Education and Institutional Inequality in Brazil

Brazil is a country of over 34,000 thousand young adults (aged 15-24 years), and over 45,000 thousand children aged 14 and younger, making up over a third of the total population of Brazil The resources devoted to the protection and education of this substantial demographic, seem to be ever increasing, however, the intended outcomes are vastly unequal.


Progama Bolsa Famila

Brazil’s ethos on social protection is largely based on its 1988 Constitution, which distinguishes the state’s role in social protection, pushing for a decentralised structure, where social participation in social protection is key. This approach has seen the implementation of iconic programmes, such as Progama Bolsa Famila (PBF). It was first implemented in 2003, regularly transferring poor families a sum of cash, provided they met certain conditions. As of 2015, the average transfer was around R$167.15 (US $43.34) per family.

The conditions include that children aged 0 - 7 must receive regular check-ups at a health clinic, and children aged 6-15 must attend school. By doing this they aimed to fulfil three main objectives: 1. To reduce poverty and inequality, 2. To break the cycle of poverty by obliging the participants to participate in investing in future human capital, and 3. To try and empower its beneficiaries.

This conditional cash transfer design has been by and large successful. It has seen a reduction in poverty of 8% since its introduction in 2003 to 2008. PBF reaches around a quarter of the population of Brazil and has increased school attendance markedly. However, when it comes to Brazil’s educational social protection, attendance is not the only variable worth monitoring and evaluating.


Education in Brazil: Unequal outcomes

The public-school system in Brazil is somewhat shambolic, with substantial inequality between those students who can afford private schools and those who can afford public. The gap between the programme for international student assessment (PISA) scores for public and private schools was three times the usual in 2015.


Public versus private and state investment

Brazil invests substantially in primary, secondary and tertiary education to address unequal educational outcomes. It invested 5.5% of its gross domestic product (GDP) in education in 2015, as compared to 4.5%, which has been the past allocation in most states. However, this will not solve the extreme inequality unless it is invested in the poorest states.

To illustrate the disparity, 33% of young adults have achieved a tertiary education in the Distrito Federal (DF), the capital state of Brazil, with the highest GDP. By contrast, only 8% of young adults in Maranhão, a poor state in north east of Brazil, have achieved the same feat.

In Brazil, primary and secondary schooling are mandatory and freely available under the state educations system. A tertiary university education is a mix of public (state) and private. Public universities also have stringent tests for entry. They are generally regarded as only within the ability of students who have attended private school and received a superior education.

Vocational tertiary education is long establish in Brazil, first being created in 1942 with the National Industry of Service Training (SENAI), at current receives 2.5 million applications a year, assisting with over 3000 courses from 809 different. In total they’ve helped around 55 million professionals throughout their lifetime, and are one of the finest institutions for this in Latin America.


Social protection for improved and equitable educational outcomes

Measures are being taken to counter inequality in the quality of education and access to higher education. A law passed in 2012 that ensures that half the places in university are reserved for public school students. They have also attempted to alleviate problems in less well-developed states via the National Programme for Rural Education, which aims to provide specialised resources for rural and less advantaged areas.

Overall, however, this has not achieved the desired impact; the percentage of students not in employment, education, or training has recently increased to twice that of the average for the region. The system still has some way to go before it becomes effective. Expanding and enhancing social protection, beyond the realm of education, can support poor and vulnerable young people for better educational outcomes.



Overall, when we look at the Brazilian social protection system, we see a pioneering and dedicated example of social protection policy and programme design and implementation, as is exemplified by PFB. Even so, a monopoly of privileged access to higher university education is undermining the great strides the country has achieved in combatting extreme poverty. Brazil has the potential to also be a pioneer in ensuring equal access to higher education and providing a framework for other developing countries in this pursuit.  



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Programas de Protección Social: 
  • Social assistance
    • Social transfers
      • Cash transfers
        • Conditional cash transfers
Temas relacionados con Protección Social: 
  • Governance
Áreas transversales: 
  • Education
  • Human capital
  • Poverty
  • Brazil
  • Latin America & Caribbean
The views presented here are the author's and not's