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We are in the midst of the higher education application season in Portugal. For many young people and their families, this is a critical moment that will significantly shape their future prospects. Attending higher education is one of the most crucial tools for guaranteeing equity and social inclusion.

The WYD is over and the Pope will have left an appeal for higher education, saying: "it would be a waste to think of it only as perpetuating the world's current elitist and unequal system, with higher education continuing to be the privilege of the few."

When we talk about elite education, it's natural to immediately think of the American schools that top the world rankings. Schools like Harvard, Yale or Columbia have increased their tuition fees by 1600 per cent in the last five decades. Accessibility isn't just about the cost of attending an elite school, as a child from a household in the 0.1% income percentile is 80 times more likely to get into a top university than a child from the bottom 5th percentile.

The Portuguese context, although different, doesn't seem to be any more inclusive. In the 1990s, I was an association leader and took part in the demonstrations that became known as protests against the payment of tuition fees with an oft-repeated sound bite - "we don't pay" - but in reality our fight was centred on accessibility and greater social inclusion in higher education in Portugal.

At the time, Portuguese families had one of the highest rates of financial effort in Europe to afford higher education. According to Eurydice, we are still among the countries with the highest tuition fees. If you add up the cost of housing, food, transport, books and materials versus the average income of a Portuguese household, it's easy to understand why higher education is still not very inclusive.

It's common to hear universities defending limitations on student admissions. Our numerus clausus system is based on a technique of strategic scarcity. In many circumstances, the places open are not consistent with the country's skills needs. We open courses that are unlikely to be in demand in the market, but we favour others, because we train below the country's needs, creating inequality in access to the labour market.

Education should not be managed as a luxury product, nor as a product of convenience, but needs to be treated as a mechanism for improving the country's social conditions, as it can no longer be the privilege of the few, but rather the right of the many.


Article published in Jornal Económico.

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