Public demand boosts Brazil's private colleges

July 13, 2007

Scarcity of state university posts drives lecturers to badly paid hourly work in private sector. Jason Mitchell reports

A large percentage of Brazilian lecturers who aspire to full-time work at a state university settle for second best: low-paid and part-time work in a burgeoning private higher education sector.

Latin America's largest and most populous country has almost 4.5 million university students. Nearly three quarters study at private institutions, where more than 65 per cent of Brazil's 306,000 academics work.

According to academics, work at private institutions is insecure and badly paid - and almost always part-time. While 75 per cent of lecturers at public institutions work full time, only 15 per cent of those at private universities and colleges have that status.

Private institutions, which some in the public sector dismiss as little more than post-high school colleges, offer a large number of evening classes. Many part-time lecturers also have day jobs at public universities or outside academe.

Claudio de Moura Castro, president of the advisory council of Pitagoras Brasil, a private college in Belo Horizonte, admitted: "Brazilian university teachers always prefer to work in the public sector. Jobs are guaranteed, salaries rise significantly with longevity, lecturers cannot be fired, and they have lots of benefits, including a pension.

"But it's very tough to get a post in a public university, so many academics start out by teaching in the private sector. Once they have this experience they are better placed to apply for a job with a public university," said Dr Castro.

Full-time junior academics at public universities earn about 1,900 Brazilian reais (£500) a month, and full-time senior teachers receive about three times as much. In contrast, part-time academics in the private sector earn just 28 reais an hour (£7.50).

Simon Schwartzman, president of the Rio de Janeiro-based Institute for Studies on Labour and Society and one of Brazil's leading experts on higher education, said: "By Brazilian standards, university teachers at public universities earn very good salaries. These positions are highly sought-after and there is no shortage of candidates."

Valdecy Leite, professor of marketing at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, one of Brazil's most prestigious public universities, said: "Many, many people want to teach at public universities, and it is a very tough contest to get a post. Some people prefer to work at private institutions because they can work part time, but most people would rather be at a public university."

Marcos Alexandre, a part-time professor of communication and psychology at the private institute Helio Alonso, said: "It is very common in the private sector for teachers to work part-time and to have a job in a profession as well. It has many advantages.

"I used to work as a journalist during the day and was able to pass on my practical knowledge to my students in the evening.

"However, I think that working as a full-time professor - with half your time spent giving classes and the other half on research - is the best way to develop a high-quality educational system. Total dedication to academia has its advantages for teachers and students."

Brazil has one of the highest proportions of students in private universities of any country in Latin America: 73 per cent compared with an average of 45 per cent in the region as a whole.

Dr Castro said public universities in Brazil were three to five times more expensive to run per student than private ones because they tended to have large campuses to maintain and academic staff were largely full time, with comparatively good pay and conditions.

While Brazil's Ministry of Finance has been reluctant to put more money into public undergraduate education, there has been an explosion in demand for places in higher education.

Leandro Tessler, professor of Applied Physics at the Federal University of Campinas, said: "There are so many private universities because the public system has not been able to meet the demand for higher education."

Dr Castro said: "The public university system in Brazil has a double personality. At a postgraduate level it works well. It has huge research potential and the right incentives are in place for academics doing research or teaching. But at an undergraduate level it is very bureaucratic.

"There are no incentives in place for teachers. Public universities have no autonomy in allocating resources at an undergraduate level. It is difficult to fire a teacher who is not up to scratch. If an academic retires, the university cannot decide to allocate the money saved to anything else. The process of appointing a rector is highly politicised."

Postgraduate education and research programmes in the country were developed by Brazilians who had studied in the US, and the Brazilian system is modelled on the American one.

The country has 2,000 PhD programmes. Some 10,000 PhDs and 50,000 masters degrees are awarded annually.

There is a rigorous system of evaluation by peer review. Academics earn more if their research is published. The vast majority of research in Brazil is done at public universities, with the federal universities of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais and the state universities of Sao Paulo and Campinas among the most renowned.

In contrast, the private higher sector - growing by 10 per cent a year - is focused on teaching. Private university courses cost between 300 reais and 1,000 reais a month.

Most undergraduates in Brazil do not start at university until they are in their early to mid-twenties. Many work for one or more years after high school to save money for tuition fees.

But in return for their money, students are guaranteed certain standards. For example, Brazil's strict rules about class sizes - no more than 60 students per class - apply to public and private institutions alike.

Nevertheless, say observers, the quality of education at private institutions is not assured. Dr Tessler said: "So-called private universities are not universities, in the sense that they do not have, or barely have, research programmes, nor do they undertake postgraduate teaching. In truth, they are little more than post-high school institutions."

BRAZILIAN ACADEME

* The Federal University of Rio de Janeiro is Brazil's oldest university, founded in 1920.

* Brazil has a population of 188 million in a land mass nearly 35 times the size of the United Kingdom.

* Of 2,398 institutions of higher education, 2141 are private and 257 are public.

* Brazil has 90 public universities and 86 private universities.

* Presently, 21 per cent of young Brazilians will attend an institution of higher education, and enrolment is rising by 5 to 10 per cent a year.

MARCOS' STORY

Marcos Alexandre, 48, is typical of many Brazilian lecturers in dividing his time between teaching part time at a private university and work outside academia.

A former radio and television journalist, Dr Alexandre teaches communication and psychology at Helio Alonso, a private institute in Rio de Janeiro, for 12 hours a week.

For a further 28 hours a week he works for a university lecturers' trade union and as a media adviser for Rio de Janeiro's city council.

Dr Alexandre said: "The biggest problems for Brazilian academics are the low salaries, the long working day, little time for self-improvement and university owners who do not implement the labour laws."

His work at Helio Alonso is spread over two days a week in the morning and the evening, and he has 150 students in total.

He earns just 3,000 reais (£780) a month from lecturing.

Dr Alexandre noted: "There are so many private universities in Brazil because of strong pressure from business groups. Many legislators, including deputies and senators, are the owners of, or partners in, private higher education institutions."

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