Higher Education in the Original MERCOSUR

In 1991, four South American countries signed the Treaty of Assunción establishing the MERCOSUR (Southern Common Market), a free-trade zone comprised of Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. This agreement sought to facilitate commerce between these nations, allowing goods to flow tariff-free and people to migrate freely between the nations in order to do business and seek work. MERCOSUR is now comprised of the original four nations plus Venezuela, in addition to associate members Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

The four original MERCOSUR member-countries (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay) may serve as an illustration of inequalities and similarities in higher education in South America.


A couple of chapters from Phillips and Schweisfurth (2007) were used as background reading about comparisons in education. Journal articles and websites were consulted in order to gain a better understanding of all four countries that comprised the original MERCOSUR (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay). Three previous activities in the current course at the University were also consulted, and portions of the comparison between Brazil and Uruguay were imported into this document and utilized in the broader comparison including two other countries: Argentina and Paraguay.

Using Bray and Thomas’ (1995) proposed framework for comparative analysis, all four countries’ higher education systems were compared based on three possible intersections: Countries Level, intersecting with Entire Population and Political Change; Schools Level, intersecting with Religious Groups and Educational Finance; and Individuals Level intersecting with Age Groups and Labour Market.


Our survey of the higher education systems in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay yielded interesting results that show some commonalities between all four as well as substantial differences of approach and historical development.

Higher Education in Argentina

Argentina was colonized by Spain and has maintained several Spanish traits in its culture and educational system. The Argentine education system saw its development in the presidency of Domingo Sarmiento in the late nineteenth-century, when mandatory school attendance was established.

Higher education in Argentina is based on the old Spanish higher education system, but has been migrating to a more modern system in recent years. What sets the Argentine system apart from its neighbors is its emphasis on graduating professionals by offering built-in professional degrees (Feldfeber & Gluz, 2011). Argentina’s system is divided into three levels of higher education: the Tertiary level focuses on the education or technical professions and lasts between one and three years; the University level is comprised of studies in Engineering, Law, and Medicine, and lasts between four and six years; and the Post-Graduate level, which focuses on research and can lead to Masters or Doctoral degrees.

Argentina currently has eighty-five universities (thirty-nine public and forty-six private), with a total university population of over a million students. Acceptance to a university is dependant upon each university’s criteria, and there is no state-sponsored entrance exam, such as the one found in Brazil. Some universities have implemented a one-year remedial curriculum—called CBC—that serves as an admittance requirement for students who demonstrate unsatisfactory levels of reading, Mathematics or research skills.

Higher Education in Brazil

Below are Leite’s (2013) findings on Brazil’s higher education system:

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. Brazil has over 2,600 universities (public and private). 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.

Higher Education in Paraguay

Paraguay is another country colonized by Spain, and the only country in South America that does not have coastal borders—it is enclosed by Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia; this has posed a real challenge to its economic development vis-à-vis the economic model of South American reliance on exports by sea. Among the original MERCOSUR founders, Paraguay is the country with the most indigenous population and least ethnic European representation. This has affected how Paraguay views itself and how others have depicted the country (Corbo, 2011).

Higher education in Paraguay has received much attention in recent years, after decades of neglect by previous governments. Up until a few years ago, there were only two universities in the country: Universidad Nacional (National University) and Universidad Católica (Catholic University). Paraguay’s Constitution, promulgated in 1992, requires that twenty percent of the annual federal budget be invested in Education, but this has not taken place consistently. Some funds have been used for education though, as evidenced by the founding of ten additional universities starting in the nineties: Universidad Nacional del Este (Eastern National University), Universidad Nacional de Pilar (Pilar National University), Universidad Nacional de Itapúa (Itapua National University), Universidad Nacional de Caaguazú (Caaguazu National University), Universidad Nacional de Concepción (Concepcion National University), Universidad Nacional de Villarrica (Villarrica National University), and Universidad Nacional de Canindeyú (Canindeyu National University). There are also forty-four private universities in Paraguay.

Paraguay’s universities have a high drop out rate, despite the fact that public higher education is tuition free (Rivarola, 2010).

Higher Education in Uruguay

Below are Leite’s (2013) findings on 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).


The framework proposed by Bray and Thomas (1995) may be used in the comparison between all four countries of the original MERCOSUR. This framework contains three dimensions, each of which has subdivisions. Three possible intersections were used in this study in order to compare higher education in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

Countries Level, Intersecting With Entire Population And Political Change

All four countries were colonized by Iberian nations: Brazil was colonized by Portugal, Argentina and Paraguay were colonized by Spain, and Uruguay was colonized by both Portugal and Spain. All four countries were taken over by military dictators following World War II, in attempts to keep Communism out of the region and to foster a brand of centralized Capitalism. During this period, major changes were made to education, such as: the rechanneling of funds originally intended for education to infrastructure (bridges, roads, etc.) and telecommunications (TV, radio and telephone), and the wider separation of Church and State (Catholic Church losing its influence in education). All four countries were re-democratized in the eighties and nineties, suffering major economic problems in the transition from dictatorships to democracies. Several “economic shock” plans, as they were known at the time, failed to produce the desired results of jumpstarting the economy or bringing stability to the currency, sending all four economies into deeper recessions and in many cases causing their populations to revolt against such measures. Despite its negative aspects, the military dictatorships did attempt to invest in education, and as these countries migrated towards a more open regime and then democracy, more colleges and universities were founded and access to them became more transparent and manageable. Many of the reforms, particularly in Paraguay, had a tremendously positive effect in multiplying the number of universities available to the public. In Brazil, the neo-liberal government of the 1990s opened the country to private initiatives and allowed many private universities to be founded. Argentina had a similar process and now has over eighty universities. Of the four countries, Uruguay is the one most reluctant to allow private interests to take over education, and that is reflected in the importance given to its flagship university, the Universidad de la República (University of the Republic).

Schools Level, Intersecting With Religious Groups and Educational Finance

Brazil Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay were colonies of either Portugal or Spain, and as such they were territories where Catholicism was the official religion during several centuries. When these countries gained their independence, they chose to separate church and state and establish a secular education system. The Roman Catholic influence, however, was still felt and continues to have an important role mainly in Paraguay and in Argentina. Despite the strict separation of Church and State in education, all four countries have been passing laws that allow the government (at the federal, state or provincial levels) to support programs that are directed by religious institutions of learning. Examples of this change are the funding of educational programs at the Universidad Católica del Uruguay (Catholic University of Uruguay) or the government sponsorship of various theological schools in Argentina. In the case of Argentina, that country has the separation of Church and State embedded in its constitution; however, this separation is made less clear by the special status given to Roman Catholicism in the country by the same constitution—de facto, Catholicism still plays an important role in that country. In Brazil, private religious institutions now have access to federal, state or municipal funding for education, but are subject to many requirements and regulations. Of the four countries, Uruguay is the most secular and the most reluctant in using federal or provincial funds to invest in educational efforts that may somehow be related to religion (Mazella de Bevilacqua, 1972).

Individuals Level, Intersecting With Age Groups And Labour Market

All four original MERCOSUR countries face a very similar problem of school access to rural residents. Access to universities is much easier for students who live in cities than it is for rural-area students. A common problem is the need that families have of help in meeting financial needs, such as buying or producing food; sending a son or a daughter out to college elsewhere may have a very negative impact on the family’s economy. Most universities in all four countries have a larger percentage of urban residents than rural residents as students. Even though all four countries offer tuition-free university education, other non-accounted factors may play a key role in explaining why not as many rural residents attend college: for instance, universities tend to be built in urban areas, causing rural residents to have to travel to the city to attend classes—a major expense in some (if not most) cases; if rural residents decide to move to the city to attend college, the expenses involved in such a move (travel, rent, food, etc.) may be prohibitive (McCowan, 2007). Other expenses, such as books, research funds, etc., may prove to be too high for the poorer rural student. Literacy rates in all four countries are lower in rural areas when compared with urban areas (UNESCO, 2012), which may cause an underperformance by rural students when compared to urban students at the university level.


The four original members of MERCOSUR have much in common in terms of challenges in educating their people and strategies implemented to address those challenges. Due to its larger population and territory, Brazil dwarfs the other three countries in terms of number of universities and student population. However, Brazil’s numbers seem less stellar when other factors are considered, such as student population as a percentage of total population, number of universities per inhabitant, etc. (Fischmann, 2005). Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay have nearly identical figures, which shows that the region has much more in common than free access through their borders: all four nations have struggled to deal with the rural educational gap and high college drop-out rates.

All four countries have seen an improvement in their higher education systems in the last twenty years, mainly due to greater openness to private investments and globalization, forcing national schools to look at international scores and practices and learn from them. International and Comparative Education play a pivotal role in the region, allowing South American nations to copy best practices from countries that are considered to have had more success in education, and implement their own brand of educational reform. This access to foreign best practices may allow all four nations to overcome historical obstacles to the betterment of higher education within their borders, but should also provide other countries access to the solutions that these four MERCOSUR members may encounter in the process of reform. More open borders and more open economies mean more open communication—both ways.



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.

Corbo, T. (2011). Identidad y alteridad en los manuales de historia rioplatenses: Las representaciones de Paraguay. Dialogos, 15(1), 41. doi:10.4025/dialogos.v15i1.510

Feldfeber, M., & Gluz, N. (2011). Las políticas educativas en Argentina: Herencias de los ’90, contradicciones y tendencias de “Nuevo Signo.” Educação & Sociedade, 32(115), 339-356.

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

Leite, S. (2013). Higher education in Brazil and Uruguay. Unpublished manuscript, School of Education, Northcentral University, Prescott Valley, Arizona, USA.

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.

Phillips, D. & Schweisfurth, M. (2007). Comparative and international education: An introduction to theory, method and practice. New York: Continuum Books.

Rivarola, D. (2010). La universidad paraguaya, hoy. Revista Paraguaya De Sociologia, 47(136), 103.

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


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