When this year’s essay title in Brazil’s national high school exam raised the question of violence against women, it opened up a nationwide debate.
Cited as evidence of the country’s progress on women’s rights, it was equally condemned as a form of indoctrination by the hard-line evangelical caucus.
Yet the controversy it provoked also reflected the importance placed on the single two-day test, the Enem, which has emerged as the country’s de facto university entrance exam.
Since it was created in 1998, it has become the biggest nationwide test in the world after the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, or gao kao, in China, which is taken by more than 9 million students.
While the Chinese exam has a formidable reputation, the Enem was designed to assess the basic education of school-leavers.
Composed of four sections of 45 multiple-choice questions and an essay, almost 6 million Brazilian teenagers sat the exam this year, held over a weekend with one four-and-a-half-hour exam and a second of five and a half hours.
From 2009, it gradually replaced the individual entrance exams used by institutions – known as the vestibular – as a one-stop route into higher education.
Last year, President Dilma Rousseff said that it was the most democratic way of ensuring that all Brazilians had access to university places.
“With the Enem, you can participate in one selective process for 115 institutions at once,” she said.
The exam, which costs R63 (£11) to enter unless the student has finished their education at a public school, is open to those from both private and state institutions.
This year, almost two-thirds of students who registered to take the Enem were exempt from paying the fee, either because they were from state schools or were from low-income families.
But research by consultancy firm Instituto Aquila for a newspaper in Brasília last year found that the rate of abstentions or no-shows was much higher among state school students.
Data from the Educational Census in Brazil reveal that 10 per cent of private students registered but failed to sit the Enem, compared with 42 per cent of state school students.
“This self-exclusion from the Enem is much more connected to the question of school structure, which makes them feel unable to take the test,” Paula Nascimento da Silva, from the University of São Paulo’s School of Education, told Correio Braziliense.
In 2012, the movement of undergraduates from state to state was about 13 per cent, consisting of students mainly from the richest states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais.
“Contrary to what the government says, the poorest states do not manage to export their students to the six wealthiest states in Brazil, and their places are taken by students from these same wealthier states,” the paper, published in a Brazilian journal, said.
However, according to Antonio Freitas, pro-rector of the thinktank and higher education institute Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV), the Enem’s greatest success was never going to be in improving access to higher education.
“The Enem is just an exam, it can’t perform magic,” he told Times Higher Education.
“It cannot resolve a problem that a student has spent 12 years in schools without lessons, the teacher is poorly prepared, there’s no library…how can an exam resolve this? Not here; not in China.”
However, Professor Freitas said that the data provided by the Enem highlighted areas of weakness. “The majority of schools are very poor against the standards you have elsewhere,” he added.
“This benchmark is important in the sense of clarifying that we have a problem and in trying to resolve the problem. We already knew this empirically but with the Enem, we have numbers.”
Earlier this year, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s first global survey ranked Brazil’s schools 60th out of 76 countries based on maths and science results for 15-year-olds.
Students who took the Enem this year will get their individual results in January.
“The Enem was an evolution,” Professor Freitas said. “These exams in any country, but principally in developing countries, are very important.
“It shows that the public schools are offering a poor service. Brazil is very behind. There are some schools that are good; but in general, Brazil has a lot to improve on, and the Enem helps because it has numbers that show where you’re weak.”
The Enem questions that sparked a political row
The controversial questions relating to gender that arose on this year’s Enem even divided the Brazilian government.
While the theme of the essay was “The persistence of violence against women in Brazilian society”, one of the human sciences questions made reference to the work of French feminist Simone de Beauvoir, quoting: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
Jair Bolsonaro, a member of Brazil’s congress, described the use of the questions as “indoctrination imposed by the [ruling] Workers’ Party on our youth”. Marco Feliciano, a congressman and pastor, added: “This phrase from the philosopher Simone de Beauvoir is just the personal opinion of the author, and it seems that the inclusion of this text is a cunning choice, deviating from what has been decided…to teach our young people.”
But Eleonora Menicucci, the Brazilian special secretary for women’s policies, defended the tone of the questions.
Referring to the essay question, she said: “Having this topic discussed in the Enem is a breakthrough for the whole society to end the trivialisation of [a] culture of violence,” she said. “I have no doubt of the enormous contribution to society when the Enem embraces this cause of zero tolerance for violence.”
However, for Antonio Freitas of the Getulio Vargas Foundation, the essay topic was a poor choice.
“I think it would have been more appropriate to deal with a subject closer to the students of that age,” he said. “You want to see their capability. This is something that, thank God, doesn’t happen within the majority of families. I think it’s a bad choice.”