Higher Education Admission in Portugal

Admission to higher education level studies requires either a secondary school credential, Diploma de Ensino Secundário, given after twelve study years, allowing the student to be examined through the Provas de ingresso (admission exams), or an extraordinary exam process available to anyone aged 23 or older.

Every higher education institution has also a number of other extraordinary admission processes for sportsmen, international students, foreign students from the Lusosphere, degree owners from other institutions, students from other institutions (academic transfer), former students (readmission), which are subject to specific standards and regulations set by each institution or course department.

With secondary school credential
Students must have studied the subjects for which they are entering to be prepared for the entrance exams, but they are not required to have previously specialised in any specific area at the secondary school. Students sit for one or more entrance exams, Concurso nacional for public institutions or Concurso institucional for private institutions. In addition to passing entrance exams, students must fulfill particular prerequisites for some courses.

Enrollment is limited; each year the institution establishes the number of places available (numerus clausus). The exam scores count for the final evaluation, which includes the secondary school average marks. Then the students have to choose six institutions/courses they prefer to attend, in preferential order. The ones who reach the marks needed to attend the desired institution/course, given the number of vacancies, will be admitted. This means that the students could not be admitted at its first or second choice, but be admitted at the third or even sixth choice. In some cases, those entering polytechnic institutes with previous vocational training will receive institutional preference.

Admissions table
Portuguese ordinary admissions are based in a competitive system of numerus clausus, different programmes have different exams needed for admission which may vary from one institution to another.

Extraordinary exam process
After the approval of decree law Decreto-Lei 64/2006, de 21 de Março in 2006, even without a complete secondary school education, anyone 23 or older can apply to state-run higher learning institution through the Exame Extraordinário de Avaliação de Capacidade para Acesso ao Ensino Superior (extraordinary exam to assess the capacity to enter higher-level studies), also called the Ad-Hoc exam. Over 23 years old applicants are considered mature applicants and may be admitted without meeting the ENES examination requirement. In these cases, application is considered on the basis of one's educational background and work and life experience will be fully taken into account, as well as an interview. The process consists of the general Portuguese exam, an interview to evaluate motivation and CV, and additional written and/or oral exams specific to each school and course. Candidates approved go through a separate numerus clausus or enroll directly at the discretion of the school's board. As what happens with the Concurso Nacional through the Exames Nacionais do Ensino Secundário (ENES), the Extraordinary Exam Process for over-23 years old candidates is more demanding and has a much higher selectiveness in public universities than in the public polytechnics. Humanities and other non-mathematical-intensive fields have also much higher admission rates than classical university engineerings, economics or medicine. This implies that almost all new students admitted by this extraordinary process enter a polytechnic institution, private institution, or humanities programmes.

Most public university courses often demand much higher admission marks than most similar courses at the polytechnic institutes or private institutions. This has been a major statistical fact among the higher education subsystems in Portugal. However, it is not possible today to characterize precisely a course's quality level by its higher education subsystem (polytechnic or university) because some polytechnical courses demand high grades and have a better reputation and popularity than in the past, after many years of reforms and reorganization in the polytechnical subsystem. But in general, the majority of the most highly regarded degrees, noted for their selectiveness and popularity, are provided by some institutions of the university system, with many of the polytechnic system's institutions being often regarded as a second choice alternative to the major universities for a number of students. There was a historic connotation that polytechnical institutes were often considered the schools of last resort, because of their general low selectiveness (which was clearly substandard from the 1980s to the mid-2000s), lack of historical notability, and diminute number of highly distinguished alumni and professors, which some feel hurts their reputation. In parallel with the Bologna reform, two major regulatory initiatives have been implemented from the academic year 2005/06, namely: access rules have enforced minimum grades of 95/200 in the national access examinations for all candidates in every sector of higher education; and a minimum number of 10 students per degree programme has been required for public funding, with this limit to increase to 20 students in 2006/07. The measures provoked great alarm and concern among the polytechnical institutions who criticised the more rigorous requirements as "bad and elitist". However, specific field entrance exams that are required for admission to many institutions are notorious for their inconsistencies, with courses which for instance may traditionally require mathematics, physics or chemistry entrance exams, allowing non-related entrance exams to catch a large number of underachieving applicants who otherwise would not be admitted, and do not have a place at more selective institutions in the same field. For the other side, higher grades inside the higher education institutions were more frequent for those students of private, public polytechnic and some public university courses that were globally the worst pre-higher education applicants. This implied a long-lasting reputation of lower teaching standards and easier entrance requirements in many public polytechnic and private institutions, as well as in some public university departments, which seemed rather relaxed. A number of scandals, suspicions and affairs involving private higher education institutions (for example, major private universities like Universidade Moderna (1998), Universidade Independente (2007) and Universidade Internacional (2007), among others), and a general perception of many of those institutions as having a tendentially relaxed teaching style with less rigorous criteria, have contributed to their poor reputation which originated a state-run inspection of private higher education institutions in 2007. Many institutions did not provide degree programs of academic integrity comparable to those of traditional universities. Like in any other country in the world, this appears to be an injustice for thousands of others students admitted to more rigorous and selective institutions that will face the same competition in the labour market, where the graduation marks are often decisive. This has allowed other inequalities such as the future impossibility of obtaining a masters or doctoral degree for students with lower marks (usually less than 14, out of 20 for master's degree, or 16 out of 20 for doctorate), and the higher average completion time for graduation and subsequent entrance into the labour market, with different standards in so many heterogeneous institutions.

In the 2000s, there was a growing effort to define nonaccredited universities or accredited institutions which awarded nonaccredited degrees, as diploma mills, in order to raise awareness about the problem. In 2007, the State had planned to enforce in a near future more stringent rules for all kind of public and private degree-conferring institutions. Currently, after changes introduced by the Bologna process, master's degree programmes can be offered to any student who had completed the first study cycle (licenciatura) and enroll in the second study cycle (mestrado).

For instance, medicine is traditionally one of the most popular courses in Portugal, and therefore one of the most selective, with some of the highest rated secondary school top students competing with the best of the best for a place in a medicine course. Normally, a student who wants to attend the Medical School (Faculdade de Medicina) at one of the Portuguese public universities which exclusively offer this graduation course, has to get very high grades in the entrance exams (it may include exams in fields like chemistry, biology, and mathematics) and to have done an almost-brilliant secondary school course. Admission marks of the applicants admitted in medicine, are never less than 180 out of 200. Architecture, economics, a number of engineerings, dentistry, law, pharmacy, or veterinary medicine at most public universities, are, in general, another examples of courses which are traditionally the most selective or popular. In contrast with these, like in any other educational system in the world, there are many courses offered by private universities, polytechnic institutes, and public universities, where the entrance requirements are sharply below the average. There are also some courses with low or even no demand and condemned to be extinguished.

In the 1990s, the offer of law degrees in Portugal became widespread across the entire country through both public and private university institutions. By 2010, lower selectiviness and academic integrity levels, including in law schools previously known for its reputation and prestige, debased the average teaching of law in Portugal according to the head of the Ordem dos Advogados Marinho Pinto.