BRAZIL: What is holding higher education back?

Brazil presents a paradoxical situation when it comes to higher education and its place in the world. The country has a number of consolidated research centres, both federal and state-owned, produces 2.7% of the world's research - 13th place in a worldwide ranking - and 12,000 PhDs and 41,000 masters students completing programmes every year.

However significant these statistics may be, they are timid when compared to many other countries. Brazil has approximately 1.4 doctors per 1,000 inhabitants aged 25 to 64 years old whereas developed countries have, for example, 23 in Switzerland, 15.4 in Germany, 8.4 in the United States and 6.5 in Canada.

Despite recent efforts to professionalise, expand and widen participation in higher education, Brazil still lacks a significant critical mass of researchers and PhDs and needs to create specific policies that should include attracting talent from around the world.

These deficiencies are more evident in moments of economic growth, when the lack of specialised professionals is most exaggerated. Brazil has a growing unmet demand for engineers, for instance, which is a concern for politicians, educators and those in charge of the private sector.

These challenges for Brazil also reflect problems in the pipeline to higher education. There continue to be large disparities at the elementary and the high school levels with immense regional differences that reflect tremendous economic and social development inequalities.

The country should deal with and present solutions to the lack of space in public universities, in order to increase the number of young people enrolled in higher education, and must thus advance the discussion on the role and participation of private and public institutions in the context of the higher education system.

This topic also has to do with the public funding issue, governance and many other areas of need, so as to make real and significant changes to the existing scenario.

Another issue also needs to be tackled: access to public universities and the diversification of possibilities made available to young people as they complete high school. This debate should include issues related to affirmative action and social inclusion.

Brazil boasts consolidated and leading research and teaching groups, world leaders in many areas as well as specific areas in which the country is a world reference. Moreover, Brazil has developed a complex and comprehensive evaluation system for the undergraduate and graduate levels, regulating the sector as well as providing useful information to universities and programmes seeking self-improvement.

The country has research and innovation funding agencies (using federal and, in some cases, states funds) that guarantee adequate resources to perform top research in any area of knowledge, and that provide resources for infrastructure, equipment and scholarships for undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral researchers.

From this perspective, along with the fact that Brazil has managed to maintain a degree of economic stability and international visibility, there is great potential for the nation to develop policies and programmes to attract talent and make its higher education system more productive.

The following outlines a few specific policy areas and proposed reforms that should be pursued in Brazil to make it a more attractive locale for talented students, faculty and university staff.

Cut bureaucracy and revise visa policies

Bureaucracy is one of the factors hindering the process of internationalisation. A foreigner who comes to live in Brazil faces many obstacles, mainly due to the bureaucracy involved in everything from getting a visa through the federal police office to opening a bank account, renting an apartment and registering at school among other rules and regulations that make it difficult for any foreign national to consider living in Brazil.

Revise national limits on teaching in English

One rarely finds a course offered in English or Spanish in a Brazilian university and the selection of faculty is normally held in Portuguese.

Universities need more flexible academic calendars

Besides the language barrier, Brazil's location in the southern hemisphere poses difficulties. The country operates a different academic calendar to that of the northern hemisphere. Classes usually run from February to June, and from August to December. This creates problems in developing student exchange programmes, and creative solutions must be found to minimise its effects.

Universities must diversify and be less rigid about curricula

The system of credit recognition is extremely slow and rigid. Usually departments rely only on what it is written in the syllabus of a particular course (including number of hours spent in class, specific content and bibliography).

There is almost no flexibility to consider different approaches or content variation, and students (Brazilian and foreigners) risk losing hours of study not recognised for their plan of studies, or even holding a diploma that will not be accepted in Brazil.

University faculty and staff must discuss this issue and establish clear rules and policies regarding the accreditation of prior learning and study completed abroad.

International experience of faculty members

With the rapid growth of undergraduate and graduate education in Brazil, one important drawback is that most of faculty in Brazilian universities do not have international experience. Universities, together with the funding agencies, should develop programmes to stimulate the international experience of academics and undergraduate and graduate students.

Language support

As previously mentioned, the language issue can be an important constraint to internationalising Brazilian universities. Institutions should take an intensive language support approach, both for the foreigners who come to our campuses and for students and faculty who will eventually pursue education and research on an international stage.

In conclusion, the lack of specific policies and guidelines such as those suggested here are hindering the maturation of Brazil's universities.

Brazil has tremendous potential to be competitive for international talent, and to make its universities and society more international in perspective. But to date, there are no federal or state level plans or projects along these lines.

This should be a major concern to all who hold positions of responsibility in the education system, as internationalisation is already happening in many places around the world. The internationalisation movement is growing, and Brazil must actively participate in it to be globally competitive.

* Marcelo Knobel is dean of undergraduate programmes and professor of physics at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp) in Brazil.

* This is an edited version of his paper, "Internationalising Brazil's Universities: Creating coherent national policies must be a priority", published by the Centre for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley.

Marcelo, thanks for this informative article. It is great to see Brazilian higher education making international news! I agree with your views and wish we had a more flexible and open set of policies. I'm a Brazilian and live and work in Australia at the moment. I hold an Australian PhD, which has no value in Brazil, unless I go through a very rigid process of degree recognition, which can be only processed by a federal university with a similar degree.

Unfortunately, I believe Brazilian higher education is a long way away from adhering to the internationalisation movement.

Um abraço

Carina Bossu