Triumph of the BRICs? Higher Education Expansion in the Developing World and the Changing Global Economy

Martin Carnoy

Part of the Spring 2012 Bay Area Latin American Forum

March 5, 2012

Martin Carnoy, "Triumph of the BRICS"


Martin Carnoy is the Vida Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University and a consultant to many organizations, including the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and the OECD. A labor economist with a special interest in the relationship between the economy and the educational system, he is currently launching comparative projects on the quality of education in Latin America and Southern Africa, which include assessing teacher knowledge in mathematics, filming classrooms and assessing student performance. He is also working on a major new project to study changes in university financing and the quality of engineering and science education at the university level in China, India and Russia. 

Event Summary

BRIC by BRIC: Building a Better Education?

By David Trautman

The BRICs — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — are blasting forward in the world economy, and so are their college graduates. Over the past two decades, universities in these four countries have undergone a sustained expansion. One hundred forty thousand new engineers graduate every year from China’s elite universities alone — twice the total annual number of engineering graduates in the United States.

Increasingly, graduates are focused on vocational subjects such as business, engineering, and medicine. What will this surge in college graduates worldwide mean for the future of the high-tech and information industries? 

The answer to this question is unclear, but several patterns have emerged over the past 20 years of university expansion according to Martin Carnoy, a professor of Education at Stanford University. One key finding Carnoy discussed during his recent CLAS talk is that BRIC colleges are becoming increasingly “vocationalized” as fewer students are opting for general subjects, instead choosing professional majors such as engineering, business, and medicine. 

Another pattern Carnoy pointed to is the increasing differentiation of BRIC universities. There is a growing gap between elite universities, which are often public, federal universities that provide free or low-cost education to qualified applicants, and mass “demand-absorbing” institutions. Sorting and admissions are based on a highly rational system; test scores determine students’ placement, and in some cases, their tuition as well. 

Governments determined to create a world-class university system pump a great deal of money into their federal universities. In China, for example, elite universities now receive twice as much funding per pupil as mass institutions. Two decades ago, the difference in spending between the two tiers was only a few thousand yuan. The trend toward differentiation is also evident in Brazil, although comparison figures are more difficult to nail down because the majority of that country’s mass institutions are private. 

The growth in university education in BRIC countries appears to be driven by two major domestic factors, according to Carnoy. First, the expansion of secondary schooling has created a larger pool of potential college students. Second, the rate of return to education has risen dramatically, particularly in Brazil. The increased value of a university degree has in turn led to a greater demand for tertiary education. A third, more subtle, impetus for university expansion is the desire to be recognized as a modern, developed country, which, some argue, requires world-class universities. 

In all of the BRICs, various cost-sharing strategies have facilitated tertiary education expansion. These strategies range from charging tuition in the public schools to expanding coverage through private universities. Private enrollment is growing fast in both Brazil and India. In Brazil, roughly 80 percent of entering university students matriculate to private institutions. In Russia, whose system is primarily public, expansion has been achieved by requiring some students — those with lower scores or higher incomes — to pay. These students now account for over half the students in the system.

The various cost-sharing strategies bring up serious question about equity, however. In all the BRICs, rationalized, test-based admission to elite public universities means that students from higher income backgrounds, who can afford better secondary schooling or private tutors, have an advantage compared to their less-well-off colleagues. In Brazil, for example, roughly half of the students in elite state and federal universities come from the top 20 percent of income-earning families. Public money, therefore, is disproportionately subsidizing education for wealthy students. Roughly one-third of the private institutions, which absorb just about everyone else, are for-profit.

Carnoy and his colleagues found evidence of a disproportionate spending pattern in both Brazil and Russia. Although there has been some movement towards greater equity, the bottom two quintiles of income earners in Brazil still receive only 12 percent of the public subsidy, while the top 10 percent receive more than double that.

In Russia, a decision made in the early 1990s to “reinterpret” the constitution in order to allow public universities to charge tuition for wealthier and less qualified students has improved the numbers for those in the bottom two quintiles: they now receive 27 percent of the higher education subsidy. The top 10 percent of the population still receives 34 percent of the total subsidy, however. 

In Brazil and India, systemic inequalities are partially mitigated by affirmative action. Half the potential student body in India qualifies for affirmative action, and both public and private schools must meet quotas. Like Russia, both poorer and higher-scoring students pay lower fees. Those who are not eligible must negotiate their tuition with the institution. Brazil, through the Programa Universidade Para Todos (University for All Program, ProUni), provides tax exemptions to private universities that offer scholarships to disadvantage students, judged principally on the basis of race and whether they attended a public secondary school. China, by contrast, has charged tuition since the inception of its universities, but it has not raised it since 2005, so the real cost to students has gone down.

The data from Brazil has revealed some particularly interesting findings, which was the focus of the second half of Carnoy’s talk. Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, for example, private mass institutions in Brazil serve students who are, on average, wealthier than students in public universities. As Carnoy jocularly put it, these are the “stupid rich kids” who cannot make it into public universities. The wealthiest students tend to attend universities abroad. 

Additionally, test results from Brazil allowed for value-added analysis with a striking revelation: cohorts are graduating with disturbingly disparate skill levels. In computer science, for example, students divided in two groups — the top and bottom 50 percent of scorers on entrance exams — both made similar gains over four years.

Because of their different starting points, however, the lower scoring students, on average, finished at the same place the higher-scoring students started. In other words, the bottom 50 percent were leaving college at the same level as the higher-scoring students who had not taken any university classes.

Regardless of these outcomes, graduates from elite universities in the BRIC countries are a force to be reckoned with. Although India’s elite universities only produce about 40,000 engineers annually, they are extremely well prepared. Even putting the quality of their programs aside, the students are top notch. Consider, for a moment, the selectivity of the process which produces such a small number out of a population of over 1.2 billion. 

The BRICs are churning out a formidable supply of college graduates who will compete in the market for high-skilled jobs. The differentiation between elite and mass universities is growing, but that does not change the fact that their institutions are comparatively much larger than those in the United States and Europe. Questions still remain about what this expansion will mean in the long-term for the BRICs and the global economy. 

David Trautman is a graduate student in the Latin American Studies Program at UC Berkeley.