise action at institutional level. Key objectives should be increasing uptake of effective pedagogical approaches for skills development (problem-based learning, flipped classroom, use of technology etc.) and greater co-operation with employers and outside actors.


Cerdeira, M. L. (2008), O Financiamento do Ensino Superior Português: a partilha de custos. Universidade de Lisboa,

Bailey, T et al. (2016). Strategies for postsecondary students in developmental education – A practice guide for college and university administrators, advisors, and faculty, Institute of Education Sciences, What Works, Washington, DC.

DGEEC (2017), Estudos, Ensino Superior, Promocão do Successo Escolar nas Instituicões Publicas de Ensino Superior em Portugal, 2017, Direção-Geral de Estatísticas da Educação e Ciência,$clientServletPath%7D/?newsId=773&fileName=MEDIDAS_PROMOCAO_SUCESSO_ALUNOS_SITIOS_I1.pdf.

DGEEC (2016), Transição Entre O Secundário E O Superior – Parte I,$clientServletPath%7D/?newsId=701&fileName=TransicaoSecundarioSuperior_DGEEC.pdf.

DGES (2018), Índice por Instituição e Curso, Direção-Geral do Ensino Superior, (accessed 22 March 2018).

DGES (2017), Resumo – Acesso Ao Ensino Superior 2016-2017 – 1ª Fase do Concurso Nacional de Acesso, Direção-Geral do Ensino Superior, (accessed 20 March 2018).

DGES (2016), Estatísticas do Concurso Nacional de Acesso de 2016, Direção-Geral do Ensino Superior, (accessed 12 January 2018).

DGES (n.a), Propinas, Direção-Geral do Ensino Superior, (accessed 16 May 2018).

DGES (n.d), Formas de Acesso – Diagrama, Direção-Geral do Ensino Superior, (accessed 5 January 2018).

Diário da República (2017a), Parecer sobre Acesso ao Ensino Superior, Parecer No. 3/2017, Conselho Nacional de Educação, Diário da República, 2ª série, No. 88, 8 de Maio de 2017.

Diário da República (2017b), Despacho n.º 5404/2017, Altera o Regulamento de Atribuição de Bolsas de Estudo a Estudantes do Ensino Superior, Diário da República, n.º 118/2017, Série II, 21 June 2017.

Eurostat (2018), Headline Indicators: Scoreboard, Europe 2020 Indicators,

Eurydice (2017), Overview – Finland, Eurydice, European Commission,

Fazekas, M. and S. Field (2013), A Skills beyond School Review of Germany, OECD Reviews of Vocational Education and Training, OECD Publishing.

Fonseca, M., Encarnação, S. and Justino, E. (2014), Shinking Higher Education Systems: Portugal, Figures and Policies.

GSU (n.d), Leading With Predictive Analytics, Georgia State University official website,

IDESCAT (n.a.), Enseñanza universitaria, Curso 2015/16, Alumnos matriculados, Por sexo y universidades, Institut d'Estadística de Catalunya, Generalitat de Catalunya, (accessed 22 March 2018).

MCTES (2017), Country Background Report, Ministério de Ciência, Tecnologia e Ensino Superior, Lisboa.

MCTES (2016), Relatório Sobre A Avaliação Do Acesso Ao Ensino Superior (Diagnóstico e questões para debate), Grupo De Trabalho Para A Avaliação Do Acesso Ao Ensino Superior, Lisboa,

MCTES (2008), Decreto-Lei n.º 90/2008 de 30 de Maio, Diário da República, 1.ª série, N.º 104, 30 de Maio de 2008,

Minedu (n.a), Finnish Education System, Ministry of Education and Culture,

NKYTribune (2017), New report tracks Kentucky’s high school graduate and their success in college, transition to workforce, Northern Kentucky Tribune,

Nuffic (2015), Education system The Netherlands, EP-Nuffic, 2nd edition, Jan. 2011, version 4,

Nuffic (2013), Higher education system in the Netherlands, Netherlands organisation for international co-operation in higher education,

Observador (2018), Governo reabre programa de empréstimos a estudantes do ensino superior, 5 March 2018,

OECD (2018), OECD (2018), Skills Strategy Implementation Guidance for Portugal: Strengthening the Adult-Learning System, OECD Skills Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2018), OECD.Stat, Enrolment by gender, programme orientation and mode of study : Share of part-time students, (accessed 5 January 2018).

OECD (2017a), Education at a Glance 2017: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2017b), OECD Economic Surveys: Portugal 2017, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2017c), OECD Reviews of National Policies for Education: Education in Lithuania, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2015), OECD Skills Outlook 2015: Youth, Skills and Employability, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2014), Education Policy Outlook: Netherlands,

OECD (2013a), OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results from the Survey of Adult Skills, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2013b), Education Policy Outlook: Germany, OECD Publishing,

Orr, D., C. Gwosć and N. Netz (2011), Social and Economic Conditions of Student Life in Europe. Synopsis of indicators, Final report, Eurostudent IV, 2008–2011, Bielefeld, W. Bertelsmann Verlag.

Open University (n.a), The Open University – Official Website, (accessed online 20 March 2018).

Pordata (2018), Bolseiros do ensino superior em % de alunos matriculados no ensino superior: total e por subsistema de ensino, Bolsas e acção social, Educação, (accessed 28 March 2018).

Público (2016), Governo altera programas de regresso ao superior devido à fraca adesão de alunos,

Teixeira, P. et al. (2012), “Competition and Diversity in Higher Education: An Empirical Approach to Specialization Patterns of Portuguese Institutions,” Higher Education 63, pp. 337–52,

USHE (n.d), 2017 High School Feedback Reports, Utah System of Higher Education,

Williams, Jonathan, (2017), Addressing the Completion Challenge in Portuguese Higher Education,


← 1. Taught studies refer to hours that students spend on study units organised by their higher education institution; this category includes activities such as lectures, seminars, tests or unpaid jobs in laboratories (Orr et al., 2011).

End of the section – Back to iLibrary publication page