Liberal arts college in Brazil brings diversity

An experiment that began in 2011 at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) in Brazil, is reaping rich rewards. Its two-year, liberal arts, interdisciplinary higher education programme, known as ProFIS, is designed to give poor but worthy students a chance at a tertiary education – and, despite some teething problems, is working.

Run by Marcelo Knobel and 58 academic colleagues, ProFIS dispenses with the vestibular, or entrance examination, and offers language, mathematics, statistics, humanities and the arts, the natural sciences and the biological and health sciences. Knobel’s main aim is to level the playing field in one of the world’s most inequitable nations, by going to the 96 public schools in the large city of Campinas and inviting the most promising students to join ProFIS. If they can stay the course, they’ll be offered a place at the university itself.

The method is creating greater diversity on campus. Some 86% of ProFIS students are the first in their families to attend a post-school institution, and about 80% come from families that earn below the minimum wage.

Adapting to the demanding timetable and workload is a challenge. Students are in class from 10:00 to 18:00, and many must make up for large knowledge gaps caused by poor and disorganised schooling.

Knobel admits that they may yet have to adjust the programme goalposts. Some students will require a third year to consolidate what they’ve learned, for example. On the other hand, some were ready to sit the strenuous Unicamp entrance exam after only one year. Still others dropped out altogether.

But it’s not all about statistics and assessments, says Knobel. “These kids haven’t seen great films, they haven’t read great literature, they don’t speak foreign languages. I think ProFIS will open doors and widen horizons. We must succeed if Brazil is to adapt to a rapidly changing global economy that increasingly values a broad base of knowledge.”

Category: Winter 2012

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