A Tale of Four Countries: Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay

The Treaty of Asunción, signed in 1996 by Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, established a new free-trade zone in South America called MERCOSUR, which stands for Southern Common Market. Similar to NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), this treaty sought to allow people and goods to freely move between the four countries in an effort to build their economies. The signing of the Treaty of Asunción was only possible because these four nations share common Iberian heritages and tend to have worldviews that are compatible with one another. These heritages and worldviews have a direct influence on how higher education was established in each country, and serve to frame how students gain access to universities in that region of the world. In addition, the role of the family in these four nations includes caring for children even after they graduate from high school; it is very common for young adults to still live with their parents into their thirties or even later. This has a direct impact on how higher education is prepared for and accessed by graduating high school students.


As a former Portuguese colony, Brazil exhibits several characteristics that are typical of Portugal in its culture and—as a reflection of that culture—in its educational system as well. Jesuit priests introduced formal education to Brazil in the sixteenth century with the goal of evangelizing the local population (native or of European origin). There are over 2,600 colleges and universities in Brazil, both public and private. Federal and state universities are present in nearly all Brazilian states, and private universities are growing in number and quality as well (Fischmann, 2005). The Universidade de São Paulo (University of São Paulo) and the Universidade de Campinas (University of Campinas) are considered to be among the best institutions of higher learning in Brazil.

No tuition is charged at federal and state-owned universities (the word “public” in Portuguese is nearly synonymous with “free”). The mechanism for acceptance into public universities is known as the vestibular, an extremely competitive exam. This comprehensive and sometimes many days long exam tests students’ knowledge about Math, Science, History, and the Portuguese language, among other subjects. Enrollment is limited to the number of openings for a specific major, and the most sought-after majors can have over two hundred candidates competing for a single opening, which means that a single wrong answer on a question could cost a prospective student his or her spot at the university.

Many high school graduates are looking to private universities as a fall back if they fail to pass the vestibular, or as a way to avoid the stress associated with it. A few private universities have their own version of a vestibular, but they are usually considered to be much easier to pass than the public universities’ version. Students from wealthier families tend to score better in the vestibular for both public and private universities; one of the explanations for this is in the fact that appropriate preparation for the scope and depth of these examinations requires high levels of investment, both financial and time wise. There are special courses that were designed to help future vestibular takers to prepare for the exam, and these courses are not cheap nor offered at times that full-time workers who are attending high school can attend. Families with limited resources may not be able to help high school students to adequately prepare for the vestibular. Also, private universities are not cheap, and student loans are not easily available. The vestibular system, in the end, results in a stratification of the student population: first, mostly students of higher buying power tend to pass the examinations for public universities because they had the resources to adequately prepare for them; secondly, private universities tend to be the fall-back plan for students who have the necessary resources to prepare but failed to pass the vestibular for public universities. A system that was established to afford merit-based equal access to higher education became a system of class exclusion based on financial resources available to prospective students while still in high school (Bernasconi, 2011).


Uruguay at one time was part of Brazil but does not speak Portuguese and did not adopt the Portuguese educational model. It was strongly influenced by Spain and inherited its educational model from the Spaniards. There are five universities in Uruguay: four private and one public. The Universidad de la República (University of the Republic), founded in 1833, is the only public university in the country and is located in the capital Montevidéo. The Universidad de la República charges no tuition and is considered the best institution of higher learning in Uruguay. The other four universities in the country (all private) are the Universidad de la Empresa (Enterprise University), the Universidad ORT Uruguay (ORT Uruguay University), the Universidad de Montevideo (University of Montevideo), and the Universidad Católica del Uruguay (Catholic University of Uruguay).

In order to enter the sole public university in the country, prospective students must have completed their secondary education (in Uruguay, the equivalent to high school is known as bachillerato). All it takes for acceptance is the bachillerato certificate, and health and personal identification cards. The four private universities have different requirements for enrollment, including entrance exams in some situations. At all five universities, students earn the equivalent to a bachelor’s degree after completing four years of study at one of the five universities.

Uruguay’s small territory gives it the advantage of avoiding many of the challenges that students face in other countries in order to attend college. But the small size (both in territory and in economy) can also be a two-edged sword because it limits the amount of investment both the federal government and private institutions can make in higher learning. Students tend to move to the capital of Montevidéo, where they compete for jobs and for entrance at the only public university. This scenario—low investment levels and an influx of work-seeking prospective students who may not necessarily be very interested in studying—results in a poor student experience at the private universities, which struggle in their attempts to find a balance between investment and income; investment because the economy is limited in its resources, and income because the number of incoming students has flattened out in recent years (UNESCO, 2012).


Paraguay is located in the heart of South America, west of Brazil and north of Argentina. Its official language is Spanish, and it is a former colony of Spain. Higher education was neglected by politicians since the founding of the country, but recently efforts have been made to improve the reach and the scope of universities throughout the country. There were originally only two institutions of higher learning in Paraguay (both public): the Universidad Católica (Catholic University) and the Universidad Nacional (National University). Efforts have been made to change that situation, especially since the 1992 promulgation of a new constitution that established a 20% mandatory investment in Higher Education each year. As a result of higher investment, there are now ten new public universities in Paraguay: the Universidad Nacional de Itapúa (Itapua National University), the Universidad Nacional de Villarrica (Villarrica National University), the Universidad Nacional de Pilar (Pilar National University), the Universidad Nacional del Este (Eastern National University), the Universidad Nacional de Concepción (Concepcion National University), the Universidad Nacional de Canindeyú (Canindeyu National University), and the Universidad Nacional de Caaguazú (Caaguazu National University).

In addition to the twelve public universities in Paraguay, there are another forty-four private colleges and universities. These private institutions charge various levels of tuition and fees for their educational services, and tend to serve students who are looking for higher quality in their educational experience or specialization in a field not offered by the public universities. Public universities in Paraguay do not charge tuition but still have a high drop out rate (Rivarola, 2010). Rural students tend to drop out at higher rates than students from urban areas. Possible explanations range from the need that their families have for their help with labor in the fields (they lack resources to hire outside help), and the inadequate preparation that rural schools may have provided students who are now attending the public universities. Secondary education in Paraguay is outperformed by the three other MERCOSUR countries, which could indicate that the level of student preparation for college may be a factor in the drop out rates (UNESCO, 2012).


Argentina is another former Spanish colony that has inherited the Spanish culture and educational model. Argentinians owe much to President Domingo Sarmiento, who in the late nineteen hundreds introduced educational reforms that impact the country to this day; among those reforms was the requirement that children attend school (Feldfeber & Gluz, 2011).

Argentina’s higher education model has been modernized in recent years, and focuses on professional training by offering professional degrees that are embedded in the regular college curricula. Higher education in Argentina is comprised of three levels: at the top, the Post-Graduate level can lead to a masters or to a doctoral degree; in the middle, the University level offers courses in Medicine, Law and Engineering; and at the bottom, the Tertiary level offers degrees that take between one and three years to complete, which are aimed at graduating students in the technical professions or in Education.

There are 85 colleges and universities in Argentina currently, of which 46 are private and 39 are public. Public universities do not charge tuition, but may have varying entry requirements depending on the course of study and the institution. In some cases, prospective students who are identified as being deficient in one or more areas (Math, research or reading) can be required to complete a special twelve-month leveling course.

Students face many challenges when attending college in Argentina, and one of them is comprised of the hidden costs of attending college. Despite public universities offering their services without charging tuition, students still must buy their textbooks, pay for housing and transportation, and in most cases move to where the university is located. These costs can become prohibitive for many students and keep them from completing their degrees. In this sense, the lack of more universities located away from urban areas serves as a barrier of entry for rural students. Their families many times lack the resources to send their children (in Argentine culture, college students are still sheltered by their parents) to college elsewhere, relegating them to attending local technical schools or not going to college at all (Feldfeber & Gluz, 2011).


All four countries that a few years ago joined forces to found the MERCOSUR (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay) have similar cultures and educational systems that intersect at many points. The challenges students and prospective students face in all four countries are also similar, and their families struggle to provide the necessary support and resources to overcome those challenges. As in any capitalist society, parents are not always able to meet those challenges, leaving it up to the State to step in when needed (McCowan, 2007). The main problem is that the State in all four nations usually fails to assist in a meaningful and lasting way. Their preparation and selection systems aren’t always aligned with the goals of equitable and equal education, and tend to exclude the less privileged from access to higher education. A closer alignment to the original objective of public and free higher education—access to high quality education for anyone who chooses to pursue a higher degree—needs to be reached through public policies that foster economic development and allow students the opportunity to gain access to colleges and universities without the need for high personal and familial investments. Economic growth with stability, allied with sound public policies, can help overcome many of the challenges these four countries face in terms of allowing college-age students to make a significant contribution to society by gaining the knowledge they need to do so.



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

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

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.

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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