Brazil’s no-fee pitfalls that South Africa should avoid


For a week, from March to early April, I was on a visit aimed at exposing student leaders to the implementation of free higher education in Brazil. So pronounced the tour organisers, En-novate (“Case study: Brazil’s free education”, March 31).

I was in the company of 12 student representative council (SRC) members, two from each of the following institutions: the universities of Cape Town, KwaZulu-Natal, Pretoria, Western Cape and Witwatersrand as well as Nelson Mandela University.

Some were prominent leaders in the #FeesMustFall campaign, which, among others, demands free higher education for all.

Some are enrolled for postgraduate study and most are the most senior members of their respective SRCs: presidents, deputy presidents and secretaries general.

I was a participant-observer. I work for the department of higher education and training and, I too, have an interest in the subject of free education, both as a government official and as a citizen.

The idea of exposing student leaders to other higher education systems is a good one. This exposure, though, must be varied between the systems that offer free higher education, those that charge tuition fees and those with a mixed model.

Yet others have converted from free higher education to fee-paying models, and we need to know their reasons if we are seriously
considering introducing free higher education, whether for the poor or for all.

Brazil and South Africa bear some similarities, which any plan to introduce free higher education in South Africa must consider.

Brazil has a population of just above 200-million; it spends 0.9% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on higher education (and 6.9% on its entire education system); and, between 2010 and 2013 it had the highest average GDP growth rate (3.4%) of the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) states. Brazil has a higher education participation rate of about 15%.

By comparison, South Africa has a population of about 56-million; it spends 0.75% of its GDP on higher education (and about 5.6% on its entire education system); and had the lowest GDP growth rate (of 2.8%) among Brics states between 2010 and 2013. South Africa has a higher education participation rate of 20%.

These statistics and other qualitative comparisons are important variables in assessing or determining measures to close the gap of inequality.

For example, support may be offered to the poor as an intervention to reduce the gap. Education is one such intervention, and determination must be made on whether it is offered fee-free or for a fee. Both have advantages and disadvantages.

Brazil offers fee-free higher education in its public university system, but the implementation has serious flaws, which the government of Brazil has identified and works on correcting. Moreover, public universities are state-controlled.

Entry to its higher education system is through an examination called ENEM (Exame Nacional do Ensino Médio) and is highly competitive, filtering 8.6-million students in 2016. Of these candidates, only 3% (about 250 000) find spaces in the public universities and the rest are diverted to a technical diploma course or private higher education. As is the case with matric in South Africa, it is easy to predict who will perform well in the ENEM and who will not, because their fate is determined by the type of schooling they have had.

Students who score highest in the exams are guaranteed entry into the public university system. Students from the wealthy families have an unfair advantage in the examination because they come through elitist, better-resourced private schools, which enrol about 13% of the basic education population. Poor and working-class students come through public schools and perform poorly in the examination because public schools generally offer relatively poorer education.

As a result the wealthy, who are mainly from the white minority (about 48% of the population), get first-entry preference into the elitist fee-free, good-quality public universities.

The dichotomy of one sort of schooling for the poor and another for the wealthy, the advantaging of a few (based on race, class and urban/rural background) over the majority and the racial inequality sounded all too familiar to me as a South African.

It is often said that South Africa has recently overtaken Brazil in being the most unequal society in the world. The slight difference, in my opinion, lies with the higher education systems in the two countries.

The elitist public universities in Brazil enrol about 25% (about 1.95-million) of all university students. In 2014, higher education student enrolment was estimated at 7.8-million.

The majority of about 75% (about 5.85-million students) enrol at a mix of for-profit and not-for-profit higher education institutions of varying quality, but generally below the standards found at its public universities.

Since the 1990s, most of Brazil’s private higher education institutions are for-profit.

Over the same period, South Africa had about 1 046 100 students, of whom 951 000 (90%) were at public universities and 95 000 at private institutions — the opposite situation to Brazil. South Africa has a more difficult challenge if it is to attain an additional 10% participation rate.

In short, a wealthy elite in Brazil gets quality higher education at public universities for free, whereas the majority receives education of relatively poor quality at private higher education institutions at a cost.

The poor support the wealthy through government funding of public universities.

The poor are disadvantaged by their poor living conditions and by the basic and higher education systems. With the exception of a lucky few, this is a vicious cycle of entrapment for poor families from one generation to the next.

Brazil has valuable lessons for South Africa, if it is to introduce free higher education. It is grossly unfair that Brazil’s poor and working-class majority are made to subsidise a tiny wealthy minority.

This fundamental flaw is found in the policy on free higher education for all, without discriminating between the haves and the have-nots.

Recently, a similar mistake was made in South Africa when a blanket no-fee increase rule was applied in 2016. The wealthy (and corporates that fund many students) were spared the fee increases whereas the poor, through the state, were made to subsidise them.

Another serious flaw in the Brazil system is state control of public universities — some of their challenges are a result of the failures of government.

The starting point for Brazil to solve its education problem, as it is for South Africa too, must be to fix basic education so that it offers quality education, which offers opportunities for success to all.

For any tangible improvements on quality and resources, the state must spend more on higher education.

Free education must prioritise the poor and the working class from the outset, because changing an established system can prove to be a daunting challenge — as Brazil has experienced.

Mahlubi Mabizela works for the department of higher education and training. These are his own views

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