The privatization of higher education in São Paulo

Image: Luis Quintero


Education is basically or almost exclusively public in most countries; not in Brazil, even less in São Paulo

Because of its strategic nature and its importance in building the future of a country, education is mostly or almost exclusively public in all countries. But in Brazil it's not quite like that; on average across all educational levels, our country is among the 20% most privatized.

When we examine higher education in particular, our situation appears even more extreme: out of every four enrollments, three are in private institutions, a proportion that places us among the six most privatized countries in the world out of a group of around 160 countries.

It is necessary to note that this situation is not only very far from the world average, but also from what is observed in countries with a liberal economy. For example, in the USA, the situation is the opposite of ours: there, out of every four enrollments in higher education, three are in public institutions.

Among the countries with privatization rates in higher education below 5% are Cuba, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg, Mauritania, Syria, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, showing that the strong presence of the public sector is a characteristic found in political, cultural, geographic countries. and economically quite diverse.

European countries have higher education privatization rates typically below or well below that of the USA. In South America, with the exception of Chile, all other countries have privatization rates lower than Brazil's, with Uruguay, with around 15%, being the least privatized, according to data released by UNESCO.

São Paulo and other states

Privatization in higher education is not uniform across the various Brazilian states, with São Paulo having privatization rates well above those of other states, whatever the criteria used to define it. Adopting the distribution of students across different institutions as an indicator of privatization, we see that in São Paulo only 15% of enrollments in face-to-face courses are in public institutions, compared to 25% on average in other states.

When we compare the number of places available for admission to public higher education with the number of high school graduates, São Paulo is once again very different from the other states. In São Paulo there is only one place to enter a public university for more than ten high school graduates; In other states, this ratio is one place for every 3,7 graduates. If we consider all types of institutions and post-secondary courses, in São Paulo there are 5,2 graduates for each vacancy compared to 3,0 in the other states.

It is important to note that this high relationship between the number of high school graduates and the number of entry places available in the public sector is not due to the fact that in São Paulo the high school completion rate would be much higher than in other states, as the exclusion of students is very high throughout the country. Currently, around a third of young people leave school before completing secondary education, both in São Paulo and on the national average. The difference in the completion rate in São Paulo and other states is much lower than the huge differences between high school graduates and available public places.

If we adopt state populations as an indicator of privatization, São Paulo is once again the record holder: here, we have one enrollment in a public university for each group of more than 210 inhabitants, a ratio twice as high as that observed in other states. If we consider all types of higher education courses – colleges, university centers, federal institutes and short-term courses (such as those training technologists) – the ratio would be almost 150 inhabitants per enrollment in São Paulo compared to 93 in the other states.


Brazilian education has always been very poor, even when compared to South American countries. In terms of adult literacy (25 years and over), only Guyana has a lower rate than ours. Our inclusion indicators in higher education, including enrollment in private institutions, are far below those of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, placing us in the group of countries with the lowest enrollment rates. In very few countries does privatization reach the proportion seen in Brazil and perhaps in no country is it as high as in the state of São Paulo.

The fact that São Paulo has a much higher rate of privatization of higher education than other states shows that the argument that the private sector acts in addition to the public sector, given the latter's insufficient resources, does not match what is being said. observe. If this were correct, privatization would be greater in other states, not in those with the highest income and tax generation per capita. This fact seems to be more consistent with the hypothesis that where the population has higher income, the State withdraws to make room for the private sector.

This situation in São Paulo and also in Brazil is one of the fruits of privatization and underinvestment in public education in Brazil and in the state of São Paulo and a political, social and ideological project. It is not just the result of actions by one government or another, but is part of a long-term project, built over decades.

Education is fundamental for the emancipation of people and for understanding the world, for economic growth and the social and cultural development of a country, for confronting economic inequalities between people and regions and for guaranteeing national sovereignty. For these reasons, among other important reasons, education is basically or almost exclusively public in most countries, and not a commodity whose access depends on people's purchasing power and motivation.

*Otaviano Helene is a senior professor at the Institute of Physics at USP.

Originally published on Journal of USP.

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