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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Higher education


7.Higher education

Last update: 7 February 2024

Main objectives and current policies 

Investment in higher education is envisaged as a collective project for the future of the country, essential to improve the Portuguese population’s skills to the level of the most developed European countries.

Such measures include:

  • the promotion of vocational and technical higher education courses (cursos técnicos superiores profissionais - CTeSP), which correspond to a short cycle linked to a first cycle of the Bologna Process), offered by the polytechnic higher education institutions (HEIs), and the redefinition of graduate admission criteria for first cycle courses.
  • broadening the student recruitment base in the higher education access system.
  • the development of a mechanism that supports the inclusion of refugees with the aid of higher education institutions.
  • the implementation of a National Policy of Open Science that focusses on public and open access to scientific publications and data resulting from research financed by public funding.
  • the approval of a Scientific Employment Stimulus Programme, including the phased replacement of post-doc scholarships with employment contracts and the rejuvenation of research staff.
  • as part of the strategy to improve qualifications and scientific development in the area of health, the creation of:
    • ​a National Council of Clinical Academic Centres to stimulate and support the coordinated development of their work.
    • a working group to design a development plan for clinical and translational research, as well as biomedical research, including the creation of a Clinical Research and Biomedical Innovation Agency.
  • the support and creation of consortiums in several fields via cooperation between higher education institutions, research units and public laboratories.
  • the launch of “Public Participation Laboratories” initiative, in close cooperation with the National Agency for Scientific and Technological Culture, Ciência Viva.
  • the restructuring of assessment methodology used for R&D units. The Evaluation of Science and Technology working group was created for this purpose, identifying guidelines to be adopted by the Science and Technology Foundation assessment programme (principles and good practices).
  • the launch of a plan to rationalise administrative, reduce bureaucracy and simplify procedures in all R&D and higher education institutions.
  • the joint effort to launch a “Knowledge for Development Initiative”, which is in the process of rebooting “GLOBAL Science”. This programme facilitates national involvement in boosting the skills of researchers from Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa.

Organization of the higher education system

Portuguese higher education includes the university and polytechnic systems.

The  Education Act (Law No. 46/86, 14 October), amended by Laws 115/97, 19 September49/2005, 30 August and 85/2009, 27 August, establishes, via the 2005 amendment, the adoption of the three study cycle model that leads to three types of academic degrees:

  • Bachelor’s degree (Licenciatura) - 1st cycle degree programme
  • Master’s degree (Mestrado) - 2nd cycle degree programme
  • Doctorate (Doutoramento) - 3rd cycle degree programme).

It also establishes the need to create conditions that provides access to lifelong learning for all citizens.

In pursuit of those goals, the legal system for higher education degrees and diplomas was approved via Decree-Law No 74/2006, 24 March, and later amended by Decrees-Law No 107/2008, 25 June, No 230/2009, 14 September and No 115/2013, 7 August.

The adoption of tools for the creation of the European Higher Education Area, in particular the ECTS credit system and the Diploma Supplement, had been established with the approval of Decree-Law No 42/2005, 22 February, later amended by Decree Law No 107/2008, 25 June.

According to this legislation, the academic year can be organised into years, semesters, terms or another form.

In any of these cases, a full-time academic year is between 1,500 and 1,680 hours, which is the equivalent to between 36 and 40 weeks.

Institutions are autonomous and decide all teaching and holiday periods.

Typically, the first semester begins in the second or third week of September and ends in the second or third week of December; the second semester starts in the second week of February and finishes at the end of May with a two-to four-day interruption for Carnival (usually at the end of February) and a one-week interruption for Easter (mid-April).The assessment calendar is set by the responsible legal body provided for in the statutes, after consultation with the scientific or technical-scientific council and the pedagogical council. Normally there are two examinations periods:

- the first between the end of December and the first week of February.

- the second between the beginning of June and the end of July.

As a complement to Decree-Law No 74/2006, the Agency for Assessment and Accreditation of Higher Education (Agência de Avaliação e Acreditação do Ensino Superior - A3ES) was created via Decree-Law No 369/2007, 5 November and is an independent body responsible for assessing and accrediting higher education institutions and their study cycles as part of higher education quality assurance system.

The legal framework for higher education assessment applied by the A3ES is approved by Law No 38/2007, 16 August.

The study cycles leading to academic degrees lacks accreditation by the Agency for Assessment and Accreditation of Higher Education and subsequent registration with the Directorate General for Higher Education. This registration implies general validity of the degree(s) granted.

Law No 62/2007, 10 September, establishes the legal framework for higher education institutions, regulating their creation, duties and organization, the operation and responsibilities of their different bodies and even the overseeing and supervision by the state, as part of its autonomy.

The general access and enrolment system in higher education is established by Decree-Law No 296-A/98, 25 September, in the wording of Decree-Law No 90/2008, 30 May, amended by Declaration of Rectification No 32-C / 2008, 16 June.

There are special enrolment processes regulated by Decree-Law No 113/2014, 16 July, amended by Decree-Law No 63/2016, 13 September, which are designed for candidates with particular academic achievement profiles, such as:

• Students who have passed exams ministered to assess the ability to attend higher education of those students over 23.

• Holders of a technological specialisation diploma.

• Holders of a Technical Higher Education diploma.

• Holders of other higher education qualifications.

Decree-Law No 11/2020, 2 April, created the special application system for higher education for holders of dual certification courses in upper secondary education and specialised artistic courses.

The special application is voluntary and available to higher education institutions, universities and polytechnics, which can now provide a new entrance route to first cycle degrees and integrated master’s, matching specific skills of graduates of the educational and training provision covered by this decree law.

All students, including those on vocationally oriented courses, can apply for the National Access Application for all courses. In these cases, students can take the national final exams they choose as entrance exams for higher education, when they intend to enter study cycles that are only entered via the appropriate routes for students with science-humanities education.

Law No 37/2003, 22 August, establishes the funding basis of higher education, which is based in a three-way relationship between the state and HEIs, students and HEIs, and the state and students. This law was amended by Law No 49/2005, 30 August, by Law No 62/2007, 10 September, by Law No 7-A/2016, 30 March, by Law No 42/2016, 28 December, by Law No 68/2017, 9 August, by Law No 114/2017, 29 December, and by Law No 75/2019, 2 September.

As part of the amendment of Decree-Law No 74/2006, 24 March, by Decree-Law No 63/2016, 13 September, the rules governing vocational and technical higher education were incorporated into the legal framework for higher education degrees and diplomas. This is because the technical higher education diploma granted by these courses is a higher education diploma.

In February 2023, the 23rd Constitutional Government revised the higher education access system, employing a process of reflection and public discussion between the education and higher education ministerial departments.

For further information about ongoing reforms in higher education see Subchapter 14.4 National Reforms in Higher Education.

Foreign student statute

International students can access undergraduate studies and integrated Master’s studies  through a special access application (Decree-Law No 36/2014, 10 March, amended and republished by Decree-Law No 62/2018, 6 August).

The current International Student Statute, which facilitates access to Portuguese higher education for foreign students, enables HEIs to charge fees above the threshold fixed by law for Portuguese students.

These students will be admitted exclusively through the above-mentioned special application. Candidates can apply if they have a diploma that allows access to higher education in the country where it was obtained, or if they have completed Portuguese upper secondary education or an equivalent study cycle.

Students admitted in this new application will not be considered for state higher education funding. However, in accordance with the laws governing the financing of higher education, state institutions may set different fees, taking into account the actual cost of the training course.

The approval of this legislation does not affect the special arrangements for access and admission to higher education for scholarship students from African Portuguese-speaking countries, within the framework of cooperation agreements signed by the Portuguese State.

It is important to note that this legislation is part of the strategy of internationalization of higher education.

For further information about ongoing reforms on Higher Education see Subchapter 14.4 National Reforms in Higher Education.