Brazil’s academic capitalism vs Venezuela’s populism

Latin America is beginning to fall into two distinct higher education camps, with some countries pursuing ‘academic capitalism’ – including collaborations with rich countries of the North rather than within the region – and other countries preferring a more populist route, an international higher education conference heard this week.

Orlando Albornoz of Universidad Central de Venezuela described Latin America as divided into nations following academic capitalism such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay, versus those preferring academic populism: Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

In a provocative speech at the British Council’s Going Global 2013 conference in Dubai from 4-6 March, Albornoz criticised Brazil in particular for following the academic capitalism path and as being “a good example of what should not be done”.

As the leading country in Latin America, Brazil was not looking to the region for collaboration, but was pandering to the North with its Science Without Borders initiative. And Albornoz slated Brazil for not opening up to academics from other Latin American countries.

The Brazilian government’s four-year Science Without Borders initiative – also known as the Brazil Scientific Mobility Programme – will fund 101,000 scholarships for Brazilian students to study at top institutions overseas.

So far the leading destination is the US, which has taken 5,028 students, ahead of Portugal with 2,935, France with 2,692 and Spain with 2,464. Canada, UK and Germany follow.

A minority of awards – around 1,500 so far – are to bring students and scientists from other countries to Brazilian universities.


Albornoz also citicised the inward-looking ‘academic populists’, whom he characterised as militarised, local and doctrinaire.

“It is a different vision and we can’t criticise the anti-imperialism and anti-North Americanisation of these countries. It is a reality.”

He said Venezuela’s higher education institutions had eschewed collaboration with US and European universities, concentrating on links with Cuba.

Research universities were not given funds, and doctoral degrees were not regarded as important. Albornoz quoted the country’s late leader Hugo Chavez as saying: “We don’t need doctors in Venezuela because the know-how is in the people.”

He said Chavez was leaving a “negative legacy” for higher education, and added that it was vital for Venezuelan universities to engage with international universities. “We cannot live without contact with other leading universities,” he said.

Brazil’s path

Glaucius Oliva, a professor of physics at Brazil's São Carlos University of São Paulo and president of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development in the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, refuted the suggestion that Brazil was ignoring Latin America in favour of the North.

A quick search of his database of 2.8 million scientists in Brazil found 2,500 academics from other Latin American countries, including 200 from Venezuela and 1,200 from Argentina.

“My agency has a special programme where we fund research projects for Latin American countries, as long as they have a collaboration with Brazil.” This initiative was funded to the tune of around US$5 million, he added.

José Celso Freire, head of the international office at Brazil’s University of São Paulo, said Brazil wanted to be recognised for more than “carnival and football”, and for the academic excellence of its higher education. It wanted world-class universities.

Under the Science Without Borders initiative, by 15 February some 15,141 scholarships had been granted to undergraduates, 3,738 to students on joint PhD programmes, 825 to those pursuing full PhDs, 2,342 for postdoctoral students and 600 for young researchers.

But Freire admitted that a lack of places in world-class universities abroad meant that “some of our top students were sent to not-so-good universities”.

Leandro Tessler, advisor to the rector at Universidade Estadual de Campinas in Brazil, also rebuffed the attack. “It is not true we are turning our back on Latin America.” Brazil was about to receive a delegation from 73 Colombian institutions. His university had more than 20 graduate students from that country.

“Science Without Borders has made such a splash that people think we are only thinking about the North,” said Tessler. “That is not the case.”