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Widening Access to Higher Education in Brazil

5 October 2023

In March 2023, I was invited to teach a short-course in curriculum theorising to undergraduate and postgraduate students in the Faculty of Education at UNICAMP Universidade Estadual de Campinas (UNICAMP). On this course, students were introduced to concepts and figures in curriculum theory, as well as ‘reconceptualist’ approaches to curriculum theorising, including the method of Currere developed by William Pinar and Madeline Grumet in the early 1970s. This was a special trip not only because I was able to work with passionate and dedicated students interested in learning more about curriculum and curriculum inquiry, but also because Paulo Freire, after returning from exile, taught at UNICAMP and, after his death, he became the patron of the Faculty of Education. The spirit of Freire and his work continues to inspire and illuminate the research and scholarship among both staff and students there. It was a great experience and I hope to return soon.

In addition to teaching, I had the opportunity to meet with the directors of the Interdisciplinary Scientific Directory (DCI)* and former students to discuss one of the largest programs created in Brazil to democratize access to higher education – the ProFIS – Interdisciplinary Higher Education Program.

ProFIS is a student-led organisation concerned with widening access to higher education. The following is a guest blog by students working on that programme. I hope you enjoy learning about this innovative and important programme. Many thanks to the directors of the Interdisciplinary Scientific Directory and members of ProFIS for writing this post.

ProFIS as a model for democratising university access in Brazil

According to the World Inequality Report 2022, Brazil has some of the highest levels of socio-economic inequality in the world. This inequality has a significant impact on education, as shown by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), where Brazil ranks last in reading, science, and mathematics compared to 79 other countries. There are also other factors related to this scenario, such as investment in education and students, teachers’ salaries, allocation of resources, management of education, and others, but even these factors are affected by inequality (TEIXEIRA, 2023).

In Brazil, of all students enrolled in high school, only 12.5% are in private schools (TEIXEIRA, 2023, apud EXPONENCIAIS, 2020). Although this number seems small, according to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), these few students have higher PISA scores than students in public high schools. Additionally, students from public high schools with similar socio-economic conditions to those in private high schools also have higher PISA scores.

As mentioned before, the inequality in Brazil and the poor performance of students from public high schools highlight the difficulties for low-income students to improve their educational performance and thus access higher levels of education. This has led to what Nurkse (TEIXEIRA, 2023, apud NURKSE, 1953) calls a vicious circle of poverty, where the lack of access to quality education means that people tend to be underemployed or unemployed, have low incomes, and are classed as poor. Because of this scenario, many disadvantaged people don’t have access to quality education, and so the cycle continues from generation to generation.


Taking into account the scenario presented, ProFIS was created as an approach to improve this situation in the city of Campinas, where UNICAMP is located. When ProFIS was being developed, its creators noticed the low enrolment rate of students from public high schools in Campinas and the high enrolment rate of students from private high schools. Before 2011, around 30% of students enrolled in UNICAMP came from public high schools across the country, but in 2014, around 85% of students graduating from high school in the state of São Paulo came from public schools, and only 15% from private schools. Therefore, only a third of the students enrolled in Unicamp were from public schools. Nowadays, not only ProFIS, but also many other affirmative and social inclusion programs have been established and in 2017, meaning that more than 50% of the students enrolled at Unicamp were from public high schools.

Unicamp created ProFIS with the aim of increasing access to the university for students from low-income backgrounds, as well as offering this opportunity to students from the city as a way of giving back to their community.

The history of ProFIS

ProFIS was a project that took 2 years to develop. Between 2009 and 2010, a group of professors who were concerned with ensuring equal access to higher education, including Professor Marcelo Knobel, former Dean of UNICAMP and Professor Francisco Magalhães, worked diligently in creating the ProFIS programme.

In 2011, ProFIS was launched, bringing 120 students, up to two from each public school in Campinas, to UNICAMP. Most students were from low-income families and living all over the city. In order to keep these students in the university, not only a sum of money is paid to them so that they can afford transport, university activities, and other expenses, but also free access to the university catering. It is a challenge for many students to meet the demands of studying in higher education while also providing food, medicine and other basic needs while at university. Providing the access to university catering services helps to overcome these challenges and also leads to greater levels of student retention.

Admission of students is based on their performance in the National High School Examination (ENEM); one or two students with the highest grade in the exam are selected for the course. Once selected and enrolled in ProFIS, they will have a general education for two years, where they will do a variety of courses in many faculties and institutes, such as the Institute of Biology; Institute of Physics; Institute of Chemistry; Institute of Mathematics, Statistics and Scientific Computing; Faculty of Medical Sciences; Faculty of Civil Engineering, School of Education, and many others. ProFIS aims to develop in students a critical analysis of all the scenarios in which they are immersed, written and oral communication, knowledge of the natural world, teamwork and problem-solving, research and multiculturalism. All this is included in the curriculum with courses in language (reading and writing, English, literature), mathematics, humanities and arts (planet earth, art and culture, history, economics, psychology), natural sciences (IT, environment, physics, chemistry), biological and health sciences (the human body, evolution, first aid, ethics and bioethics, health promotion and quality of life) and academic research.

Once the students have completed ProFIS, each one of them has a guaranteed vacancy on an undergraduate course at the university, without having to take an exam. However, not all courses have unlimited vacancies, so students are ranked according to their grades during their two years at ProFIS. Students with the highest grades get to choose their future courses at university, but anyone can enroll in a course as there are more places than students, which is excellent as it gives them more opportunities to choose the course they want.

Achievements and the future

After 13 years, ProFIS is a program of enormous success and a life-changing experience for those who have gone through it. Not only because the author of this post has had a life-changing experience, but because the program offers its students access to a vast amount of knowledge available at one of the best universities in the country and, in fact, Latin America.  ProFIS supports students in their studies so they can be gainfully employed and critically informed and active citizens in their communities. Besides that, a lot of good things come out of this program, such as the Interdisciplinary Scientific Directory (DCI), which is formed by former students who are already in your undergraduate course and come back to help improve the experience for the current students, fighting for more and bringing more culture and science to the students and the community where UNICAMP is located, trying to make a difference in other people’s lives.

We expect that one day, programs like ProFIS will not exist. This sounds counter-intuitive, and we don’t say that because it is not a good program. On the contrary, over time we have learned just how important this program is. We say this because we hope that due to the successes of this, and other programmes like it, that one day everyone will have the opportunity to go to the university and get a quality education. Until then, we’ll continue to work to enable low-income students to be in a place where they can try to change their future, where they can give past and future generations a quality of life that they didn’t have, breaking the cycle of poverty bit by bit and aiming to help more people each time.

If you want to know more about ProFIS and the things we are achieving access the website of ProFIS ( and DCI (SITE).

* The Interdisciplinary Scientific Directory (DCI) is an academic entity created by former students from ProFIS to organize ProFIS’ Exhibition of Science. However, at the end of 2022, more former students decided to help DCI and it is in progress the institutionalization of it. Nowadays, DCI has a major role in ProFIS and at the university, such as being a reference and inspiration in the scientific practices with excellence, quality and accessibility; elucidate for the population the importance, relevance and contribution of science and its scientific process; and encourage individuals from different social classes to pursue knowledge.

Scientific Exhibition 2018 of ProFIS. Source:

ProFIS’ Students Integration. Source:


TEIXEIRA, Matheus Bino. Educação brasileira: conjuntura, estudo comparativo e reflexões sobre o futuro. Repositório da Universidade de Lisboa, 2023. Disponível em: <>.

KNOBEL, Marcelo. Programa de Formação Interdisciplinar Superior. 2014. Apresentação em PDF. Disponível em: <>.

Anuário Vestibular UNICAMP. COMVEST, 2023.Disponível em: <>.