Higher Education Situation in Portugal

In Portugal, university and college attendance before the 1960s, including for the period of Portuguese monarchy which ended in 1910, and for most of the Estado Novo regime (1920s - 1974), was very limited to the tiny elites, like members of the bourgeoisie and high ranked political and military authorities. In addition, there were few institutions of higher education, low levels of secondary education attainment, and a high illiteracy rate for Western European standards. However, during the last decade of the Estado Novo regime, from the 1960s to the 1974 Carnation Revolution, secondary and university education experienced the fastest growth of Portuguese education's history. Today higher education, which includes polytechnic institutions and university institutions, is generalized but very heterogeneous, with different tonalities and subsystems. Overcrowded classrooms, obsolete curricula, unequal competition among institutions, frequent rule changing in the sector and increasingly higher tuition fees (inside the public higher education system, although much smaller than private institution fees) that can be a financial burden for many students, have been a reality until the present day, though some improvements have been made since the Bologna Process implementation in 2007/2008. The Bologna Process created a more uniform and homogeneous higher educational system, at least within the public university and polytechnical institutions. Nearly 40% of the higher education students do not finish their degrees, although an undisclosed number of those students are subsequently readmitted into other courses or institutions of their choice. Despite their problems, many good institutions have a long tradition of excellence in teaching and research, where students and professors can attain their highest academic ambitions. In Portugal, the university system has a strong theoretical basis and is highly research-oriented while the polytechnical system provides a more practical training and is profession-oriented. Degrees in fields such as medicine, law, pharmaceutical sciences, natural sciences, economics, psychology or veterinary medicine are taught only in university institutions. Other fields like engineering, technology, management, education, agriculture, sports, or humanities are taught both in university and polytechnic institutions.

Public or private higher education institutions or courses cannot operate, or are not accredited, if they are not recognized by the Ministerio da Ciencia, Tecnologia e Ensino Superior (Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education). The two systems of higher education - university and polytechnic - are linked, and it is possible to transfer from one to the other through extraordinary effort. It is also possible to transfer from a private institution to a public one (or vice versa) on the same basis.

Access to public higher education institutions is subject to enrollment restrictions (numerus clausus), and students must compete for admission. Students who hold a diploma of secondary education (12th grade) or the equivalent, who meet all legal requirements, particularly exams in specific subjects in which minimum marks must be obtained, may apply. Any citizen over 23 years old who does not have the secondary education diploma (12th grade) can attempt to gain admission to a limited number of vacant places available, through special examination which includes an interview . After 2006, with the approval of new legislation on the frame of the Bologna Process, any polytechnic or university institution of Portugal is able to award a first cycle of study, known as licenciatura (licentiate) plus a second cycle which confers a mestrado (master's degree). Before then, only university institutions awarded master's degrees. All institutions award master's degrees after a second cycle of study, and some universities award integrated master's degrees (joint degrees) through a longer single cycle of study, with fields such as medicine having an initial 6-year study cycle needed for a master's degree.

There are also special higher education institutions linked with the military and the police. These institutions generally have good reputations and are popular among students because their courses are a passport to the military/police career. These state-run institutions are the Air Force Academy, the Military Academy, the Naval School and the Instituto Superior de Ciências Policiais e Segurança Interna.

Over 35% of college-age citizens (20 years old) attend one of the country's higher education institutions (compared with 50% in the United States and 35% in the OECD countries).