The Future of Affirmative Action Policies in Brazil

From the Series: Bolsonaro and the Unmaking of Brazil

Photo by Fernando Piva/ADUNICAMP. "Amerindian Scholars from Unicamp (State University of Campinas) against budget cuts in education." Student rally against Bolsonaro (Campinas-SP, May 2019).

During the presidential campaign of 2018, now-President Bolsonaro had this to say about the state university affirmative action program: “I am against the quota system as it is today, which harms the black person. If you put a quota for blacks, who are the blacks that have more chance to pass admission exams? The black who is from a richer background. My quota is social, I defend social quotas, not racial ones.”

However, in another campaign moment, he complained: “This cannot continue to exist, it is all victimization. Poor black, poor woman, poor gay, poor person from the Northeast [nordestino]. Everything is victimization in Brazil. We will end that.”

Consistent with the presidential campaign, representatives of Bolsonaro’s political party—PSL (Social Liberal Party)—in the Congress have been active in the first six months of the current legislation presenting several bills to do away with affirmative action or to change the beneficiary group, frequently proposing to abolish racial quotas. Many of these bills try to abolish legislation from 2012 that made it mandatory to reserve 50 percent of places in federal universities to students from public high schools. Among these, it also became mandatory to reserve a percentage of seats for black, brown, and indigenous students, according to the proportion of these groups in each state population.

Beyond these attempts in Congress, the first minister of education appointed by Bolsonaro, Ricardo Vélez Rodriguez, has declared that “higher education is not for all” and that “the idea that higher education should be for everybody doesn’t exist.” After less than three months in charge of a paralyzed Ministry of Education, he was replaced by Abraham Weintraub, an ultra-liberal economist with no prior experience in education. Following the controversial declarations made by his predecessor, Weintraub has stated that: "universities which, instead of searching for how to improve academic performance, are making shambles will have their funds reduced." There is a general assessment that Weintraub represents mainly private interests in education and that he will work to reduce resources for federal universities and restrict inclusion programs, aiming to restructure the funding sources for public higher education by proposing, for instance, to charge tuition in federal universities, a very controversial (and even unconstitutional) proposition. These proposed measures move in the opposite direction from the expansion policies for higher education developed during the previous fifteen years, including the creation of new public universities, new campuses in non-metropolitan areas, and scholarships for low-income students in private higher education institutions.

Black movements, indigenous movements, and anti-racist activists are closely following these debates and are organizing to respond to these threats. Students who are, in the majority, the first generation of their families to enter higher education, many of them studying in new universities and new campuses that have been created during the last fifteen years, are mobilizing against imminent measures to restrict the expansion and initial democratization of higher education in Brazil. One of the main areas where these threats can be felt is in the restriction of resources to student support policies that have been responsible for thousands of scholarships for higher education students in the last decade, through the PNAES (National Policy for Student Support).

Researchers who have been studying the effects of these changes in Brazilian higher education over the last two decades have shown that the demographic profile of students, including those in the most selective institutions and careers, had become more diversified, and that the system had become more democratic and less elitist than it has been in Brazil (see, for instance, Ristoff 2014; Paula 2017; Salata 2018). For example, the proportion of black students entering federal universities increased 51 percent between 2003 and 2017. Meanwhile, 70 percent of students in federal universities belong to families with a maximum income of 1.5 minimum salary per capita (around US$760 per person) (ANDIFES 2018).

Research results show that many adjustments are yet to be made, that the Unified Selection System (SISU) can be improved. For instance, measures to reduce drop-out rates must be implemented. However, none of these studies lead to a conclusion that resources should be restricted, or to an understanding that federal universities should not continue to be more inclusive and democratic in its admissions process and academic support (Santos and Sampaio 2013; Vargas and Heringer 2017; Neves, Sampaio, and Heringer 2018).

The challenge today is to see whether those that benefited from the expansion of public higher education and affirmative action policies during the last two decades will be mobilized to fight for it. In the end, we are talking about a sense of belonging, about an understanding of higher education as a public good that not only benefits individual students, but the whole society. This is well shown in the research conducted by William G. Bowen and Derek Bok (2000) in the United States, revealing that greater access to higher education by minority students provides not only better outcomes for these students and their families, but also benefits to the whole society through their participation in labor market, their contribution to knowledge, and their participation in community work, for instance. This seems to be a very different perspective from those who are currently in power.

The most recent electoral process polarized the population. The scars can still be felt. However, Brazilian society is not homogenous, and it is my belief that there will yet be political space for disagreement, for debating proposals, and for the resistance of those who have only started to benefit from the initial steps of social inclusion and access to knowledge.


ANDIFES. 2018. “V pesquisa nacional de perfil socioeconômico e cultural dos (as) graduandos (as) das IFES: 2018.” Brasília: ANDIFES.

Bowen, William G., and Derek Bok. 2000. The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Neves, Clarissa Eckert Baeta, Helena Sampaio, and Rosana Rodrigues Heringer. 2018. “A institucionalização da pesquisa sobre ensino superior no Brasil.” Revista Brasileira De Sociologia 6: 19–41.

Paula, Maria de Fátima Costa de. 2017. “Políticas de democratização da educação superior brasileira: limites e desafios para a próxima década.” Avaliação (Campinas) 22, no. 2: 301–15.

Ristoff, Dilvo. 2014. “O novo perfil do campus brasileiro: uma análise do perfil socioeconômico do estudante de graduação.” Avaliação (Campinas) 19, no. 3: 723–47.

Salata, André. 2018. “Ensino Superior no Brasil das últimas décadas: Redução nas desigualdades de acesso?Tempo Social 30, no. 2: 219–53.

Santos, Georgina G., and Sônia Maria Rocha Sampaio, eds. 2013. Universidade, responsabilidade social e juventude. Salvador: EDUFBA.

Vargas, Hustana, and Rosana Heringer. 2017. “Políticas de permanência no ensino superior público em perspectiva comparada: Argentina, Brasil e Chile.” Archivos Analíticos de Políticas Educativas 25, no. 72.