Despite the average COVID-19 deaths peaking in Brazil in 2021, the Brazilian National High School Exam was not postponed, leading to the lowest national turnout ever registered at only 48.5% on January 17th, 2021. The failure to account for the effects of quarantine on students of low socio-economic status sheds light on the forgotten intergenerational effects of colonization on educational inequality.
The National High School Exam (ENEM) is the main gateway through which low-income Brazilian students can enter public universities as well as gain scholarships to private universities. This occurs through the Unified Selection System (SISU), an initiative by the Brazilian Federal Government that exclusively uses the ENEM score to place its candidates in public universities. The exam can also be used to boost the scores of students in other university entrance exams. According to the National Institute for Educational Studies and Research (INEP), this exam ensures the democratization of higher education by leveling the playing field between students. Without this exam, many low-income students are not able to get into higher education due to economic barriers. Public universities are free, so admission to those universities is highly competitive. Therefore, not attending the exam due to the effects of COVID-19 further hinders the ability of low-income individuals to attend university.
The importance of this exam is further highlighted when looking at the abysmal gap between public and private schools in Brazil. In a study that compared the exam results between institutions, it is clear how overcrowded classrooms combined with the lack of resources and qualified instructors affect the performance of low socio-economic status (SES) students. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, public school students were already in a disadvantaged position. In 2017, it was reported that schools with the lowest ENEM scores were all public, while 82% of schools with the highest scores were private. Thus, this study shows that private school students academically outperform those in public schools.
A 2015 OECD study sheds light on the connection between higher education and eradicating the cycle of poverty in Brazil. Those who graduate from university earn 141% more than those who only have a high school degree. In 2018, only 35.9% of public school students ended up going to university compared to 79.2% of private school students. Therefore, the failure to ensure the attendance of low-income students to the ENEM (and consequently taking away their opportunity to attend higher education) not only hinders the goal of making higher education inclusive of all socio-economic classes but also perpetuates the poverty trap.
Even with its flaws, the ENEM remains an essential tool to safeguard equity and accessibility in the education system for low SES students, which explains the general reluctance to cancel it for the 2020/2021 academic year. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected lower-income students, whose performance is expected to worsen if the exam proceeds as currently scheduled.
Why negating the postponement of the ENEM is controversial
The INEP refused to postpone the exam for a second time despite the public’s concern and the recommendations of more than 45 scientific entities such as the SBPC and ANPED. The exam was originally supposed to take place in October 2020 but was pushed forward to January 2021 due to the pandemic.
As of January 2021, Brazil had its highest COVID-19 average death count since August of 2020, and the number of cases continues to rise. Could this be the reason why 51.5% of students registered to take the Brazilian ENEM did not show up? The INEP has not yet disclosed the reasons for the low turnout. However, the Minister of Education, Milton Ribeiro, attributes the exam’s low participation to the population’s fear of getting infected. While the INEP assured precautions such as social distancing would be taken at test sites, they remain insufficient to ensure safety as argued by the infectologist Carlos Fortaleza.
Apart from the fear of contracting the virus during the exam, public school students may also feel relatively more unprepared. Public schools have not had classes since March of 2020, while private schools switched to EAD (distance education/online teaching) at the start of quarantine. According to data from INEP, 22,4% of ENEM takers have reported not having access to the internet, and 46% of them do not have computers at home. Free study groups have also been prohibited to meet due to social-distancing regulations, making in-person studying also impossible.
To further illustrate the effects of the economic disadvantages on low-SES students during COVID-19, Marcelo Martins tells his story. As the coordinator for a free, pre-university study group named “Estudando Para Vencer” (Studying to Win), Martins recounts how his staff had to divert funds from teaching content and instead redirect those funds towards providing their students with food. The study group is located in Vila Cruzeiro, in the set of favelas at the Penha complex, a community that is a symbol of Afro-descendant resistance to cultural assimilation, and resilience in the face of violence. A research project named “Juventude e Pandemia do Coronavírus” (The Youth and the Coronavirus Pandemic) found that 33% of their interviewed student population sought some way to supplement their family income during the pandemic, leaving them less time to focus on academics. One of the interviewed students expressed their concern: “What about inequality? Those who have internet, a comfortable home, don’t have this trauma in their head . . . [they] are more protected, more relaxed, than us who are fighting to get into university”.
This experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, which although cannot be generalized to all marginalized groups, represents the additional barriers low-SES individuals must tear down when attempting to access quality education.
How this disparity came to be
Brazil’s educational system has a history of assimilation and classism dating back to colonial times. The Jesuits were the first to attempt to “educate” the masses with their primary goal being the integration of the native Indigenous peoples into European culture and converting them to Christianity. Then, the Imperial Constitution of 1824 provided free primary education for all citizens and although it excluded slaves, it allowed free Black men to attend. This public schooling was aimed at poor, Black, and mestiço individuals and was used as a tool to homogenize, civilize, and adapt their moral and cultural characteristics to the desired European standards. Children from wealthy and white families were educated through their own means, usually with private tutors. Since colonial times, education has been used as a tool to separate the elite from the masses: a hierarchical society based on education was starting to be formed.
The separation between the majority non-white student population of public schools and the white student population of private schools starting from colonial times can still be observed today. In private schools, a third of the students self-identify as black and pardo, and in public schools, the number rises to 56.4%. There is no recent data on the presence of indigenous peoples in public or private schools. In public universities, 4,5% of graduates identify as black, and 28,3% identify as pardos or mulattos. Compared to private universities, those numbers decrease to 3,1%, and 16,3% respectively, compared to 76,8% of white individuals. The Afro-descendant student population continues to be less present, not only in private universities but also in public ones. This inequality is not coincidental and showcases the intergenerational effects of separating public and private educational institutions based on race in colonial Brazil.
Throughout Brazil’s colonial history, we can observe that private and public education had always benefited from different institutional qualities and investments depending on the state’s policies and goals towards specific demographics. This can still be observed today by comparing the academic performance and racial demographics between public and private schools and universities. By refusing to acknowledge the differences in the access to education and technology during the COVID-19 pandemic, the educational system has failed to account for the intergenerational legacies of colonization and economic differences between its students. Thus, the refusal to postpone the National High School Exam further harms the potentiality of already disadvantaged groups to access higher education and break the cycle of poverty.