Higher Education and Affirmative Action: A Comparison between the Policies of Brazil, India, and Malaysia

The US Supreme Court recently made a ruling that effectively overturned university policies on affirmative action in the country. The ruling has ignited a new debate globally about affirmative action programs in general, whether they do an adequate job of equalizing oppressed societal groups, and whether alternative kinds of policies might be preferable.

Although each country has its own particular makeup of ethnic and racial minorities, there are other countries that have their own situations related to minorities and university admissions. In fact, one source estimates that as much as 25% of all the world’s countries have some form of affirmative action policy related to higher education. 

This article will examine the policies in Brazil, India, and Malaysia. Each of these countries has significant minority populations and have had affirmative action policies in place for some number of decades. In each case, there is societal controversy about whether the laws are truly just and whether they should be altered or abolished. We will look at each country separately, what its affirmative action policy entails, and what the arguments are for and against the policy.

US Supreme Court decision in June 2023

Affirmative action was a policy enforced in the US from 1964 (the phrase itself was coined in 1961 as part of the civil rights movement) until it was called into question this year. Although the policy never applied to all higher education institutions, there were many colleges and universities nationwide that actively enforced it. On June 29, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) determined that race can no longer be considered the sole factor in university admissions standards. The stated basis for the decision was that the 14th amendment to the Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, and that affirmative action is ultimately discriminatory. The justices determined that giving unfair advantages to black and Latino students was discriminatory to students of other races, particularly Asians.

affirmative action
Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Thursday, June 29, 2023, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The ruling came about as a result of two cases that had recently been brought before the court, one at Harvard University and the other at University of North Carolina. In both cases, it was determined that the universities’ policies prohibited eligible students of certain races from receiving rightful places in these universities.

Both the SCOTUS itself, as well as public reactions to the ruling have been mixed. Chief Justice John Roberts maintains that there will be other ways for minority students to prove how struggling through race-related problems helped motivate them to succeed, such as writing powerful admissions essays. Other justices disagree: Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that the ruling amounted to a “false promise” to society and that black and Latino students will continue to struggle with admissions..

Recent polls have found that a slight majority of Americans agree with the decision, although the percentages of those who agree and those who disagree are very close. There continues to be a significant debate about the subject, and many people believe that the ruling will widen the gap between left and right in American society.

As a result of the controversy that the ruling brought about, there is increasing discussion in American society about how these policies are handled in other parts of the world that also have historically oppressed minority populations. 

Brazil’s Law of Social Quotas


Brazil presents a complicated picture with regard to its constituent ethnicities. The number of people in the country who identify as white is just under 50%. Those who identify as mulatto are around 43% of the population, with the rest being black, Asian, or indigenous. The percentages of minority groups have been growing in recent years.

Despite the changing demographics, statistics continue to indicate that the white population is far more educated and have much higher salaries than any other group in the country. For this reason, an affirmative action law was enacted in 2012 that intended to give greater opportunities to black and brown students. The law – known as the Law of Social Quotas, or Law 12.711/2012 – stated that an increase of 12.5% of available slots in Brazil’s 59 public universities needed to be reserved for black, brown, and indigenous students each year for four years. 

The law was widely supported by lawmakers, with only one of Brazil’s 81 senators objecting to it. By 2016, the increase in minority allotments amounted to 50% more than before the implementation of the law. This was seen by some as a success for minority students in the country. 

Societal Opinions

Some people in the country maintain that the law is necessary and serves as a way of carrying out justice. Jorge Werthein from the Center for Latin American Studies insisted that the law is necessary as a way of reversing the injustices that have been committed against minority groups throughout Brazil’s history.

However, it has drawn heavy criticism from other parts of Brazilian society. Opponents claim that the policy weakens the quality of the country’s universities in general, and that this exacerbates the already poor standing of the Brazilian education system, which suffers from extremely low rankings at the elementary and high school levels. 

It has been 11 years since the implementation of the law. The current president of the education committee in Brazil’s congress, Kim Kataguiri, said in 2022 that he believes the law should be altered to reflect socioeconomic inequality rather than racial inequality. The law does not sufficiently reflect the fact that there are also poor white people who suffer from the same problems as black, brown, and indigenous people do, he maintains. In his opinion, it is not fair to these poorer white people that minority groups are receiving advantageous placements in universities simply because of their race.

Kataguiri believes that higher education problems stem more from issues related to elementary and high school-level inadequacies in the system. He believes that more funding needs to be allocated to lower-level schools so that students in general are better prepared for university.

Still, there are others that believe the law is necessary and should remain in place, and that it has shown increasingly positive results since the beginning of its implementation. Proponents claim that both low initial enrollment numbers, as well as outside criticism and excessive media attention complicated students’ progress at the beginning.  However, they say, beneficiaries are now largely reaping the rewards that the system has given them and becoming responsible members of society.

There are yet others who believe the law doesn’t go far enough in providing opportunities to minorities. Some think that additional funding needs to be allocated to ensure that minority students actually complete their courses, because the incomes of many of these students’ families are too low for them to maintain their studies throughout the entire duration of their programs. 


India’s Reservation Policy


India has struggled with troubled caste relations ever since it gained independence in 1947. In 1950, the Indian government enacted policies to increase opportunities for lower-caste students to enter university. Specifically, the policies focused on the Dalit (otherwise known as the “untouchable”) caste, which had historically faced the highest levels of discrimination in Indian society. The 1950 law also attempted to give greater opportunities to the country’s indigenous (Adivasi) population. Nationwide, Dalits comprise 25% of the population, and almost 9% are of indigenous heritage Adivasi. 

India has the oldest affirmative action system for university admission in the world. Even before the adoption of the 1950 policy (known locally as the reservation policy), there had been attempts to force Dalit higher education inclusion into the law. In 1850, the Castes Disabilities Removal Act was enacted, which stated that people could not be discriminated against legally because of their caste. However, by the time of independence, Dalits’ educational and professional ranks had still not seen substantial gains. It was clear that officials needed to do more to help increase Dalits’ opportunities.

The first iteration of the post-independence law stated that “Scheduled Castes” (an official term for Dalits) and other “Scheduled Tribes” would receive specific quotas in university admissions. The law also applies to other areas, including public sector employment. The percentage of reserved spaces has changed over time. In 2008, the law was extended to mandate that 22.5% of all places in publicly-funded universities would be reserved for Dalits and indigenous students. 

Societal Opinions

As in the US and other countries where these policies exist, there is a significant debate about whether or not the law should continue. Better-off Hindus argue that the initial policy has already achieved its goal and that the governments’ priority should now be on economic need rather than caste and race. 

The phenomenon of lower-caste people rising in Indian society to levels even beyond some of their higher-caste counterparts is known as the “creamy layer” effect.” The term is used not only in education, but also in the workplace and other parts of society. It is on this basis that higher-caste yet poorer Indians argue that the preferences given to lower-caste people are wrongly based.

There are still others who argue that the policies have not gone far enough in protecting the rights of Dalits and other traditionally oppressed classes. Some people claim that the required quotas have not yet been met, and also that those who do secure a place in a university are unfairly discriminated against once they arrive. 

Proponents of the law also claim that, despite the quotas, the upper echelons of Indian society have not changed their nature substantially since the law started being implemented. The country’s leading CEOs, the media, and other ranks of elite society are still dominated by historically upper-class castes, they claim, and therefore the government needs to make greater efforts to improve the standing of traditionally oppressed peoples.

In response to these continued complaints of discrimination, the Indian University Grants Commission has issued repeated statements urging universities to treat lower-caste students more fairly. Nonetheless, many people claim, the wording of these statements is subjective enough that it allows people to get around the law quite easily. Therefore, the debate continues in Indian society, and reasonable solutions still appear remote.

Malaysia’s Affirmative Action Policy


Malaysia is also a country with a diverse ethnic makeup. With just over 60% of the population being ethnically Malay (the ethnic term is Bumiputera), almost half of the Malaysian population is from a minority group. Approximately 23% are Chinese, and another 7% are Indian, with other groups comprising the remainder of the population. Given these numbers, there has been a lot of controversy about university admissions policies throughout the country’s independent history. Education is just one of several areas in which the government has enacted policies in an attempt to raise the status of the ethnic Malay population vis-a-vis their comparatively more successful Chinese and Indian counterparts.

Since it obtained independence in 1957, Malaysia has had different policies in place that have had the goal of raising the status of its Bumiputera majority. In 1969, following a series of riots between Chinese and Bumiputera, the government enacted what they called the New Economic Policy, which attempted to provide better opportunities to Bumiputera in different spheres. Although the policy did not explicitly state that education quotas would be included, non-Bumiputeras complained that Bumiputeras were de facto getting unfair advantages.

Despite the fact that university admissions was not explicitly stated in the initial New Economic Policy, there have been a series of official steps taken since then to increase enrollment opportunities for Bumiputera students.  In 2019, the Minister of Education made the decision to increase public university enrollment from 25,000 to 40,000 places, and stated that 90% of these additional university slots would be reserved for students of Bumiputera heritage. 

It should be noted that this policy only applies to one of the paths to university admission, what is known as the matriculation program. An additional complication to the quota controversy is that there are two distinct routes that students can choose from as ways of getting into university in the country. One is the matriculation program, and the other is known as the Malaysian Higher School Certificate (STPM) program, which many people consider to be much more difficult

Societal Opinions

Chinese and Indian students are particularly unhappy about the quota system. Many of them claim that they are more highly qualified to enter university, yet they are denied places in favor of Bumiputeras simply because of their race. Also, as in other countries that have affirmative action policies, people who oppose the policy claim that there are needy students of all races, and that the policy would more effectively target the most worthy students if it were based upon socioeconomic standing, rather than race.

Beyond the quotas themselves, many people in Malaysia think that the matriculation and STPM systems themselves are flawed. Lee Hwak Aun from the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute said that there is too much emphasis on rote learning simply for the sake of test taking, and that neither program adequately prepares students for the rigors of university. In order to be truly equitable, both systems need to be overhauled to place more emphasis on critical thinking and communications skills. This could help to equalize the field for high school students in general and lay a more easily measurable basis for university admissions.

Despite differing opinions, officials still maintain that the policy is necessary, and that Bumiputeras would not have a fair chance of being accepted into university and therefore obtaining good jobs if it were abolished. 


The concept of affirmative action is a potentially controversial one by nature. As long as there are race and class discrepancies in any given society, there will continue to be debates about how governments should handle these discrepancies. The countries described in this article are just three examples of similar situations that exist in many different countries. While each country has its own particular issues, the primary arguments both in favor of and against affirmative action have common themes in each place. 

In every case, ethnic and racial compositions are complicated, and therefore the challenge presented to lawmakers is a major one. Debate will certainly continue, but perhaps national leaderships can take lessons from each other as they refine their respective policies.

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