Imperial Spain and Portugal conquered and developed huge empires. Both monarchies were Catholic and seized huge amounts of land in the 1500s.

Both European motherlands had numerous universities, but their colonies looked less similar. Brazil and the other Portuguese colonies had zero, while about ten Spanish colonies, including Venezuela, Chile, and Bolivia, did have universities, sometimes several. Portugal finally founded universities in some of its remaining colonies in 1962.

What explains the two empires' very different priorities with regard to higher education in their colonies?

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    Note: There are high education at the time provided by jesuits but witohut Portugual approval. The first was the Jusuit College of Salvador, Bahia was founded in 1553, later in XVII century there are many courses like arts, theology, math, etc. The jesuits were expelled in 1759 and the colleges closed.
    – jean
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 19:04
  • Would you please take a look at St. Paul's College, Macau and tell me if it is a university founded by Portuguese in 1500's?
    – Nobody
    Commented Feb 3, 2020 at 7:23
  • @scaaahu As in jean's comment above, this was a Jesuit college. Commented Feb 3, 2020 at 19:31

3 Answers 3



Spanish policy was rooted in the tradition of setting up universities in conquered territories, accompanied by the aim of converting the local people to Catholicism in order to bind them to Spain through religious faith. The Spanish approach was quite different to that of any other European colonial power.

Portuguese policy on education in its colonies is difficult to summarize as it lacked consistency, but the most common theme was that educating local populations would lead to resistance to Portuguese rule. Thus, the few locals who were given an education had to be thoroughly 'indoctrinated' with Portuguese language and culture, something which they felt could only happen in Portugal itself.



The founding of so many universities in their colonies not only set Spain apart from Portugal but also (in most cases) from the other European colonial powers.

Although both Spain and Portugal (usually, but not always) sought to spread their respective languages and cultures in their colonies, the aims were somewhat different. For example, in Mexico,

the Spaniards set out to educate the Indians to help them run the empire.

Source: Cristina González and Funie Hsu, Education and Empire: Colonial Universities in Mexico, India and the United States

Thus, the Spanish saw educating the 'locals' as a way of strengthening their empire. To this end, they set up universities in their colonies. Following the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Muslims, the Spanish had set up universities in towns like Sevilla and Osuna (among others). Thus, the Spanish

were accustomed to providing education to conquered populations, which explains why they were so quick to establish universities in the Americas.

Source: Cristina González and Funie Hsu

This policy was also applied to the Philippines, although (for practical reasons), teaching Spanish was not a priority and most instruction (at least outside of the universities) was via local languages. In the Philippines:

In essence, the Spanish educational system was meant to keep the natives faithful, in order to keep the Church's authority over the lives of the Indios (colonized Filipinos).

The first university in the Philippines was set up in 1611 and others followed. In 1863:

The implementation of [a] Royal Decree made the Philippines ... the first country in Asia which had a free and compulsory form of modern education, 10 years before the implementation in Japan.


the reformed educational system gave Filipinos the opportunity to pursue higher learning, study liberal western ideas and develop valuable leadership skills. This gave birth to select group of enlightened individuals who call themselves as Ilustrados. The Ilustrados played a major role in the Philippine revolution against Spain.

This was precisely what the Portuguese had feared (as noted in the section below).


Although the Portuguese record on establishing universities in their colonies was very poor, the British, French and Dutch were in no position to boast about their achievements either.

The Portuguese, whose education policy was in many ways a 'poor man's' version of French colonial education policy, were wary of creating an educated local elite who might challenge their authority, unless that elite thought the way the Portuguese did. The perceived best way to do this was

the policy of taking Africans to Portugal to be educated there and steeped in Portuguese culture. Jerome Miinzer reports that in Lisbon he saw. . . many negroes, who had been compelled by the King to practice the Christian religion and to learn to read and write Latin. . . . A short time ago the King sent to Sao Tome black priests whom he had had educated, from their childhood, in Lisbon

Source: Eduardo de Sousa Ferreira, Portuguese colonialism in Africa: the end of an era

Although Portuguese policy from the start of the 20th century was 'assimilation to the national culture', in practice it discriminated against local peoples, as it had done pretty much from the beginning. Further, in Brazil at least, the

Portuguese reserved the status of "university" to the University of Coimbra

so anyone wanting a university level education had to do it in Portugal (there is an exception - Macau had a university, established by Jesuits, from 1594 to 1792).

Further, Portugal saw some of its colonies as a way of dealing with widespread poverty back home; thousands of poor Portuguese were employed in the colonies, so there was (in their view) no real need to educate local populations. Even when the Portuguese did eventually give education a higher priority, they struggled to finance it (Portugal was the poorest of the European colonial powers). The limitations of the ambitions of Portuguese education policy are clearly illustrated by the Regulation of 1899

The purpose of Portuguese education in Africa, as outlined in the Regulation of 1899, was to prepare Africans for their future roles as peasants and artisans.

Other sources:

Tang Kwok-Chun & Mark Bray, Colonial models and the evolution of education systems: centralization and decentralization in Hong Kong and Maca


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    An enjoyable answer. Out of curiosity, do the sources go into any detail on the colonies in Angola and Mozambique as regards higher education? I ask because of a study I did a couple of decades ago trying to compare Kenya to those two countries. Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 16:21
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    @KorvinStarmast I was an expat many years in Mozambique a couple of years ago, and a it was common knowledge that many people of Indian/hindu lineage was at the forefront of important positions in most of the important sectors of the society (banking, telecoms, ... ) simply because of the time of the independency there were not that many local people educated capable of assuming those roles. Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 22:05
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    @RuiFRibeiro: If so many "*people of Indian/Hindu lineage *" were well educated relative to Mozambique natives, I guess the British weren't so bad at educating their colonial natives. Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 6:28
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    I don't think Spain was quite as unusual as you assert. The British Empire established nearly 200 universities or colleges of higher education in India.
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 14:37
  • 3
    True, there were many, but it is hard to make a comparison as there were so many differences (e.g. population, ruling authority, the much earlier colonization of Latin America). Also, this was not generally repeated in other areas of the British empire. In truth, Britain falls somewhere between Spain on the one hand, and most other European colonial powers on the other. Commented Nov 29, 2017 at 15:28

Note that Brazil did not have a native population as large as the Spanish colonies did. Brazil had only tribes and neither empires nor large cities before colonization. Thus, I doubt there would have been enough students to create a university during the first centuries of colonization. It would have been more practical to send people to Coimbra

Also, even in Portugal itself, the only true university was Coimbra, up to the XIX or XX centuries, not sure. If not even Lisbon had a university, why would the colonies have one?

I don't remember the source, maybe not so accurate, but here are some population numbers:

  • XVI century: Portugal, 1 million; Brazil, some thousands.

  • 1820, just before independence: Portugal, 3 million; Brazil, 3 million free + 3 million slaves.

How many universities do you expect with a free population of 6 million in the XIX century?


I am unable to say as to why the Portuguese Empire had so few centers of Higher Education, though there are a few historically rooted reasons as to why Higher Education was so valued by the Spanish Empire:

  1. The Reconquest and The Medieval Moorish historical experience: The Spanish Reconquest began around 800 AD/CE approximately 100 years after the Moors conquered most of the Spanish mainland. Although the Moors had conquered Southern, Central and parts of Northeast Spain, they had virtually no colonial influence in the majority of Northern Spain. The Reconquest took nearly 700 years for its completion; from the pastoral Galician landscape, to The Fall of Muslim Granada in the South of Spain in 1492. Throughout the Reconquest period, the Spanish Catholic Christians were, on the one hand, establishing a fervid Catholic Christian national identity, though on the other hand, the Spanish Catholic Christians were also conquering towns and cities with sizable Muslim and Jewish populations, especially in Toledo, Seville and Cordoba-(the centuries old Capital of the Moorish Caliphate). These above mentioned cities had founded centuries old educational and intellectual institutions, such as Schools and Libraries; they were also Centers of Classical Scholarship during the so-called, "Dark Ages". Medieval Spain, was one of the few places on Earth that boasted a type of Enlightenment of the Middle Ages-(with the notable exceptions of Charlemagne's short lived Carolingian Renaissance based in Aachen, Germany, as well as Byzantine Constantinople). When the Spanish Catholic Christians arrived in these above mentioned cities, they began to assimilate themselves into these Castilian and Andalusian cultural institutions. They would advance, cultivate and refine their theological identity, as well as learn mathematics and the sciences necessary for their future vast overseas explorations. In other words, there is a historical link between the educational sophistication of Early Modern Catholic Spain and the earlier presence of Medieval Spanish Moorish and Jewish culture.

  2. The Spanish Empire in the Americas: When the Spanish Catholic Christians arrived in the Americas, they helped found The Mission Churches, which had joint religious and educational roles-(Saint Ignatius of Loyola, was a Spanish Catholic Christian who founded the Jesuit Order). Although the Mission Churches were not the only educational institution within the Spanish Empire, they were quite influential in strengthening the Spanish colonial presence in the Americas-(with blessings from the Papacy) and had also undertaken a systematic policy of converting the First Nations-(including, the Aztecs of Central Mexico, as well as the Incas of Peru), to Catholicism, as well as to forcibly adopt the Spanish language as their new official language. This imperialistic system of widespread religious conversion and language replacement was, for the Spanish Catholic Rulers, a contrived method of educating and in turn, "making" the First Nations, "in their own image". Many-(though by no means all) of the cultural treasures of the First Nations-(including centuries old Aztecan and Mayan texts), were destroyed and at times, literally set ablaze by the Spanish Conquerors and Missionaries. However, from the Spanish colonial perspective, such a fiery destruction and a forced abandonment of the antiquated pagan system of the First Nations would lead to the birth of a more modern, sophisticated, educated, religiously minded, as well as Spanish speaking populace in the Americas.

  • I appreciate the idea of a Semitic educational legacy in Spain and would read a source on this. Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 3:59

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