Social Disruption and Educational Change: A View from Brazil

Access and Inclusion October 09, 2020

Brazil’s traditional High School National Exam (ENEM) was created in 1998, and since 2009 it became the most important college entrance exam in the country. Recent data from the Ministry of Education shows that 57% of students access higher education using this exam. Due to the COVID-19 crisis all the schools in Brazil are closed. The need to postpone this exam that usually takes place in November has come into the spotlight, highlighting education inequalities in the country. 

A report released by the Brazilian Geography and Statistics Institute (IBGE) indicates that only 36% of students who finished high school in public schools enter higher education, while 79% of students who complete their studies in private institutions access higher education. This despite the quota law stipulating that 50% of entries at federal institutions are reserved for students coming entirely from public high school. Furthermore, only 33,4% of black students make it to college. 

At the beginning of May, the Ministry of Education announced that ENEM registrations were open and encouraged students to “Study from anywhere, in different ways, through books, over the internet, and with distance help from teachers.” But in a country where almost 40% of students from public schools don’t have access to computers and tablets, and approximately 6.5 million students can’t access the internet, e-learning strategies only further exasperate social inequality and unequal access to education in the country. 

Educators and students started mobilizing to postpone the ENEM exam date. Using the hashtag #AdiaENEM, (postpone ENEM), the campaign pressured politicians to vote on the postponement of the exam in the Senate. The proposal to postpone was approved, and the Minister of Education, Abraham Weintraub, announced that ENEM would be postponed with a further 30 days only. Since then, and under the continued pressure from students and civil society, the dates for the ENEM exams have been postponed to January and February 2021. 

As a result of COVID-19, other countries have opted to postpone important exams: the United States postponed its SATs, China postponed GaoKao, the biggest entrance exam in the world, and even France canceled its baccalauréat for the first time in 212 years. College entrance exams have also been canceled in other places, like the United Kingdom and Indonesia.

Accessing higher education is the dream of young people in Brazil. But inequality leaves many stranded before they even had a chance to try. In reaction to criticism about the government’s policy, Abraham Weintraub said: “ENEM was not made to correct social injustices, but to select the best people.” I disagree with this statement. Education is a human right and as such, also an instrument to achieve social justice. 

After seven months of COVID-19 in Brazil, the education system continues to fail students who are most adversely affected by the pandemic. Schools are online, leaving the most marginalized students at an increasing disadvantage to their peers. 

Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator and philosopher, argued in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed that oppression is a reflection of a structure that is consolidated and manufactured to remain as it is. COVID-19 has brought to our attention the need to rethink and reshape educational systems worldwide. Before we do so, we must also redefine social structures altogether.