History of Universities and Higher Education in Brazil

The Portuguese reserved the status of "university" to the University of Coimbra and so, never created schools with that designation in Brazil. Nevertheless, they created several higher and secondary learning schools which provided a level of education comparable or even above to that of the institutions denominated "universities" established in some of the neighbor Spanish American colonies as early as the 17th century. Examples were the most important Jesuit colleges in Portuguese colonial Brazil, particularly those located in the cities of Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, which - despite not being designated "universities" - offered liberal arts courses in Latin, Greek, philosophy and theology, likewise the Spanish American universities. Upon graduating, students had the option of either becoming priests or continuing their studies in Europe, usually at the University of Coimbra in Portugal.

After the expulsion of the Jesuits from Portugal in 1759, other religious orders such as the Benedictines and Carmelites were charged with education in Brazil. At the same time, the Portuguese Crown founded the "aulas-régias" (Royal public schools). In 1792, the Royal Academy of Artillery, Fortification and Drawing was founded in Rio de Janeiro, this being the first higher learning school of engineering in the Americas.

Following the arrival of King John VI of Portugal and the Transfer of the Portuguese Court to Brazil, other schools of higher learning were founded in Brazil, although continuing to not formally be called "universities". These including those specialized in civil and military engineering such as the Royal Academy of the Midshipmen (1808) and the Royal Military Academy (1810). Two medical schools were also established, these being the medical-chirurgical academies of Salvador (1808) and of Rio de Janeiro (1809). In addition, other technical courses in the fields of botany, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, and economy were created.

Shortly after independence from Portugal in 1822, under the reign of Emperor Peter I of Brazil, faculties of law were founded in São Paulo (1827) and Olinda (1827). Many of those institutions served as nuclei that subsequently developed into modern Brazilian universities, i.e., the Federal University of Bahia, the Federal University of Pernambuco, the Federal University of Ouro Preto, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and the University of São Paulo.

Higher Education institutions expanded throughout the twentieth century in Brazil. However, many of the students who had access to Higher Education came from wealthier backgrounds. In 1920, the first Brazilian institution designated "university" is created, this being the University of Rio de Janeiro, founded by the reunion of the already existing Polytechnic School, Faculty of Medicine and Faculty of Law.

An important development that affected Brazil's Higher Education landscape transpired after the collapse of the twenty one year Brazilian military government (1964 - 1985) and the re-democratization of the country. As part of Brazil's negotiated transition from authoritarianism to democracy, a new Constitution of Brazil emerged in 1988. It came to be known as the "Citizen Constitution" (Constituição Cidadã), promoting the right to work, the right to a decent wage, the right to social security, and the right to education. Furthermore, the new Constitution of Brazil, allowed public funds to be allocated to private, community, religious, or philanthropic schools for their support on meeting the rights to education. This constitutional doctrine was an important turning point in the growth of Brazil's private Higher Education sector, one that is financed through private investors and public institutions. In support of this educational movement, the federal government established a new policy in 1996 to liberalize the Higher Education sector, known as the Foundations and Guidelines for National Education law (lei 9.394). Under this reformed system, Higher Education institutions could begin functioning as for-profit entities. Private Higher Education institutions had existed since the 1600s, but most were affiliated with the Catholic Church or were non-profit in nature. This new policy paved the way for private enterprises to begin offering Higher Education degrees on a mass scale.

Nowadays, the Brazilian university system reflects world standards and some of Brazil's universities appear among the 200 best in the world. The University of Sao Paulo (USP), for example, is considered the best university in Ibero-America. In the 2012 SIR World Report from the SCImago Institutions Rankings, USP was ranked 11th in the world. Other ranking systems show similar results: the 2012 University Ranking by Academic Performance (URAP) ranked USP 28th in the world, and in the Times Higher Education report, "Top Universities by Reputation 2012", ranked USP among the top 70 universities in the world. In the 2012 QS World University Rankings, under Rankings of universities in Brazil, the University of Campinas and the University of Rio de Janeiro were ranked 228 and 333 in the world, respectively.