Profis: Social Inclusion through Liberal Arts

Posted By: Andrew Downie|Dated: June 21, 2012

CAMPINAS, Brazil – Brazil’s public school system is notoriously awful and so poor students struggle to pass the entrance exams into the country’s top universities. That means that most of those winning places at the best, tuition-free institutions are from the country’s moneyed elite.

Marcelo Knobel, Founder of Profis

Marcelo Knobel, Founder of Profis

One teacher at Unicamp, the highly rated state university in Campinas, 100 km from Sao Paulo, could see that high school talent was going to waste. So Marcelo Knobel decided to create a scheme to give promising students a way into his university.

The Interdisciplinary Higher Education Program, or Profis for short, offers the best students at Campinas’s 96 high schools entry into a two-year liberal arts preparatory course. If they pass they get a guaranteed place on a degree course.

“We get the best from each school,” Knobel said. “They know that they are getting the chance of a lifetime and they know to take it.”

Brazil is one of the most unequal societies in the world, particularly when it comes to education. Some 85 percent of those who finish public high school here in Sao Paulo state, Brazil’s richest and most populous, attend private schools. More than half the public high schools in the Campinas region do not send even one student to Unicamp. And although around half of Brazilians consider themselves black or dark-skinned, just 14 percent of students at the university are mixed race.

Those who make it onto the Profis course have a different profile. Forty percent are black or dark-skinned. Eighty per cent come from families who earn less than the minimum wage. And 86 percent are the first person in their family ever to attend university.

The program has only just admitted its second year of students and teachers already admit the challenges are huge. Students admit struggling with the step up. Some are unprepared for the increase in workload. A few believe the other students look down on them. Course coordinators says that only half the group is likely to pass the course in the allotted time and that many will have to do a third year.

Knobel said that because many kids come from disadvantaged backgrounds it is important to especially important to help them both on and off the campus.

The poorest 60 % of students get a monthly stipend equivalent to the minimum wage, which is important to poor families who might prefer their children to work rather than study. They also get medical support, teachers assistants, food and transport. And when students falter, professors do all they can to bring them back into the fold.

Education experts have lauded the program as a clever way of improving social inclusion. Although many of Brazil’s public universities have some kind of quota system in place, either for Afro-descendents or for the disadvantaged, Profis is so far unique.

Knobel hopes it can emerge as an example to others.

“I think this can be reproduced at any university,” he said. “It is not expensive. If Unesp does it and if USP does it and Unicamp does it then we’ll get 5 % of students involved and then it can start to be relevant.”

Andrew Downie

Andrew Downie fled a factory job in Scotland almost 20 years ago and set off to find adventure in Latin America. Since then he has lived in Mexico, Haiti, and now Brazil, writing and reporting for publications such as The New York Times, Time magazine, Esquire and GQ. He spent eight years in Rio de Janeiro and currently lives in São Paulo.

The views expressed above are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of the views of the Mahindra Group.

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