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date: 27 March 2023

Brazilian Universities and Politics in the 20th Centurylocked

Brazilian Universities and Politics in the 20th Centurylocked

  • Rodrigo Patto Sá MottaRodrigo Patto Sá MottaDepartment of History, Federal University of Minas Gerais


Recently Brazil reached the mark of eight million university students, which represents around 4 percent of the population. Although this level is less than those in developed countries, it signifies an advance in relation to the country’s starting point.

Unlike Spain, the Portuguese Empire did not create university institutions in its colonies. Following the Independence of Brazil in 1822, the new governing elite established some higher-level courses (initially medicine, law, and engineering), but these functioned in isolation, in other words, university institutions were not created. The first universities emerged only in the 1920s and were regulated during the Getúlio Vargas administration (1931). Since then, higher-level education has been the object of greater public attention—as well as political conflicts—due to both its role in development projects and its capacity to produce leaders. Between the 1940s and 1960s, university students became a relevant political force, having engaged in debates for university reform and also in favor of social changes, contributing to the process of political radicalization abruptly ended by the 1964 military coup. The dictatorship led by the military implemented an authoritarian modernization of the universities, repressing and purging the “undesirables” at the same time that it increased investment in research and graduate studies. The results were paradoxical, since although the dictatorship created a better structured university system, it was a more authoritarian and socially elitist one.

The first post-dictatorial governments maintained the university structure inherited from the previous period, but they deteriorated due to a lack of public resources caused by hyperinflation and also by the intention of reducing public expenditure on higher education.

The country managed to improve its higher-level institutions during the 20th century, which became strategic spaces for political battles and, for this reason, targets of constant state intervention. Despite the reforms and the expansion, universities were marked by elitism and social inequality, like Brazilian society itself, problems that only recently have started to be addressed. Only in the 21st century did Brazilian universities undergo a new expansionist phase, led by the center-left Brazilian governments which, in addition to expanding the public system, also invested in the inclusion of social sectors that previously had no access to higher education. It appears that this process may be interrupted, thanks to the “right turn” experienced by Brazil since 2016–2018.


  • History of Brazil

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