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Brazil’s Online Learning in Higher Education Grew 30 times in Ten Years

Leonardo Tissot
Leonardo Tissot
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Quick Take: Brazilians are the kings of soccer, but now they want to score big in education – and they are choosing online learning to do so.

With high professor wages, a large percentage of public universities and an increased use of online learning, Brazil remains one of the most important Latin American references in higher education. But the country is yet to solve its political and economic turmoil before moving forward in education.

Brazil’s Demographics

Illustration south America map and flag of Brazil

Illustration Brazil's Demographics - Capital City Brasilia





190 million

Services, industry, primary sector, construction1,2,3,4


53% female, 47% male

Top 6 Education Indicators

Graphic top 6 education indicators

The Land of Soccer Aims to Score Big on Education

It is no secret that Brazil is going through a rough decade. The country went from being on the cover of The Economist in 2009, with Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer firing up like a rocket suggesting the country’s economy was “taking off”, to the harsh reality of 2017, with a president impeached, her successor with little more than 5% approval rates in opinion polls18 and over 13 million unemployed workers19 urging for a change. Unsurprisingly, education has also taken a hit amidst the crisis.

However, Brazil remains one of the most attractive places to study in Latin America, with a large number of tertiary institutions attracting over 15,000 foreign students a year – mostly from other Latin American countries, such as Bolivia and from Portuguese-speaking African nations like Angola.

Brazil is also one of the only Latin American countries listed in the World’s Top 100 Universities, with Universidade de São Paulo (USP) at #71 of the Ranking Web of Universities. The only other university from this region to make an appearance in one of these lists is Universidad de Buenos Aires (Argentina), #85 on QS World University Ranking.

Still, a lot of work needs to be done before the country can be considered a world leader in education. While Brazil’s soccer team is currently #2 on the FIFA ranking20, being the team with the most World Cup titles (five), the nation’s success on the field contrasts starkly with its position in the education system ranking, where it lags behind at #9321.

Also, the country needs to find a way to improve its basic education. Out of the 100 million illiterate people in the world, no less than 13 million are from Brazil22.

The Educational System

Since 2016, 4-year-old children have to begin attending school in Brazil, as a result of the enactment of a new law passed in 2013 that came into force three years later with the purpose of changing the country’s basic educational system. Prior to that, the mandatory age for kids to attend school was 6 years old, and although public and private daycares were already available, they weren’t mandatory.

Before turning 17, students must pursue a three-year period in early childhood education (“Educação Infantil” from ages 3 to 5), nine years of elementary and middle school (“Ensino Fundamental” from ages 6 to 14) and three more years of high school (“Ensino Médio” from ages 15 to 17).

Currently, there are 7.2 million students in early childhood education, 37.7 million in elementary and middle school, and 8.4 million in high school. The State is under the obligation to ensure access to all levels of education for all students in the country – some schools are supported by each city and others by the states. Private schools are also very common and families who can afford to send their children to private school will usually do so, as the quality of the education offered at most public schools is deemed to be low. At the university level, the logic is quite the opposite: public universities are deemed to provide a higher quality education as compared to private institutions.

By the time students turn 18 (and are considered adults in accordance with Brazilian law) they have the chance to continue studying in technical courses or go to college. There are 2,391 institutions that offer tertiary education courses – from universities to educational centers, technological schools and colleges.23

Most of the country’s largest universities are public – often subsidized by the federal government – but there are limited vacancies and only the best students are admitted.

The “chosen ones” are selected according to their ENEM (Medium Teaching National Exam) test scores, a national exam most students take when they finish high school which measures the teaching quality of Brazilian schools, while helping define what university each student will attend and the kind of scholarship they are eligible for according to their specific needs.24

To promote equality, Brazil has put in place a quota system, allowing low income, afro-descendants and indigenous students to get a college degree.25

A College Education Boom in the 2000s

Since 2003, Brazil has experienced a college education boom, with over 15,000 new courses being offered both in public and private universities throughout the country. Enrollment rates have grown by 94% in the Northeast region and by 76% in the North region – the two poorest areas in the country – between 2003 and 2013.

The other regions also experienced a rise in tertiary enrollment over that period: 48% in the Center-West, 47% in the South and 26% in the Southeast (country’s wealthiest region already boasting a high enrollment rate in previous years).

One of the main factors that explains such a huge leap is access to technology. With more people using the internet, enrollment rates in distance courses (e-learning) blew up over the past decade, going from a little over 49,000 undergraduate students in 2003 to over 1.5 million ten years later.26

Unfortunately, increased enrollment rates are far from matching completion rates. In Brazil, dropout rates are among the world’s highest: 49% of students abandon their courses before completion.27 A lack of maturity, financial concerns and low quality basic education are often considered the main reasons attributed to such high dropout rates.28 In addition, only one third of Brazilian workers with a higher education degree work in their areas, which discourages many individuals from pursuing professional studies.29

The Economic Crisis and Its Implications for Research and Development

Brazil was ranked 36 in the R&D world rankings in recent years30 – a respectable position, considering the historical socioeconomic issues the country has undergone recently, with inflation rates growing over 1,000% per year in the 1980s.

However, given the political turmoil that has turned the country into chaos since 2014, with an uncertain political environment, fueled by the constant corruption scandals and police investigations involving several political leaders in office, a lot has changed.

Brazil is trying to balance its budget, and cuts are already affecting education and research: Investment has dropped to the same levels of 2001, which is very concerning. In 2013, this number was already fading to 1.66% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The government’s goal is to increase investment in this area and grow up to 2% of GDP by 2019, so the country is able to compete on a worldwide scale.31

Ultimately, everything comes down to the following questions: Will the country be able to overcome all the economic and political turmoil in the short term? And will the education system be even more affected by these issues? The 2018 presidential elections may be a good start to answer these questions. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see.

4 Highlights of Education in Brazil


1. Brazil is one of the best places to be a college professor, in terms of salary. According to the OCDE, the country’s wages are on par with those of Nordic nations.32

2. The number of e-learning students grew 30 times in a decade (from 2003 to 2013).

3. Brazil has 6.7 million students in higher education.

4. The country is the only Latin American nation to have a university listed on the World Top 100 Ranking Web of Universities.


United Kingdom: One of the Greatest Places to Study in the World

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TRiiBU Studio


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28  Melo Lobo, M. D. (2012, December). PANORAMA DA EVASÃO NO ENSINO SUPERIOR BRASILEIRO: ASPECTOS GERAIS DAS CAUSAS E SOLUÇÕES [PDF]. Mogi das Cruzes, São Paulo: Instituto Lobo para Desenvolvimento da Educação, da Ciência e da Tecnologia.

29 Reis, M. C., & Machado, D. C. (2015, July). UMA ANÁLISE DOS RENDIMENTOS DO TRABALHO ENTRE INDIVÍDUOS COM ENSINO SUPERIOR NO BRASIL [PDF]. Brasília – DF: Ipea – Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada.

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