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To What Extent Are Quotas In Public University Helpful?

What is it?

The definition of a quota is: “the share or proportion assigned to each in a division or to each member of a body” (Merriam-Webster). Hence, a university quota is the portion of the spots a certain university course allocates to a specific group of students, usually minorities that have more obstacles when going to university, such as the black or the poor. This concept isn’t used widely across the globe, however, it is used extensively in Brazil, although there is a rising question on it's effectiveness and the extent to which they are beneficial.

How Do They Work?

In Brazil, Lei nº 12.711/2012, which is also known as “Lei de Cotas” (“Decreto nº 7824”), was established on the 29th of August 2012, and it mandates that 50% of all of the spots on the university are reserved for students who attended the public school system. Additionally, this same law requires that at least half of these students have a maximum household income of 1.5 times the minimum wage, which is about R$2,000 a month. Furthermore, a part of these quotas are allocated as racial quotas, which have to go to minority, blackstudents, disregarding their previous education. More specifically, these students have to identify themselves as “pretos, pardos ou indígenas (PPI)”. The way in which this works, is that the percentage of people that the census from IBGE identifies as these majorities have to be given out as racial quotas, allowing them to more easily get into college without achieving the comparative high scores from other students.

Why Were They Implemented?

In short, these university quotas were implemented in public universities as a way of trying to minimise the effect of inequality. Whilst both the private and public sectors of higher education (university) in Brazil are well developed, this is far from the case in primary and secondary education, meaning schools. This resulted in a majority of students in public universities coming from the private schooling system, and consequently later on, earning on average half the income of people who declared themselves white. Thus, it was simply implemented as a way of trying to decrease inequality.

Evaluating the Effect

When analysing the results of the quotas, it is important to observe the performance of the students at the university itself, as well as what they were able to achieve in their professional career later on. Additionally, given the discrepancy in the level of basic education, the longer the students are in the school, the more weight is given to the results.

The Positives

When examining the performance of quota students by the standards prescribed above, there is a clear positive, which is that the higher performing quota students achieve satisfactory results, just likethe better performing students approved by the universal admission systems. This is especially important, given that an overwhelming majority of these students wouldn’t be able to enter the same universities without the quotas, due to the lack of basic education and therefore lower knowledge and study conditions to succeed in exams such as the Enem, as well as in the school-specific exams, called “vestibulares”. Quotas are a way of them proving their capacity in college, without having to pass through all the process of testing.

The Negatives

On the other hand, there are a few negatives in regards to this policy. Namely, they are: not all quotas are given out, an overall smaller performance of quota students, decreased meritocracy, and a decreased likelihood of getting the best jobs.

Firstly, the most important negative that can be concluded from reports is that not all of the spots that should be given for quota students are actually given out. More specifically reports from the “Associação Brasileira de Pesquisadores/as Negros/as” (ABPN) and the “Defensoria Pública da União” (DPU) found that around 19.4% of the quotas which should have been given out, weren’t (Muniz). These same reports found that the most common reasons given were the lack of applications for these spots, as well as the extremely poor performance of some of the students who applied, especially for the less competitive universities.

Another central part of the discussion around the university quotas in Brazil, is that it decreases meritocracy. This argument derives from the huge discrepancy between candidates applying with and without quotas, especially in the more competitive schools. For example, in the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (from USP), which is widely considered the best engineering school in Brazil, there are 200 students applying without quotas for a single spot, whilst there are two students applying for a spot with quotas. Consequently, the students who enter the university without quotas perform significantly better than those without it, because they had to prove themselves to be better than other 199 students while those who entered with the quotas have way less competition. Furthermore, some people who deserve it more but aren't part of the quotas group, aren’t getting in because of this policy.

Another important aspect around this discussion is the overall performance of the students. More specifically, even with the established criteria of assessment, students who entered the university through income quotas were found to perform 14% worse than those who didn’t. This becomes a bigger problem, given that in the end, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to get the best jobs available in the market (Pelegrini).. The argument revolves around the idea firstly there is a lack of performance, and secondly that highly competitive universities serve as a filter, and by knowing that someone has entered them, corporations are confident that they are highly qualified individuals, and some of the best in their areas. However, with the decrease in competitiveness for quota positions, companies aren’t able to have the same conviction.


In conclusion, university quotas can serve as a way of diminishing inequality in education, with increased effectiveness with higher performing individuals. However, in Brazil, they are provided at a rate higher than ideal, which is seen by the fact that most universities are unable to fill the designed positions. Furthermore, this also leads to decreased performance, decreased meritocracy, as well as struggles for the students to find great jobs in the market. Therefore, personally, I believe that whilst they can sporadically be beneficial, they should instead be given at a rate of about 15% to 20%, which is considerably smaller than the one which actually happens.

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