Education in colonial times was carried on first by the Jesuits and then by a few royal schools. Brazil's public school system, always weak, was under the Ministry of Justice and Interior until 1930, when the Ministry of Education and Health was created by Vargas. Responsibility for public education, as defined by the 1946 constitution and the 1961 directives and standards for national education, is divided between the federal, state, and municipal governments. Public elementary and secondary instruction is almost exclusively a function of the municipalities and states, while higher education is the responsibility of the federal Ministry of Education. Public education is free at all levels and nonprofit private schools also receive public funding. The federal government has been active, however, on all three levels through the Federal Council of Education, established in 1961 to coordinate the implementation of the 1961 directives and to advise the Ministry of Education.
The 1961 directives required the federal government to contribute at least 12% of its tax revenues to education, and state and municipal governments were required to contribute a minimum of 20% of their tax revenues for this purpose. The first National Plan of Education, formulated in 1962, called for the extension of compulsory elementary education to five and, eventually, six years, and by 1980 eight years of schooling was required. The 1988 Brazilian constitution allocates 25% of state and local tax revenues to education. As of 1999, public expenditure on education was estimated at 4.6% of GDP. In 1964 there were 10 million students attending school at all levels. Since then, great strides have been made in the Brazilian system of education. In 1998 there were 35,838,372 students enrolled at the elementary level; 6,967,905 at the secondary level; and 1,868,529 at the university level. As of 1999, 96% of primary-school-age children were enrolled in school, while 69% of those eligible attended secondary school. In the same year, the pupil-teacher ratio at the primary level was 27 to 1 in 1999.
There were more than 90 universities in the 1990s, including the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (founded 1920) and the universities of Minas Gerais (1927), São Paulo (1934), Rio Grande do Sul (1934), Bahia (1946), Recife (1946), Paraná (1946), and Brasília (1961). The federal government maintains at least one federal university in each state. Entrance to a college or university is through an examination called the "vestibular"; students may either earn a "bacharel" degree or, with an additional year spent in teacher training, obtain a "licenciado" degree. There are at least 902 institutions at the post-secondary level.
Adult education campaigns have functioned sporadically since 1933, backed by the federal government with some assistance from social, fraternal, Catholic, Protestant, professional, and commercial organizations. Although millions of Brazilians have received literacy training, adult illiteracy estimates for the year 2000 still stood at 14.7% (males, 14.9%; females, 14.6%), according to estimates by UNESCO.