Higher Education in Brazil and Uruguay

The form and functioning of higher education in Latin America are direct results of historical and economic forces that have shaped it into what it is today. The difficult access to higher education, the public versus private university debate, the rural versus urban challenges, and other factors all play into every nation that was colonized by either Spain or Portugal.

Brazil and Uruguay may serve as good comparison countries in South America. They may help to understand how two neighboring nations have dealt with similar challenges in higher education. Bray and Thomas’ (1995) framework may be very useful to the researcher, and different research methodologies may be employed in the process.

Higher Education in Uruguay

Uruguay is a small nation located geographically to the south of Brazil. It has a shared history with that country, in that Uruguay was once part of Brazilian territory. Despite this common heritage, Uruguay’s official language is Spanish, whereas Brazil’s is Portuguese.

Higher education in Uruguay is comprised of one public and four private universities. The public university – located in the nation’s capital of Montevideo – is called Universidad de la República (University of the Republic). It was founded in 1833 and is considered the top university in the country. This university has around 80,000 students and tuition is free. The four private universities consist of Universidad Católica del Uruguay (Catholic University of Uruguay), Universidad de la Empresa (Enterprise University), Universidad ORT Uruguay (ORT Uruguay University), and Universidad de Montevideo (University of Montevideo).

Uruguayan students attend 4 years of higher education in order to complete the equivalent to a bachelor’s degree. The pre-requisite for entry into Universidad de la República is a bachillerato (equivalent to a High School Diploma). The entrance process is very straightforward: usually in the month of March of every year, future students must be physically present to furnish a valid identification card, the bachillerato, and a health ID card. Private universities all vary in their entrance requirements, with some requiring students to take entrance exams (Bernasconi, 2005).

Higher Education in Brazil

Brazil was colonized by Portugal, and inherited many of the Portuguese educational traits. Higher education was started by the Jesuits in the 16th century, and many Brazilians early on attended college at one of the world’s oldest universities: Universidade de Coimbra (Coimbra University) in Portugal.

According to the Ministério da Educação’s (Ministry of Education) website, Brazil now has over 2,600 universities. Most Brazilian states have a federal university and state universities, and private universities continue to spread throughout the nation. The Universidade de São Paulo (University of São Paulo) is usually considered the best Brazilian university.

Public universities (both federal and state-owned) are tuition free, but require that future students pass a very competitive exam known as vestibular. The vestibular, for many high school students in Brazil, is the most stressful period of their school careers. This comprehensive exam includes questions on Portuguese grammar and literature, Math, Physical Science, Biology, Chemistry, History, and a foreign language. A vestibular can last between 1 and 5 days, and varies according to the school offering the exam. According to the Universidade de São Paulo’s (University of São Paulo) website, competition is so fierce that in some cases there are over 200 candidates taking the vestibular for one opening at the university.

Private universities are becoming a viable choice for high school students who are unable to pass the vestibular exam, and for those who did well in the exam but not well enough to secure a spot at a public university. Others choose not to take the public universities’ vestibular at all and simply enroll at a private university. Some private universities have a vestibular requirement for entrance into their programs, but they are known to be easier than the public version of that test.

Applying Bray and Thomas Framework

Bray and Thomas (1995) propose a framework that could be used in the comparison between Brazil and Uruguay in terms of higher education. For instance, in addition to sharing a common heritage in terms of having been part of the same country for many years, Brazil and Uruguay also share a common recent history of military dictatorship. Both countries were under military rule, and the military regime made deep changes to each country’s educational system. An interesting comparison would be at the Countries Level, intersecting with Entire Population and Political Change. How did the changes imposed by the military affect higher education in both countries? Were the changes positive or did they have a negative effect? Are those changes still in place? If so, why? If not, what replaced them and what were the effects of such replacement?

Another possible comparison could take place at the Schools Level, intersecting with Religious Groups and Educational Finance. Uruguay is a secular education country, but many years ago it passed new laws that allowed the federal government to use federal funds to support programs at the Universidad Católica del Uruguay (Catholic University of Uruguay). In Brazil, federal funding is now also available to private institutions that are religious in nature but follow strict, state-imposed requirements. The impact of the access to these funds can be compared and the effect it has had in some institutions of higher learning can be measured.

A third possible comparison between these two countries may take place at the Individuals Level intersecting with Age Groups and Labour Market. Rural students in both countries have more difficulty attending college than students who reside in urban areas. Some of the reasons may include: the necessity the family has of an additional income earner to help support the family; the long distance required for students to travel to universities, which tend to be located in urban areas; and the high cost of moving to an urban area and paying for living expenses in addition to the fees and books. Literacy rates in both countries are lower in rural areas when compared with urban areas (UNESCO, 2012), and rural students account for a smaller representation of students at public universities where entrance exams are required.

Possible Methodologies

The many possible comparisons between Brazil and Uruguay in terms of higher education will require different methodological approaches.

The first proposed comparison (Countries Level intersecting with Entire Population and Political Change) would best be served through a Qualitative research proposal that should incorporate the historical developments of both nations (Creswell, 2009). The evolution of the legal framework for education in both countries would also allow the researcher to better understand how and why the changes took place, and how they were implemented.

The second proposed comparison (Schools Level intersecting with Religious Groups and Educational Finance) would likely be better understood through a Mixed Methods research proposal, where hard numbers could be compared in the funding of religious institutions, but also the impact of religious institutions in the formation of both nations could be addressed (Creswell, 2009). Both countries strive to keep the separation of Church and State, but Brazil has greater openness to the interaction between the two, whereas Uruguay has tried to keep Religion out of public life and decisions (Mazella de Bevilacqua, 1972).

The third proposed comparison (Individuals Level intersecting with Age Groups and Labour Market) would require a Quantitative research proposal that would allow the researcher to measure how unemployment, literacy and economic distress rates interact with age groups from both rural and urban areas (Creswell, 2009). Both countries face a similar challenge in this area: in both Brazil and Uruguay, literacy rates are lowest in rural areas. Brazil has made recent efforts to build university campuses in rural areas in order to address the challenge of high costs of moving and transportation (McCowan, 2007). Uruguay has made similar efforts by expanding some of Universidad de la República’s (University of the Republic) programs to areas outside of the capital.


Brazil and Uruguay are very different countries. The area, population size and economy of Brazil dwarf those of Uruguay. But both countries have many similarities in the challenges they face in terms of higher education. Both nations have public and private universities, and both countries provide free college education through their public universities. Both Brazil and Uruguay struggle to bridge the rural-urban gap in education, and have made special efforts to address this issue.

The framework proposed by Bray and Thomas (1995) may be very useful in comparing these two nations’ higher education systems. Depending on the various levels and dimensions the researcher wishes to understand better, different methodological approaches may be required. This paper proposed three possible comparisons, each of which would require a different research method to best understand the phenomena being studied.



Bernasconi, A. (2011). A legal perspective on ‘privateness’ and ‘publicness’ in latin american higher education. Journal Of Comparative Policy Analysis, 13(4), 351. doi:10.1080/13876988.2011.583105

Bray, M. & Thomas, M. (1995). Levels of comparison in educational studies: Different insights from different literatures and the value of multilevel analyses. Harvard Educational Review, 65(3), pp. 472-490.

Creswell, J. (2009). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Higher education enrollments in Brazil to continue growing moderately. (2012, Mar 28). M2 Presswire. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.proxy1.ncu.edu/docview/948243023?accountid=28180

Mazzella de Bevilacqua, A. (1972). Investigaciones en el campo educativo (Investigations in education field). International Journal of Early Childhood.

McCowan, T. (2007). Expansion without equity: An analysis of current policy on access to higher education in Brazil. Higher Education, 53(5), pp. 579-598.

Ministério da Educação. http://www.mec.gov.br

Fischmann, R. (2005). Historical and legal remarks on cultural diversity and higher education in Brazil in the context of the school system. Higher Education Policy, 18(4), 375-395. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/palgrave.hep.8300094

UNESCO. (2012). EFA Global monitoring report. Paris: UNESCO

Universidad de la República. http://www.universidad.edu.uy

Universidad ORT Uruguay. http://www.ort.edu.uy

Universidade de São Paulo. http://www.usp.edu.br


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