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The Portuguese Republic, otherwise known as simply Portugal, is a sovereign nation situated on the Iberian Peninsula in the southwest portion of the European continent.  Home to approximately 11 million permanent residents as of the last census, the country is fairly homogenous in terms of population, with approximately 97 percent of the population self-identifying as native Portuguese citizens.  From a geographic standpoint, Portugal is Europe’s westernmost country and encompasses an area of roughly 35,500 square miles (92,000 sq. km).  Its borders are formed by the Atlantic Ocean and the nation of Spain, respectively located to the country’s south and west, and to its north and east.  Portugal’s territory also includes the archipelagos known as Madeira and Azores, located to its west in the Atlantic Ocean.  The capital and largest city in Portugal is Lisbon, considered the country’s cultural, economical and political hub for most of its long history.

Portugal has developed a specific culture while being influenced by various civilizations that have crossed the Mediterranean and the European continent, or were introduced when it played an active role during the Age of Discovery. In the decades of the 1990s and 2000s, Portugal modernized many of its public cultural facilities, including the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, which was initially established in 1956 in Lisbon.  Other centers that received facelifts include the Belém Cultural Centre in Lisbon, Serralves Foundation and the Casa da Música, both in the city of Porto, as well as new public cultural facilities like municipal libraries and concert halls that were built or renovated in many municipalities across the country. Portugal is home to fifteen UNESCO World Heritage Sites, ranking it 8th in Europe and 17th in the world in that category.

The Portugal of today is a very modern and highly developed country that is consistently ranked high for its citizens’ quality of life.  Much of this success can be attributed to the country’s dedication to the field of education, including higher education, a system that consistently produces highly-trained and knowledgeable graduates who are poised to lead the country into the future.

Education System in Portugal

The educational system in Portugal is multifaceted, consisting of a number of different levels, stages, and institution types.  Currently, pre-university/pre-tertiary education in the country is free at all public or state-run institutions and mandatory for all children between the ages of 6 and 18—the age in which students finish their final year of secondary education.

The system of education is divided between pre-primary education, basic education, higher secondary education and post-secondary or higher education.

Pre-Primary Education

Pre-primary education in Portugal, while not mandatory, is provided both publicly and privately for children between the ages of 3 and 5.  The main goal of the various institutions that provide this education is to prepare students for their first year of basic school at age six.  Students learn pre-reading, writing, and basic arithmetic skills, art, music and physical education.  The great part about pre-primary education is it allows students the opportunity to socialize and practice working cooperatively with other children—skills that will be necessary for their success during the next stage of education.

Basic Education

Basic education, known locally in Portugal as Ensino Basico, typically begins at age six and culminates at age 14 or 15.  Basic education is further subdivided into three stages, the first two of which are equivalent to the primary system of education in other countries; and the final stage equivalent to the lower secondary, middle school, or junior high school level in countries like the United States and Canada.

The first cycle of Basic Education spans four years in duration and serves children between the ages of 6 and 10.  The second cycle spans two years, serving children 10-12 years of age, while the third and final stage of basic education lasts three years, for children between the ages of 12 and 15.  Upon completion of Basic Education, all students are awarded a Diploma or Certificado, a prerequisite for admission into higher secondary education.

Secondary Education

Secondary education in Portugal spans three years, serving students between the ages of 15 and 18.  Students have three options when it comes to the type of secondary schooling they will receive:   academic, professional or technical/vocational.

The academic program is for students who intend to continue their studies at the university level.  Institutions that offer these programs are known as Escola Secundaria.  Students who successfully complete the coursework of the academic program are awarded the Diploma de Ensino Secundário, which qualifies them to apply for university admission.

The professional secondary program, which also spans three years in duration, is aimed at preparing students for further education and training leading to professional careers.  Students who successfully complete this program are granted the Diploma de Formação Profissional de Nivel III and Diploma de Estudios Profissionais

Finally, the technical/vocational secondary program is aimed at students looking to pursue an entry level position immediately following their secondary school training.  Programs offered here include many of the trades, in addition to advanced courses in areas such as computers, electronics and information technology.  Students who successfully complete this program are awarded the Diploma de Ensino Secundário, Certificado de Qualificação Profissional de Nível III for their efforts.

Higher Education in Portugal

Currently, higher education in Portugal is divided into two subsystems: university education and non-university higher education (polytechnic education), and it is provided in public and  private universities and non-university higher education institutions (both public and private).The Portuguese Catholic University was instituted by decree of the Holy See and is recognized by the State of Portugal. Private higher education institutions cannot operate if they are not recognized by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. Access is regulated by the same procedures as those for state higher education institutions. The two systems of higher education (university and polytechnic) are linked and it is possible to transfer from one to the other. It is also possible to transfer from a public institution to a private one and vice-versa.

The education offered in the Polytechnics in Portugal is largely vocational and technical, leading to a variety of diplomas and certifications.  Some programs also offer undergraduate and graduate degrees, particularly those that deal with more advanced technical education and training.

The universities in Portugal have recently adapted their credit and degree structure in accordance with the Bologna Process.  This educational reform measure is designed to standardize the credit and degree structure at universities throughout the European Union as a way to facilitate student transfer between member universities.  As a result of these changes, Portuguese universities now offer undergraduate (Bachelor), graduate (Master’s) and post-graduate (Doctorate) degrees in a wide variety of subject areas and disciplines.  Generally, the Bachelor degree programs span three years in duration, while the Master’s degree programs span an additional two years.  Exceptional students are free to apply to one of the country’s doctorate or PhD programs, which, upon acceptance, will take them three to five years to complete.

The academic year in Portugal’s higher education institutions runs from September to July and is split up into two semesters. 

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