Affirmative Action in Brazilian Universities

4 Sep

Brazil’s president just sanctioned a law establishing that 50% of places in Public Universities and in Federal Technical Schools should be allocated to students coming from public high schools, which are generally less likely to pass the highly competitive entrance exams required by the public universities. Within this 50% quota, half of the eligible students shall be black, indigenous, or from families with very low income.

Apart from a few NGOs, the new law has created outrage among most Brazilians, to the point that is quite surprising that the law was actually approved by both federal legislative houses and sanctioned by the president. It seems like VERY few people agree with it.

I confess: I sometimes have mixed feelings about affirmative action measures. They look amazing on paper, but they are so incredibly hard to put into practice. And in Brazil, a country in which few people know exactly what they are, race-wise, categorizing everyone is quite difficult. Also, my personal desire for a meritocracy in Brazil is sometimes too strong to reasonably give space to other principles. Additionally, Brazilian public universities, even if they are actually not that good, are the few places in the country where some science is produced. And I fear science may pay the price when the university receives fewer qualified students.

Still, unless one chooses to close their eyes, Brazilian racial and educational divide is clear: in general, the darker the skin, the poorer, and the more years spent in public high schools (which are free, but generally bad), the less chance one has to get into a public university (also free, but of better quality). The best way to deal with the situation would be to improve the quality of the public high schools, but I admit it: this takes time, a generation at least.

So, even if just to prove that I have my eyes open to Brazilian inequality (yes, I’m not that cold yet), I salute the new law and hope it will be applied wisely and will meet its objective of a fairer society, with more equal opportunities to all. It is a brave law!

Disclosure: I studied in a private elementary school and in a private high school. They were far from the good, but way better than the public options in my hometown. I passed the entry exams to study law in a public university. At that time – the ancient 1994 – there were 1050 applicants for Law and only 40 available places. I don’t remember anyone in my law classes being from a public high school. There were around eight students with darker skin (though mixed race is 52% of my home state population, according to 2010 census). There wasn’t a black student in my class (blacks are 5,7% of the population there, according to 2010 census).

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