Portuguese education — what’s going on?

 In Education, Management styles, News

Portugal’s education system is broken, out-of-date and not fit for purpose to meet the technology challenges of a world in which AI, Automation, Digitisation, Coding, Blockchain, Robotics and Cybertechnology are transforming our lives and will dominate the workplace. At the Global Economy Conference organised by the American Club of Lisbon last week, educational expert, Pedro Santa Clara explained why.

Text: Chris Graeme; Photos Chris Graeme

Education in Portugal has gone though a great transformation over the past four decades. At the beginning of the 1980s only 6.4% of the population over 15 years old had completed secondary education.

The average number of school years completed in the Portuguese population was just five. In 2022, 44% of the population between 25-34 years have a university degree, slightly higher than the EU average which is 42%. “This is nothing short of amazing” admits educationalist Pedro Santa Clara.

“The puzzle is that we don’t see this increase in education translating into productivity numbers. Over the past two decades since 2000, Portugal’s productivity only grew by a dismal 7% and GDP increased by only 10% which is appalling”.

Even more puzzling, he says, is that over the past two decades the highest increases in salaries were among the least educated in the Portuguese population because successive governments have increased the minimum wage.

And workers with higher education degrees, he points out, have suffered a real salary reduction of 7.7% in Portugal between 2006 and 2020.

In other words, Portugal has gone from being a low education country at the start of the 1980s to a high education country within the span of 40 years, yet there had not been a corresponding increase in company productivity, GDP growth, or the salaries of qualified workers. “There has got to be a problem here,” he admits.

Expensive and elitist education

Pedro Santa Clara says the first problem is that education in Portugal is expensive. In the public schools system it costs between €6,000-€8,000 to educate a student from the 1-12 mandatory grades per annum. Totting that up, educating a pupil in Portugal costs around €100,000. “It’s actually more expensive that most private schools, with the exception of the international schools.”

Education in Portugal, apart from being very expensive, is also very elitist. From the age of 15 there is a two-year school gap between the 25% of the population that is wealthiest, that has the highest incomes, and the 25% of the poorest. By comparison, in the UK it would be one year.

What that means is children from disadvantaged households tend to do worse at school. This is not surprising, but the magnitude of this disadvantage gap in Portugal, twice the gap in the UK, hardly a country seen for equality and levelling up in education terms, is

And although 50% of young people go on to university or higher education, if the pupil comes from the poorest section of society, particularly those families where the parents did not go to university themselves, the figure is only 10%.

“Our social elevator is broken and has stopped between the ground and first floor, and this should be a cause for concern,”

Huge drop-out rates

Portugal’s universities suffer from huge drop-out rates, even at those universities that have very high GPAs* (*The Grade Point Average is a calculation of average grade or result. This can be calculated on a yearly basis, or for a course as a whole. It is calculated on the following basis: Each result is assigned a number known as the grade point).

“At the entrance level, it is not uncommon to have drop-out rates of 40-50%. This is incompetence, yet some very famous universities seem to pride themselves on it because they say their standards are so high that half of the students give up,” says Pedro Santa Clara.

It is true that Portugal is fortunate in having close to full employment, with unemployment at just 6-7%; one of the best rates for many years. However, youth unemployment is still above 20%. This means the highest and best educated generation of young people in Portugal’s history suffers from a 20% unemployment rate.

About 55,000 students graduate from Portuguese universities and higher education establishments per year, but 23,000 graduates (40%) leave Portugal to take up jobs overseas that offer better pay, conditions and opportunities for career growth. “This really is appalling and is a sign of despair”, says Santa Clara.

And continues: “Portuguese workers are much more productive working in foreign countries and in foreign companies than they are in Portugal and even when working for foreign companies in Portugal”. The question is why?

Education system stuck in the 19th century

Clara says there is something wrong with the way Portuguese companies are run and their management structure partly because the mangers in Portuguese companies are much less educated than the staff they employ. “We need a change of generation to improve the way management functions and the way work is organised in our companies”.

While it may take a few years to change, the most important reforms need to be at an educational level. Clara says that Portugal is still stuck in an educational model that dates from the late 18th century and influenced by the Prussian system.

The Prussian education system was the system of education established in Prussia as a result of educational reforms in the late 18th and early 19th century, which has had widespread influence since. It remained an important consideration in accounting for modern nation-building projects and their consequences. In Portugal this was mingled with the Jesuit schools education philosophy.

“It means the students go from class to class, to different subjects, and are lectured to, the only problem with this system is that over 90% of what is taught is not remembered and this is horrible from a pedagogic point of view, but we’ve known it isn’t fit for purpose today for a long time,” explains Pedro Santa Clara.

The Swiss educational psychologist and cognitive development pioneer Jean Piaget realised 100 years ago that children’s intelligence undergoes changes as they grow. Cognitive development in children is not only related to acquiring knowledge, children need to build or develop a mental model of their surrounding world. (Miller, 2011)

“Sitting in on a class is the most inefficient use of educational time with the typical retention rate of about 5%. In other words, if someone asks the student one week after the class what they leaned, he or she will remember (almost) nothing.”

42 Project & TUMO

The good news is that things are changing and Pedro Santa Clara points to the success of the 42 projects in Lisbon and Porto which he has been involved in setting up in Portugal and heads in Porto. The project in Lisbon is sponsored by Vanguard Properties, the largest luxury residential developer in Portugal.

Founded in Paris in 2013, today 42 has more than 15.000 students in 25 countries, and is recognised as one of the best coding schools worldwide.

Learning at 42 is entirely free of charge and doesn’t require any academic degree or coding experience. You only have to be at least 17 years old to apply.

The school’s practical approach, based on peer-to-peer collaboration, guarantees both excellent technical training and the development of valuable soft skills, such as the ability to work in teams, problem-solving, adaptation, determination, and resilience.

Pedro Santa Clara is also involved in other new projects including as the director of the TUMO Centre for Creative Technologies in Coimbra which is a free-of-charge educational program that puts teens in charge of their own learning and comprises self-learning activities, workshops and project labs that revolve around 14 learning targets. There are plans to eventually expand the number of TUMO centres to other Portuguese cities.

“Our goal for the project is equip young people to better deal with the challenges and opportunities of the world of work and living in society. At TUMO Coimbra we have 1,500 young people signed up between 12-18 years that will acquired skills in eight theme areas which interlink technology and creativity: 3D Modelling, Animation, Games Developing, Programming, Music, Graphic Design, Cinema and Robotics”, concludes the education specialist and economist.

Images: L-R: Jorge Botelho, Head of Asset Management (BBVA), Isabel Ucha, CEO Euronext Portugal, Patrick Siegler-Lathrop, and Pedro Santos Clara, Director 42 and TUMO.