BRAZIL: Study-abroad initiative needs careful study

Brazil has just launched a programme to dramatically increase the number of Brazilian students abroad. Although it draws on public financial resources, no one really knows if the ambitious quantitative goals can be reached.

Just a few days after the official visit of US President Barack Obama to Brazil in March 2011, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff announced that it was a top priority of the government to send at least 75,000 university students to spend a period in US higher education institutions. Today, it is estimated that there are around 8,800 Brazilians enrolled in American campuses, the 14th largest foreign student group.

Although the statement was made with considerable fanfare, it was given without further details. Also, the speech mentioned this kind of programme's importance for the hard sciences and technological programmes, mainly engineering, in order to allow the country to have a more qualified workforce in these strategic areas.

After the announcement Brazilian research agencies struggled to design the plan, now called Science without Borders, launched officially in July 2011.

The final programme includes not only the United States, but also other countries. The Brazilian government claims that it will look for private sponsors to pay tuition and fees to partner universities.

The plan includes undergraduate students (around 35% of the scholarships), PhD students (46% of the scholarships), and also fellowships for postdoctoral and senior researchers. The total budget for a period of four years is estimated to be around US$2 billion.

It is clear that the intentions of the Science without Borders programme are significant; and clearly some international experience should become a fundamental part of higher education, especially for a country like Brazil, with its increasing engagement in the international arena. Providing students with the possibility of an international experience is considered to be an effective strategy - from a geopolitical perspective as well as the academic viewpoint.

Higher education in Brazil

Brazil has a population of 195 million inhabitants. It has a quite diverse higher education system, with a relatively small number of public (federal, state or municipal) research universities and a large number of private institutions, both philanthropic-confessional and for-profit.

Approximately six million students have enrolled in undergraduate programmes around the country, with 77% of those in private institutions. There are a number of consolidated research centres (federal and state-owned), which granted 12,000 PhDs and 41,000 masters degrees in 2010.

The consolidation of the graduate system during the 1970s and 1980s included a systematic effort to finance graduate and postdoctoral studies in other countries. A large proportion of the participants in those programmes returned to Brazil and helped to qualify the higher education institutions and budding graduate programmes in the country, particularly in public universities.

After this initial period, federal policies changed to strengthen the different programmes within the country, drastically reducing the number of fellowships to send students abroad. Such policies resulted in a decrease in the international experience of faculty in research-intensive universities. Thus, the proposed initiative discussed here reveals the reversal of current federal policies toward the graduate education sector.

Comparison with the US intiative to China

This programme is certainly related to the so-called '100,000 Strong Initiative', considered to be a key component of the Obama administration's foreign policy agenda. Thus, there would be a coordinated effort designed to increase dramatically the number and diversify the composition of American students studying in China.

Similar to the Brazilian case, this initiative is tempered by serious concerns about the achievability of such an ambitious target. However, contrary to the Brazilian case, the Obama administration is putting forward a challenge but no cash, claiming that financial support for the effort is required from private sources.

Challenges, priorities and criticisms

The main challenges in Brazil are of another nature, related to the number of qualified students able to undertake academic study in foreign universities. Considering the quality and leadership of the US higher education sector, for example, it is fair to suppose that any good student at a high-quality university would consider applying for a 'bridge scholarship' given by the Brazilian government.

Nobody really understands how this 'magic' number of 75,000 students was set as a goal. In 2009, approximately 58,000 PhD students and 104,000 masters students were enrolled in Brazilian universities in all fields of knowledge. Only 20 institutions granted more than 100 PhD titles in 2009.

Considering these numbers, it is clear why undergraduate students and postdocs must also participate in the programme. The challenge will be to verify whether there are enough qualified students, with minimum language requirements, capable and willing to travel abroad and study in top world universities.

The programme focuses mainly on health and life sciences and on the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), with an emphasis on engineering. It is well known that engineering and basic science education (both in number and quality) are considered to be among the main constraints to the immediate and future development of Brazilian society, and certainly a programme centred in these fields is an urgent necessity.

On the other hand, it would be interesting to extend the programme to other fields of knowledge in the near future.

From the point of view of the partner countries, the programme has already received some criticism, mainly in the United Kingdom, where a recent £200 million cut in state funding for higher education was made by the government.

It is expected that Brazilians would not attain places otherwise available to British and European Union students. Nonetheless, concerns were raised that the UK government's funding model for higher education is becoming increasingly reliant on attracting overseas nationals who, if born in the United Kingdom, might have struggled to become a regular student at a university there.

Also, long-term partners such as Portugal were almost completely excluded, at least in this initial stage of the programme, causing some negative reactions.

Finally, one of the most important criticisms regarding the programme is its unilateral character. It should be a real exchange programme, with reciprocity from the counterpart university to support and stimulate their students to perform academic study in Brazil. This would be extremely beneficial to Brazilian universities to boost their incipient internationalisation process.

Considering the total budget of the programme, the issue of further planning and discussions in regard to priorities for spending public money in overseas universities becomes even more important.

The main stakeholders assume that a programme like this needs further discussion and should be based on solid studies that constitute higher education policy, goals and priorities, taking into account the reality of the current Brazilian education scenario and the globalised higher education sector.

* Marcelo Knobel is dean of undergraduate programmes at Universidade Estadual de Campinas (University of Campinas) in Brazil.

* This is an edited version of his article, "Brazil Seeks Academic Boost by Sending Students Abroad", which appears in the current edition of International Higher Education, published by the Boston College Center for International Higher Education.