Brazilian admission quotas ‘successful but not enough alone’

Comparison of national test results data shows pupils admitted to university under racial quotas graduate with the same scores on average as non-quota peers

January 9, 2018
Brazilian beach
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The first nationwide analysis of Brazil’s university admissions quotas has found strong levels of achievement among some students admitted under the scheme but warns that attainment gaps cannot be closed by affirmative action alone.

National admission quotas were first introduced in the South American country in 1999 and, since 2012, all of Brazil’s federal higher education providers have been required to reserve half their places for public school students. Racial quotas also apply, with the minimum requirements varying by state. While private institutions are not obliged by law, many adhere take a similar approach.

An analysis published in the Journal of Economic Studies, conducted by Claudia Bueno Rocha Vidigal at the University of Minnesota, examined 465,872 test scores to judge the impact of quotas on attainment in Brazil’s universities. The test in question was the National Examination of Student Performance, which is taken by all students in the first and final years of their degrees.

Controlling for a range of characteristics including gender, income and type of university, Dr Vidigal finds that there is “no statistically significant difference” in academic performance between students admitted under the racial quota and under non-quota admission arrangements.

Scores for students admitted under the low-income quota were 14 per cent lower, on average, than those achieved by non-quota students with similar characteristics. When the analysis focused on public universities, which are typically of higher quality than Brazil’s private institutions, the gap was 25 per cent.

However, Dr Vidigal notes that students admitted under the low-income quota typically entered university with lower scores on their admissions exams.

“In essence, both types of quotas are beneficial as they provide disadvantaged students with college education they would not usually have,” Dr Vidigal told Times Higher Education.

“In most universities, quota students are admitted with lower entrance scores than non-quota students, which means that the ‘zero’ impact of the racial quotas might be due to the fact that racial quota students strive throughout college and, at the end of the programme, present an academic performance similar to non-quota students.”

The poorer scores for students admitted under the low-income quota indicated, for Dr Vidigal, that “the policy is not sufficient to eliminate the achievement gap between quota and non-quota students”.

While more than half of the Brazilian population are non-white, just 5.2 per cent of students enrolled in universities are black, and less than a third have a multiracial background (29.3 per cent), according to 2014 data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.

Additionally, less than 8 per cent of all students at public universities are from the poorest 20 per cent of the population, with even fewer (3.7 per cent) attending private institutions.

Critics of the Brazilian quota system argue that students admitted under quotas do not necessarily have the academic grounding to perform well in higher education.

Graeme Atherton, director of the UK’s National Education Opportunities Network and a researcher on global equality of access, said that quotas were not guaranteed to improve social mobility on their own.

“Even when disadvantaged or minority students enter higher education, divisions will remain because those from different backgrounds have to contend with barriers to success – be those financial challenges, rurality or childcare,” he said.

Racial quotas are unusual in higher education globally. Indian universities must take into account quotas for different castes, but many countries, such as South Africa and Canada, merely use targets with the aim of improving diversity.

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