Higher education vs. elementary education?

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Nelson Cardoso Amaral*

Minister Weintraub thus seeks to resume an agenda and an outdated discussion. The World Bank (WB) itself revised its historical position that indicated actions in this sense, recognizing the losses inherent in the adoption of this public policy. The BM published, in 2000, a document on higher education, entitled Higher Education in Developing Countries – Peril and Promise, which reevaluates its previous proposals.

In a text provided to the press on the day of the launch of this document, the World Bank Group responsible for studying this issue calls on governments that have followed them through time to act otherwise: “Since the 80s, many national governments and funding agencies International organizations have given higher education a relatively low level of priority. Economic analyses, with a narrow look - and, in our opinion, wrong - have contributed to forming the view that public investment in universities and higher education institutions would translate into negligible gains compared to the gains from investing in primary and secondary schools; as well as that higher education exaggerates earnings inequality. (...) The Study Group is united in the conviction that the urgent taking of measures to expand the quantity and improve the quality of higher education in developing countries should constitute a top priority in development activities”.

The Working Group also defended that developing countries increase the quantity and quality of national research in order to select, absorb and create knowledge in a more efficient and accelerated way. In addition, he states that “general education aims to develop the individual as a whole, beyond specific occupational training” and more, that “specific disciplines vary from country to country, including, however, a combination of humanities and social and natural sciences”.

The dramatic consequences of applying the mistaken policy established in the 1950s and 1960s can be examined in the report by Marco Antônio Rodrigues Dias, Director of the Division of Higher Education at Unesco: “Some time ago, I had the opportunity to watch an emotional testimony from a of the most expressive African heads of state, the Tanzanian Julius Nyerere, removed from power (since 1985), but who has become a mythological figure and one of the most respected African personalities both in his continent and abroad. Visiting the Executive Council of UNESCO, Nyerere recalled that, after independence, his country achieved great success, in the 1960s and 1970s, with a proactive policy in favor of literacy and basic education. However, he stressed, Tanzania made a big mistake. By following the advice of international experts, it stopped paying particular attention to higher education and, today, it appears that it does not have the necessary staff or researchers for its development. On the other hand, much of what was done in basic education was lost, as conditions were lacking to ensure quality due to deficiencies in teacher training and in the preparation of researchers in education, who are normally trained by universities. Addressing his African colleagues in particular, Julius Nyerere stressed: “don't make the same mistake as us!”.

The discourse that states that one should prioritize an educational level to the detriment of other levels is a fallacy. When evaluating the hypothesis that Brazilian basic education could be much better if resources were transferred from Federal Universities to this educational level, it is not difficult to conclude that this is not true.

The National Institute of Educational Studies and Research Anísio Teixeira (Inep) discloses the total public financial resources invested in both the public and private sectors, separating them by educational level. In 2014, the equivalent of 4,8% of GDP was invested in Basic Education (EB), which means an amount of R$ 265 billion invested in EB. In 2014, the number of students at EB was 49.771.371, which results in BRL 5.324,00 per student.

In 2014, R$ 36 billion in treasury resources were invested in Federal Universities. If we assume that half of these resources were transferred to EB, the amount per student would increase from R$5.324,00 to R$5.684,00 in EB, an increase of 6,8%.

Basic Education could improve very little if this action were carried out and one can ask: what would happen to the 63 Federal Universities if their resources were reduced by half? We can say that they would be destroyed.

* Nelson Cardoso Amaral is a professor at the Federal University of Goiás (UFG).


DIAS RODRIGUES. Unesco facing the change in higher education in Latin America and the Caribbean. Publication by CRESALC/UNESCO – Caracas, 1996.

Available in stock here. Accessed on: 30 Jul. 2019.

SGUISSARDI and AMARAL. The World Bank revises positions: who will pay the bill? PERSPECTIVE. Florianópolis, v.18, n.33 p. 65-76, Jan./June. 2000.

UOL. MEC wants to take resources from higher education, for day care. What dispute is this?. Available here.

WORLD BANK. Task Force on Higher Education and Society. Higher Education in Developing Countries – Peril and Promise. Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2000. Available here.

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