University of São Paulo: Empathy and prior opinion are crucial for students’ positioning on quotas

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A report by the Federal Government’s Council for Monitoring and Evaluation of Public Policies, published in 2022 , highlights the positive effects of the quota policy since its implementation. The emergence of affirmative actions, which are policies to promote equal opportunities for people hitherto excluded from access to higher education, has been promoting changes in the profile of new entrants.

The positive results of actions such as quotas, among other reasons, served as an incentive for researcher Kênia Eliber Vieira, a biologist by training, to study the subject since her master’s degree. With the guidance of Professor Luciana Maria Caetano, from the Institute of Psychology (IP) at USP, she developed her doctoral thesis entitled Judgment of Justice and Injustice of Quotas at the University: impact of empathy, self-perception and a quota dilemma . The evaluation panel nominated the thesis for the 2023 edition of the Capes de Tese Award.

In the study, Kênia researched the effect that the inclusion of quota students had on the university where she works, the Federal University of Alfenas (Unifal). “I work at Unifal’s Poços de Caldas campus, and here we had no affirmative action prior to the application of the quota law. The campus where I work offers engineering courses, which are historically more elite, so the arrival of these quota students had an impact on the community”, says the researcher to Jornal da USP .

After counting on the participation of Unifal students in the master’s degree, Kênia’s doctoral work expanded the investigation to USP, encompassing federal and state universities. The research is based on three studies, which use different methodologies. “The first is a scope review, in which we wanted to know what experiences these quota students were having at the university. The second is a validation study, and the third we relate to self-perception, empathy, prior opinion and the justice or injustice of the quota system,” she says.

Law n°12,711/2012, popularly known as the Quota Law, establishes that, in federal institutions of higher education linked to the Ministry of Education (MEC), 50% of admission slots are reserved for students who have completed high school. in public schools. Within this percentage, half of the vacancies must also be reserved for low-income students, who have a family income equal to or less than one and a half minimum wage per person.

Furthermore, the law establishes the obligation to reserve places for students self-declared to be black, brown and indigenous, in a proportion that is at least equal to the total number of this population in the region, according to the census by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). In 2016, people with disabilities were also included in the same category of reservation of vacancies.


The life of quota students
The review of scientific articles on the subject was an alternative found during the pandemic, taking advantage of several articles produced with reports from quota students, since it would not be possible to conduct face-to-face interviews. “What I always wanted to do was give them a voice, I even thought about the interview for that very reason. I want to hear, I want to know what they are really experiencing, and that’s exactly what I found in these articles,” he says.

The idea was to present evidence and provide a kind of management tool that helps in verifying the scenario of public universities with the quota policy. For this, 46 articles were selected, published after the implementation of the law, and categorized into four thematic axes: interpersonal relationships, representation, racial identity and the difficulties and facilitators of permanence in the academic environment.

Regarding the difficulties faced, the research identified in the students’ reports that most institutions were not prepared to receive them properly, causing difficulties in permanence. Inflexible curricula are a barrier for working students, who often have to leave the university, and most research grants do not have fairer criteria for distribution, excluding the quota student, who only gets financial aid.

“The workload of the quota student is much greater, he doesn’t have to just go to study. He has to think about the cheapest bus, he has to think about the cheapest food, he has to think about the public notice for social assistance, he has to think about a lot of other things than just the curriculum.”

Violence such as prejudice and racial discrimination, present in society, are also constantly reproduced in university environments, according to studies. Reports from black students for the analyzed articles showed situations in which other students attributed the quota students’ admission to the university only to their ethnic condition, as if quotas were a privilege.

“They still have the issue of prejudice, the issue of not seeing themselves in a white university, where everything that is white is valued. There is even the dialogue of a medical student, who says that people saw him in a lab coat written ‘medicine’ and still asked if he was in social assistance, if he was in nursing. And he said no, that it was written medicine on the lab coat. It’s subtle things like that, which show that it’s not a world to which they belonged”, highlights Kênia.

In her master’s degree, carried out in 2016, Kênia used psychological instruments that are capable of measuring the moral competence of individuals who participated in the research, and investigated their relationship with the judgment of quotas. The so-called Test of Moral Competence is composed of dilemmas, in which the person evaluates a central question and, later, judges questions favorable or not to the initial dilemma. “Morality is a matter of you caring about the other, of you putting the other on that account. Amoral is when you disregard the other,” she explains. When a person manages to reconsider his initial judgment for a social problem, he reaches a higher level of morality.

In the doctorate, the question of judging the justice and injustice of the quota system was made in a similar way. A dilemma regarding admission by quotas to the university was presented, followed by different arguments and problems in favor or against the reservation of places. The objective was to investigate how the level of empathy, self-perception and prior opinions could impact these judgments.

The dilemma presented a situation in which a public school student obtained enough grade to enter the course of his choice, using the quotas. Another competitor, from a private school, was not able to enter the university, as he did not have enough grade to enter due to the wide competition.

Survey participants needed to respond how they judged the situation, on a scale with six options ranging from “totally unfair” to “totally fair”. Then, they had to answer whether they disagreed or agreed with 14 arguments: half in favor and half against the justice of quotas.

In the responses obtained, the previous opinion about the dilemma was the factor that had the greatest impact on the judgment of the questions. Students who already judged the quota system as fair, answered the rest of the questions following this thought. The same happened with students who are against it, and considered the initial dilemma unfair.

“The higher the empathy score, the more they consider the quota system fair.”

Using self-report questionnaires, the empathy of students who participated in the survey was also measured. “Through this instrument, issues of empathic consideration, personal anguish, fantasy, and taking the other’s perspective are measured. When you measure all this, you get a score, which assesses a low or high level of empathy. Empathy is multidimensional,” she says.

In the sample of students who participated in the evaluation, it was possible to identify the characteristics of the groups in favor and against the quotas. The favorable ones were the majority within the sample, representing 89%. The group was made up of younger people, most of them female, with similar numbers among quota entrants and wide competition, who judged the quotas that associate social and racial criteria to be fairer.

In relation to the opposites, about 10% of the sample, the profile is more specific. They are mostly composed of students who entered the broad competition modality in engineering, exact sciences and agricultural science courses, on average older, and male.

In this group, in addition to judging the initial dilemma unfair, the students consider that the fairest admission modality is the only social quota, followed by broad competition, that is, without reservation of places. The racial quota is the one that receives the least acceptance.

“The Quota Law only exists as a result of the struggle of the black movement. It is a political movement, quotas have a social and racial aspect, but it only happened because of the racial struggle, the struggle of the black movement.”

The researcher believes that coexistence with diversity in the university environment can be a determining factor for the acceptance of quotas, which were judged fairer by younger students. “The coexistence in the academic environment with this diversity is perhaps changing these prejudices, these previous opinions. Older people may not have had that opportunity, as the law is from 2012, quite recent,” she says.

Thinking about the prior opinion factor, which showed the greatest impact on the students’ judgment, both in favor and against, Kênia believes that discussions on the subject need to be increasingly frequent. “The more we discuss how much this racial issue impacts existing social inequalities, how much racialized people are underemployed, with lower wages, maybe this way we will be able to break this previous opinion of merit promoted by the entrance by ample competition”, she says. .

The law that instituted the reservation of vacancies in federal institutions provides for a review this year 2022, and although the future of the legislation is uncertain, the researcher believes that universities should not go back. “No one really knows how this review is going to happen. It is too early to eliminate the policy, I think that even if this occurs by force of law, universities will continue to adhere, due to university autonomy”, she emphasizes.

“This study that I carried out was thinking in terms of how to base the activities of permanence that effectively help the policy and improve the life of this student at the university.”

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