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EDUCATION-BRAZIL: Bill Would Reserve Quotas for Blacks, Indigenous Students

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 1 2006 (IPS) - Universities, which have traditionally reproduced or heightened social inequality in Brazil by consolidating the position of the wealthy élite, are now being called upon to do the opposite, by opening their doors preferentially to the poor, and to blacks and indigenous people.

A controversial quota system under debate in Congress would reserve at least half of the spots at every federal university – those funded by the Ministry of Education û for students graduating from public high schools. In Brazil, the vast majority of secondary school students attend public schools, although they form a minority in the public universities.

Federal universities, which are tuition-free and provide the best higher education in the country, take in 122,000 new students a year, mostly from private schools, which are better than public schools at the primary and secondary education levels.

According to the original version of the draft law already approved by the Chamber of Deputies, Afro-Brazilian and indigenous students would be assured a share of spots in the federal university system proportional to their population in the states where the universities are located, based on official census figures. These quotas would be included within the 50 percent of places reserved for low-income students from public schools.

Approval of the draft law was only awaiting Senate confirmation, a relatively quick procedure. But university rectors rejected the 2010 deadline for implementing the new system, saying they should be given at least 10 years.

Negotiations promoted by the Ministry of Education between university authorities, students, and ethnic movements ended in a compromise agreement, under which the quotas would be fully in effect from 2012, but would be introduced gradually, starting with 12.5 percent of spots reserved for public school students in 2007, and increasing yearly, to reach 50 percent within six years.

The modified bill must now go back to the lower house of Congress.

The draft law has fuelled a longstanding controversy about the validity and effectiveness of affirmative action, or positive discrimination, as a means of overcoming the inequalities that keep a majority of black people in poverty in this South American country of 184 million people.

Brazil ranks 65th out of 175 countries on the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index. But this is an average figure which conceals the huge gap between the black population, which would rank 107th, and the white population, which would take 46th place, according to Marcelo Paixao, the coordinator of the Afro-Brazilian Observatory and an Economics lecturer at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

Opponents of the quota initiative say that adopting racial criteria for university admissions is unconstitutional, and that selection should be on merit alone. Many of them argue that the solution is to improve the quality of public education so that low-income students can compete with those who graduate from private schools.

The counter-argument, put forward by legal experts like Fabio Comparato of Sao Paulo University, is that it is not unconstitutional in the least, because no one is excluded and everyone is subject to a selection process, and the aim is to combat inequality and poverty.

Quotas are absolutely necessary in a country where very few black people attend public universities, Geraldo Rocha, project coordinator for the non-governmental Centre for the Mobilisation of Marginalised Populations (CEAP), told IPS. For example, in the northwestern state of Bahía, where black people comprise a majority of the population, only three percent of university students are black, he pointed out.

However, applying quotas is not enough. At the State University of Rio de Janeiro, where a quota system was adopted some years ago, many black students dropped out because they could not afford to continue studying, Rocha commented.

Scholarships, grants or other means of assistance are essential, so that students can pay for fares from home to university, meals, books and other materials. “Without them, access to university remains a dream,” he explained.

Among the most ardent defenders of the quota law are the National Union of Students, representing university students, and the Roman Catholic organisation Education and Citizenship for Afro-Brazilians and the Needy (Educafro), which offers preparatory courses for university in poor and black communities, mainly in the shantytowns on the outskirts of Sao Paulo.

These courses, which improve access to public universities, formerly almost a monopoly of wealthier segments of society, and the expansion of government scholarships for poor students in private institutions are examples of initiatives that have helped increase the number of low-income university students.

An article in the youth publication Megazine, in O Globo, a Rio de Janeiro newspaper, reported in late February that there are already 23 public universities – federal and state û that offer some kind of quota for blacks, the disabled, women and indigenous people.

This growing movement could be crowned by the 50 percent quotas in federal universities, which are the cream of academic teaching and research in this country.

The number of university students overall has increased sharply in Brazil in recent years. In 2003 the total was 3.88 million, 70.7 percent of whom were at private universities. The paradox is that poor students can get easier access to private universities than to the tuition-free public universities.

Another proposal, that students at public university should also pay tuition, since most of them are wealthy or middle class, has met with overwhelming rejection. The trend, then, is to promote the access of poorer students to the public universities.

But anthropologist Peter Fry, of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said there were risks involved in adopting racial criteria in legislation and for allocating rights, which he said might prove a step backwards and strengthen racist beliefs.

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