Brazil is grading the performance of its universities through a national assessment of students' final examinations, Brazilian education minister Paulo Renato Souza explained during a visit to London last week.
Addressing the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Professor Souza explained that the scheme has been introduced to deal with the "large differences in quality" in Brazilian higher education.
Performance tables are compiled using a nationwide examination. Students on a given course take the same final examination and the average of each course in each university is worked out.
Professor Souza made it clear that this does not affect students' individual marks. Only average marks are made public and each graduating student still receives a professional qualification.
Although simple in concept, the logistics of the scheme are considerable. Every student taking a given course in any Brazilian university must take the examination on the same day. Brazil's universities are scattered in more than 500 cities, and the education ministry does not have the resources to provide examiners for each course.
Since the introduction of the scheme two years ago, the examination and assessment work has been largely contracted out. A supervision commission for each course has been set up, consisting of academics and prominent members of the relevant profession. These commissions, Professor Souza said, "set out what they require, and then a private foundation is hired to carry it out".
The differences of quality between universities is surprising since, until Fernando Henrique Cardoso became president in 1995, Brazilian federal education policies had, Professor Souza said, concentrated mostly on "the diversification and sophistication of higher education, in particular, the creation of a strong postgraduate system". Here, he said "levels of high quality" had been achieved compared with other developing countries. Evidently, however, these were achieved only in the top-flight institutions.
Successive Cardoso administrations (the president is now in his second term) switched the main priority to primary education. In 1995, when Mr Cardoso first took office, 89 per cent of children aged between seven and 14 were in school and the national figure for illiteracy was 16 per cent. This was a major improvement on the figures for 1960 when 60 per cent of the age group was in school with 40 per cent illiteracy.