Affirmative Action in Brazil: The Country of Racial Inequality Battles the Country of Racial Democracy

On August 29th, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil signed into law a policy that would require public federal universities to reserve at least half of their admission spots for students who had attended public high schools. The law also dictates that there should be quotas based on the racial composition of the state in which the university is located; that is, the number of students admitted should mirror the racial composition of the state.

This law has generated a lot of debate, with the introduction of the racial quota proving particularly controversial. While the debate isn’t new, this latest development marks a major milestone. Last April, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of racial quotes at University of Brasília (UnB), finally burying the much-used argument that racial quotas were unconstitutional, in turn paving the way for this law.

Most students in public federal universities, which are usually of better quality than private universities, come from private elementary and high schools. In four years, Brazilian federal universities will be very different in terms of the demographics of their students, particularly in comparison to the situation prior to 2003, before the first experiment with affirmative action and the expansion of federal universities through a policy of restructuring of higher public education (REUNI).

Now that the social quotas have been enacted by law, universities have four years to adapt to the changes. The effect of the law will certainly vary depending on the field of study – medicine, law and engineering are usually more competitive than other undergraduate majors. But what can we generally expect as a result of this development? In particular, will quotas “lower the quality” of teaching and research in public universities?

There are as many ways to answer this question as there are ways to measure the “quality” of schools and students. Based on the experience of the Federal University of Bahia (UFBa), Antonio Sergio Guimarães et al. collected data and provided analysis on three measures: absolute performance, relative performance, and dropout rates (if you’re interested, there are many others that you can find mentioned here).

Absolute performance is a standardized measure based on coursework grades. Relative performance assesses the development of the students: do students improve their relative positions from entrance admission scores to coursework scores? In other words, are students climbing up the “educational ladder” while in college, are the entrance positions relatively stable over time, or are students’ performances exacerbating the entrance score differences?

Based on these measures, Guimarães et al. compare three types of students: non-beneficiaries (students that did not fill quotas requirements), non-effective beneficiaries (students that, even though they fulfilled the quota requirements, would have been admitted without quotas), and effective beneficiaries (students that were admitted because of the quotas).

They show that, as expected, effective beneficiaries indeed are in much worse socioeconomic positions than the other types of students. Also, effective beneficiaries have, on average, worse absolute performance, as the graph below shows (vertical axis gives the absolute performance, blue and green ticks present the estimate for non-beneficiaries and non-effective beneficiaries, and yellow ticks are for effective beneficiaries):

In terms of relative performance, the authors find that effective beneficiaries perform, on average, similar to other types of students. And, based on a few measures of relative performance, they clearly outperform both the non-beneficiaries and the non-effective beneficiaries.

This point deserves greater attention. It could be argued that effective beneficiaries outperform other students in terms of relative performance because they have more room for improvement given their lower entrance exam scores. The authors acknowledge this point and, based on a series of analyses, attempt to measure the degree to which effective beneficiaries were able to rise to the challenge and keep up with other types of students, accounting for this initial improvement. Their analysis shows that 50% of effective beneficiaries, on average, improved their performance in college (compared to the entrance scores) and rose to the same level as other types of students. In low demand majors, this percentage is as high as 75% and in high demand majors, the percentage is about 40%.

Furthermore, even though it takes longer for effective beneficiaries to graduate (many of them have to work while attending school), they dropout at lower rates than other types of students. This is demonstrated in the graph below (colors are the same as above, blue for non-beneficiaries, green for non-effective beneficiaries, and yellow for effective beneficiaries):

The answer, then, to the fear that social and racial quotas will lower the “quality” of public universities is a cautious “no”. There are many threats to the future of public higher education in Brazil, but, based on the pieces of evidence we have, social quotas do not seem to be a particularly threatening one.

Yale-Singapore, Conflicting Values, and Cultural Relativism

Both inside and outside of the Yale community, there has been lively debate about the decision to extend–for the first time–the Yale brand past the borders of picturesque New Haven. In cooperation with the National University of Singapore, Yale University will establish a satellite campus in Singapore. There will be residential colleges, dining halls, and Yale professors. But there will not be political protests or partisan political groups.

To be completely honest, my own opinion on this is not yet fully formed. On one hand, I support fully the administration’s attempt to extend Yale’s liberal arts education to other parts of the world, especially outside of the West. Although I am not naive enough to presume that this extension is unrelated to financial concerns, I do think that this is a worthwhile endeavor. In particular, I find the proposed East-West curriculum blend very intriguing. Moreover, I am unpersuaded by arguments that this campus will somehow tarnish the Yale brand. If anything, NYU-Abu Dhabi and other similar institutions notwithstanding, I think Yale is breaking new and unique ground with the Singapore campus.

On the other hand, as a staunch supporter of the liberal democratic principles upon which Yale and the United States were founded (lux et veritas, right?), I must admit that I find this latest bit of news quite disconcerting. The idea that Yale students, many of them political science majors, will be unable to express themselves freely in a political manner does not accord with these principles. And so, as a Yale University political scientist, I find myself conflicted.

In addition, I think another element of the debate merits mention. In many ways, the conversation about Yale’s Singapore campus mirrors the moral absolutism/cultural relativism debate at the core of modern liberal democracy. Consider the words of Professor Pericles Lewis, the president of the Singapore campus:

Yale-NUS students will be critical thinkers, yet remain respectful of Singapore’s cultural and societal norms. We hope [the college] will becoming the nexus of intellectual discussions in Singapore.

Professor Lewis concedes, implicitly, that some liberal values may be violated yet justifies such transgressions in the name of respect for Singapore’s “cultural and societal norms.” Opponents of the Singapore campus have been taking the moral absolutist stance, stating that the endeavor runs counter to the liberal democratic principles at the core of the Yale mission. Whatever the result of the debate–and it seems as if progress on the campus is all but unstoppable at this point–it is worthwhile to consider it within this broader context.

For more of his brave yet flawed attempts at political theory, follow William on Twitter.