Interviewee: Prof. Dr. Flávio Alex de Oliveira Carvalhaes
Interviewer: Julia Maia Goldani, M.A.

Edited and reviewed by Anna Paula Bennech and Giovanna Imbernon

Flávio’s Bio

Flavio Carvalhaes is a professor at the Sociology Department at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). He coordinates the Interdisciplinary Network for the Study of Inequality at the same university. Flavio is a sociologist with expertise in social stratification, sociology of education, and higher education. His scholarship examines inequalities in the Brazilian educational system, the transition from school to work in Brazil, and processes of higher education expansion. Currently, his work focuses on the supply and demand for higher education to produce innovative research that can inform policies regarding the regulation of higher education in Brazil, as well as how access to this segment of the educational system can become less unequal.




Your current work explores the relationship between Brazil’s social stratification and the inequality of educational opportunities. One of your specific points is how access to more prestigious and “profitable” university degrees varies in social origin, race, and gender. What would you argue makes Brazil an interesting case for this analysis? And, conversely, why is this a relevant question for Brazilian scholarship?

Since 1995, and with greater intensity since 2002, Brazil has undergone a higher education expansion process, from 2 to 8 million enrollments. A change of this magnitude and speed entails many opportunities for change, and I aimed to understand if it was the case regarding the inequality of educational access opportunities to the higher education system. Several studies from other countries pointed out the limits of these changes in other contexts. One famous thesis is the relationship between educational expansion and the diversion of students from different social backgrounds. Students from underprivileged socio-economic profiles – lower-income, parents with lower levels of educational achievement – increased their presence in higher education, but in fields of study with low prestige or financial returns in the labor market. This aspect was observed in the USA, Italy, France, Denmark, Germany, and Israel. I wanted to understand what had happened in Brazil. I added the gender and racial dimensions because they are social and sociologically interesting and do not necessarily have the same trends from a socio-economic point of view.

As previous literature focused heavily on accessing “higher education” in a homogeneous way, my work contributes to Brazilian academic literature in drawing attention to the fact that when it comes to any segment of education, especially higher education, we cannot treat it homogeneously. I have shown the importance of thinking about it in terms of its parts: the sector of institutions (public or private), modality (on-site or distance education), degrees (baccalaureate, teaching licenses, vocational education), and, of course, field-of-study. In this way, it is possible to answer questions in terms of development and inequality.

For example, how has the offer of higher education been structured in recent years? My most recent work shows that distance education courses at private universities dominated the expansion. Future research has to answer about these courses’ quality and the trajectory of their graduates in the job market. Moreover, it documents where poor and wealthy students are, if and where male and female students concentrate, and the same for race. If students from underprivileged backgrounds are disproportionately on courses with a low socio-economic return, their social mobility may be limited. In the case of women, something similar occurs, as gender segregation in higher education courses is one of the processes feeding the gender wage gap in the labor market, which favors men. Women are often over-represented in courses with a low economic return, mainly due to stereotypes structuring professional choices. I am currently focused on measuring the intensity of this process, as well as if and how it changes over time.

Although departing from different focuses and methodological options, classic sociologist Pierre Bourdieu also discussed how social trajectory conditioned education and labor opportunities in France during the 1980s. Your research has also pointed out that horizontal stratification of higher education is not a Brazilian peculiarity. Considering this background, how does Brazil’s situation compare to Western European countries like France itself or Germany? Has the lower income inequality and higher rates of university access observed in these nations led to more equal educational opportunities when disaggregating data according to the job and social ascension prospects?

I do not know of any work that directly compares countries, so I will warn you that my answer is a bit speculative. In this sense, if we adopt a broad notion of educational trajectories, including the extension of educational careers and their duration after compulsory schooling, German and French students have longer trajectories than Brazilian students. For example, OECD data from 2018 show that only 40% of 19-year-olds were enrolled in any type of education in Brazil. In Germany and France, the number is close to 70%, and the average for OECD countries is 60%. This scenario is undoubtedly associated with the fact that these countries are wealthier and have lower inequality levels, as well as better structured educational systems and welfare states.

But suppose we pay attention to the heterogeneity of their educational systems. In that case, much research shows significant inequality of opportunity in these two countries. In both, there is a division of educational segments before the university, basically between schools more or less focused on professional qualification, known in Brazil as technical education and called by the literature as vocational education. Research shows that students who go through these paths fare quite well in the labor market, especially in Germany. Still, privileged families reject this path for their offspring and prefer traditional education up to high school and traditional university trajectories after. Vocational education typically leads to an earlier entry into the labor market and shorter educational trajectories, which can end before 20 years old. Students from immigrant backgrounds and families with less-educated parents heavily favor this type of education. However, the higher education pattern is reversed. Students from privileged social backgrounds disproportionately occupy the sectors with the highest economic returns. France has institutions of high academic prestige – the Grandes Écoles – which were and continue to be notoriously segregated from the socio-economic point of view, serving a part of the cultural and economic elite of the country. Germany has a university system considered less differentiated in terms of quality. However, there is a strong differentiation between “traditional” and vocational/technological higher education. How do we reconcile this evidence with greater equality regarding income? Sociological research points out, and here the research carried out or inspired by Pierre Bourdieu is central, that although economic resources are important, there are multiple mechanisms in structuring inequality of educational opportunities. Research in developed countries points, for example, to how more educated parents and familiar with cultural codes can produce educational advantages for their children. As I do not have systematic comparative data, I cannot accurately report a comparison with Brazil. Nevertheless, there are many suggestions that the higher level of equality in a dimension such as income does not necessarily translate into another, such as inequality of educational opportunities because (dis)advantage is built in a multidimensional way. In other words, there are many other mechanisms in the construction of unequal life courses.

A paradox of Brazilian higher education is that private institutions continue to concentrate a majority of lower and middle-class students despite the affirmative actions for public university admissions instituted over the 2000s. Could this aspect be interpreted as a Brazilian peculiarity? Furthermore, considering the social prestige associated with the public university system in Brazil, should this be a matter of further intervention for public policy? Or are the federal loan and scholarship programs aimed at helping underprivileged students with tuition costs enough?

Brazil has a high representation of the private segment in the supply of higher education. Historically, the level was around 75% of enrollments. There are other countries where something similar happens, like India, South Korea, and Japan, but not many. However, charging monthly fees does not mean that these institutions’ governance is the same as that of a company. Around the world, we have models with different combinations between State, market, and academics in the management of higher education institutions in the countries mentioned above. Here is where we have a Brazilian particularity. Within the private sector, business institutions strictly focused on education (with a lack of research and service) and focused on financial results for their owners or shareholders are growing. This fact itself is not a problem, but it arouses research interest. Do students from these institutions have similar results compared to others? What are the working conditions of professors? These companies are recipients of public subsidies, directly through tax breaks if they participate in PROUNI or indirectly, receiving students with student loans, such as FIES. As with any public policy, there must be monitoring and evaluation of the quality of these institutions.

In Brazil, only 25% of young people between 18 and 24 are enrolled in higher education, according to the annual household survey conducted by the Brazilian Census Bureau (IBGE). It is not feasible to increase this number only with public education because it is very expensive. I would add that not every student wants to graduate from these institutions. Many need to study at night and are very concerned about careers connected with the labor market, necessities not always fulfilled by public universities that are very research-oriented. If we agree that the rate mentioned above is low and it is a desirable result to increase it, we have to think about incentivizing the private sector to offer attractive courses and high quality. The subsidy policy (PROUNI) seemed to me to be in the right direction, and there is a discussion going on to change its focus to change its recipients. Previously, only students who attended public high schools could apply for it, but now there is the suggestion that those who studied in private schools would be able also to participate. The type of school – public or private – is an indicator of the student’s socio-economic profile, lower in students from the public sector. Therefore, the changes will bring competition for vacancies currently occupied exclusively by the underprivileged, changing the policy’s distributive profile balance. Regarding the financing policy, FIES, there is a need to reform it and make it sustainable. Its previous design caused a substantial financial loss to the State and indebtedness on students.

Despite your focus on higher education, you have also empirically researched late educational transitions more generally, including data on high school entry and completion alongside statistics on university access. A surprising finding of this study is that, notwithstanding a higher probability of non-whites entering college, it has become less likely for black people and other racial minorities to finish high school when compared to whites and, thus, for these discriminated groups to become eligible for a university spot at all. Could you comment on this conclusion and what it means for university access policies?

In Brazil, secondary school completion rates are meager, but this does not apply equally between social groups. Dropout rates are stratified socioeconomically and racially. That is to say that the population that finishes secondary education has a different racial and socio-economic profile than the general population. On average, the population who has completed secondary education – and therefore is eligible for higher education – is whiter and less poor. In terms of access to higher education, this means that the inequality observed in universities is not only the result of the transition between secondary and higher education but also fed by what happens exclusively during high school. Therefore, although it is necessary to make higher education more attractive for young people, to be genuinely democratic and more egalitarian, it is also necessary to make secondary education trajectories less irregular and reduce dropout rates. Only in this way will it be possible to have a population eligible to attend higher education more diverse and egalitarian from a racial and socio-economic point of view.

Finally, how should we situate discussions on the limitations of educational access policies’ impact on social inequality in the current Brazilian political context, which has seen efforts to dismantle affirmative actions, cut public university budgets, and downsize the loan and scholarship programs instituted in the 2000s and 2010s?

The limits of educational expansion to reduce income inequality pointed out in the article “Educational expansion, inequality, and poverty reduction in Brazil: A simulation study” that I published with Marcelo Medeiros and Rogério Barbosa indicates that education is not a panacea, that is, a medicine that cures all ills. Reducing income inequality involves, for example, fiscal policies (e.g., changes in income tax rates) and the labor market (e.g., minimum wage). On the poverty side, it involves social assistance and direct cash transfers, experiences that had been successful in Brazil but are undergoing transformations. In other words, the inequality reduction is observed in contexts of articulation of different policies, educational policies alone will have a small impact, and I would that a very slow one too, considering it takes a lot of time for people that take advantage of new opportunities to join the labor market and have a sizable impact on any indicator. Educational investments, in my opinion, are a necessary condition for the formation of a more productive workforce and a more diversified economy. We will only be able to bring in more students from different profiles if we give the right incentives, and for that, we need public policies. Any initiative that goes in the opposite direction must be viewed with skepticism. Investments in education have a justification in themselves in terms of them as a right, i.e., as an enabler of freedom and full participation and enjoyment of the world and its possibilities. I would complement this philosophical justification with an economic justification. It is very clear that economic development is currently associated with high technological intensity. There is also a necessary concern with the environment and the impacts of development and its sustainability, which is only feasible with high technological intensity. We will only participate in these trends if we have volume and quality in educational investments. I would add that these investments and their returns should be less unevenly distributed, again with an economic argument. Inequality brings inefficiency. A lot of inequality in educational opportunities reduces competition, and the privileged do not compete with the huge stock of talent available in Brazilian society. It is necessary to remove the barriers so that these talents thrive and have a more equitable and diverse development.


* Julia Maia Goldani is a Ph.D. Candidate in Law and Development at Fundação Getúlio Vargas Law School (Brazil), where she also conducts research at the Center for Racial Justice and Law. She holds an M.A. in Sociology of Law from the University of the Basque Country (Spain), and a B.A. in Law and Social Sciences from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil). Currently, her work focuses on institutional reform, public security policies, and police violence. E-mail: