Admission to the university was a highly competitive process, although it could be waived if a student obtained a high score in the final examinations from secondary school. Only about 10 percent of college-age students attended one of the country's universities or postsecondary institutes, compared with 50 percent in the United States. Thus, higher education was by no means universal but rather was oriented toward a small elite. This elite, in turn, tended to dominate government, big business, and the professions.
Even before Portugal emerged as an independent country in the twelfth century, it had monastic, cathedral, and parish schools. The education provided by these schools was based on the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, rote memorization, and a deductive system of reasoning. The educational system expanded through the founding of primary and secondary schools in larger settlements and the establishment in 1290 of the University of Coimbra, one of the oldest universities in the world. The system was infused with the principles of authority, hierarchy, and discipline. Although local authorities, both municipal and ecclesiastical, had some say about the management of local schools, officials in Lisbon, most of them clerics, determined the curriculum and selected textbooks and instructors. Education was thus firmly under the control of the church and civil authorities. The introduction of the Inquisition in the 1530s served to further "purify" teaching; in 1555 the Jesuits were given much control over education.
Secondary education was roughly equivalent to junior and senior high schools in the United States. It consisted of three years of a unified course curriculum, followed by a two-year complementary course (tenth and eleventh grades). A twelfth-grade course prepared students to take the university and technical college entrance examinations.
As of the early 1990s, preschool education in Portugal was limited. Most preschools were private, but government regulation and involvement in preschool education was increasing. Primary education consisted of four years in the primary cycle and two years in the preparatory, or second, cycle. Most primary schools were public. For many Portuguese living in rural areas, the primary cycle was the only schooling they received. The preparatory cycle (fifth and sixth grades) was intended mainly for children going on to secondary education. Provision was also made for attendance by older students who might already be working.
Higher education included four older universities (Lisbon, Coimbra, Porto, and the Technical University of Lisbon), as well as six newer universities (Nova University in Lisbon and others in Minho, Aveiro, Évora, in the Algarve, and in the Azores). The university sector also included the private Catholic University and the Free University, both in Lisbon. In addition, there were special postsecondary institutes, schools, and academies such as the Institute of Applied Psychology, the social welfare institutes of Lisbon and Porto, the engineering institutes of Lisbon, Porto, and Coimbra, an agricultural college at Coimbra, technical colleges in Santarém and in the Algarve, and a school of education at Viseu.
The Portuguese educational system is governed by the constitution of 1976. The constitution guarantees the right to create private schools. It proposes to eliminate illiteracy, to provide special education to those children who need it, and to preserve the autonomy of the universities. It guarantees the rights of teachers and students to take part in the democratic administration of the schools. In addition to the constitution, Portuguese education was governed by decree-laws promulgated by the executive branch, some of which dated from the eighteenth century.
A reaction against church- and Jesuit-dominated education set in during the eighteenth century. Reformers such as Luís António Verney sought to infuse Portuguese education with the ideals of the Enlightenment. The reforms were carried out by the Marquês de Pombal, prime minister from 1750 to 1777, who expelled the Jesuits in 1759, created the basis for public and secular primary and secondary schools, introduced vocational training, created hundreds of new teaching posts, added departments of mathematics and natural sciences to the University of Coimbra, and introduced new taxes to pay for these reforms.
Portuguese primary school enrollments were close to 100 percent in the early 1990s, and immense strides had been made in eliminating illiteracy, especially among the young and an estimated literacy rate of 85 percent was achieved among those over age fifteen in 1990. After primary school, however, school enrollments dropped off sharply. Only 30 percent of children attended secondary schools, and only 20 percent were enrolled in the twelfth grade.
The Revolution of 1974 and the overthrow of the Salazar regime disrupted the education system. Students challenged teachers, and all groups challenged administrators. For a time after the revolution, faculty and curriculum were highly politicized as socialist, communist, and other groups vied for control of the schools and the school system. During the 1980s, however, as Portuguese politics quieted and returned to the center, the education system also became less frenetic, greater emphasis was placed on learning, and efforts were made to raise the level of the country's schools closer to that of the rest of Europe.
The Portuguese educational system was highly centralized. Despite some efforts at decentralization in the constitution of 1976, the Ministry of Education and Culture in Lisbon set education policy for the entire nation. Local or regional districts had little independent authority to tax, with the result that funds, curriculum, policy, and other matters were set at the national level.
The faculties had four ranks as of the early 1990s: full professors, associate professors, lecturers, and assistants. Full professors could be appointed directly, or their appointments might come through competitive examinations. Full professors received life appointments; persons of other ranks were under contract. University staffs, including faculty, were part of the civil service and received pay and pensions like other civil servants.
A new vocational education program was introduced in 1983. By the late 1980s, it was training 10,000 to 12,000 young people a year, about 6 to 7 percent of an age group. The program was conceived as a three-year course that would permit students to enter the work force with a set of skills after the eleventh grade.
During the nineteenth century, educational reform was slow and halting. Reforms initiated in 1822, 1835, and 1844 were left uncompleted and largely unimplemented. However, at the beginning of the century, the first schools for girls were opened in Lisbon. Other new schools included the Agricultural Institute, polytechnical schools in Lisbon and Porto, new medical schools in the same two cities, and a new department of liberal arts in Lisbon. The educational system remained highly elitist, however, with illiteracy rates of over 80 percent and higher education reserved for a small percentage of the population. When the First Republic was established in 1910, efforts were made to overcome these problems. New universities were created in Lisbon and Porto, new teacher training colleges were opened, and a separate Ministry of Public Instruction was established. The republican government sought to reduce illiteracy, reintroduce (as with Pombal) a more secular content to education, and to bring more scientific and empirical methods into the curriculum. But these reforms largely stopped when the republic was overthrown in 1926 and the military and Salazar came to power.
As of the early 1990s, Portugal still had an illiteracy rate that ranged between 14 and 20 percent according to various studies and estimates, although many of those who could not read were older people. Another serious problem was low school enrollment after the primary cycle, especially in rural areas, where many children began work at an early age. As of 1987, 87.4 percent of Portuguese completed less than the upper level of secondary school, a rate that had improved only slightly in recent decades, and was much inferior to the EC average of 54 percent. Facilities and equipment at all levels were often outdated and in short supply. Although the number of school teachers had increased greatly in recent years, teachers were poorly paid, and their overall morale was poor. Many specialists held that the curriculum at the secondary level needed to be revised to make it more revelant in preparing young people for their working lives. In addition to more modern facilities, the universities needed to increase their enrollments and support research more strongly.
The average length of study at the university level was five years and led to the awarding of a licentiate, although some schools had two-year programs and others offered a bachelor's degree. Doctorates were awarded in some departments after further advanced studies, an oral examination, and the defense of a thesis.
Salazar authorized the creation of a new technical university in Lisbon in 1930. But for the next three decades, educational innovation lagged, illiteracy remained high, vocational training was almost nonexistent, and Portugal reverted to a situation of quasifeudalism with the most backward economy and education in Western Europe. Only in the mid-1960s did the country make public education available for all children between the ages of six and twelve. The government enacted laws to equalize educational opportunities, but implementation lagged behind. However, more elementary and preparatory schools were opened, and universities were established in Lisbon and other regional centers.
You can read more regarding this subject on the following websites:
Education in Portugal | Aga Khan Development Network
Portugal Country Studies index
Country Studies main page