Europe approaches Brazil for closer collaboration

For the European Union, cooperation with Brazil is not quite the same as cooperation with developing and transition countries has been in past decades. Brazil is a rapidly developing economy with seven million higher education students, and a partner with a huge bag of earmarked funds. Because of this, it can set the tune to a much greater degree than less developed countries.

An EU-Brazil joint seminar on academic mobility, internationalisation and innovation, held at the education ministry in Brazil on 17-18 October, showed that what the Brazilians want more than anything else now is reciprocity.

They do not want to just send students; they want European students at their institutions too.

But reciprocity comes at a steep price. It may not require full harmonisation of degree systems, but it does need at least a functioning system of recognition of foreign academic achievements.

While almost all other forms of quality assurance are heavily centralised in Brazil, the recognition of foreign degrees is not. It is a decentralised and rather laborious affair, and while a number of bilateral ‘sandwich studies’ seem to function quite well, many students have complained about their study periods abroad not being recognised at home.


In essence, if perhaps a bit crudely put, this is no more than the clash of an input-based system and an output-based system.

The duration of studies in Brazil is long, not unlike what it was in many European countries a mere decade ago. As a result, Brazilian institutions are reluctant to accept that a study of shorter duration can lead to the same results.

European higher education on the other hand is increasingly output-based, at least on paper. This means that it is less the duration of studies that matters than the actual results.

Intra-European mobility ran into exactly these problems during the 1980s and early 1990s and the situation only really got resolved as the Bologna principles became commonly adopted.

But so far, Bologna has only been viewed as a stumbling block by the Brazilians, where there seems to be a widespread belief that it was precisely Bologna that has made many of the well-established bilateral agreements with European countries go awry.

Science Without Borders

As a whole, the EU still attracts the majority of Brazilian students abroad. Until a few years ago, their numbers were small. An EU study that took its data from 2008, showed that five years ago a mere 0.4% of Brazilian students studied abroad, while foreign students in Brazil made up only 0.3%.

However, the recent adoption of a more proactive internationalisation policy changed all that. Most notable in this respect is the Science Without Borders programme, which aims to send 100,000 Brazilian students abroad on full grants between 2012 and 2015.

Brazil is not sending students abroad just for the joy of an intercultural experience though.

“We have reached the point where our unemployment figures are so low that we need to increase labour productivity if we want to sustain growth,” Brazilian Education Minister Aloizio Mercadante told European delegates.

“The experience of EU institutions in this is important for us.”

Brazilian investment in education is booming, even by international standards.

A concluding vote is pending in the Brazilian parliament for a new national education plan which is to raise education expenditure as a percentage of GDP to a massive 10%. Another part of the plan is to pump a whole 75% of the revenue of Brazil’s oil adventures in the Atlantic into education.

What collaboration and how?

Also with reference to cooperation with the EU, Mercadante wants no beating about the bush. He told the meeting that he wanted it to end with more than a generic statement.

“We have to produce concrete proposals,” he said.

“How do we want to implement mobility? What kind of research do we want to focus on? What resources are needed?”

The promise of government grants obviously grabs the attention of European and North American universities that have made internationalisation part of their core business in the past two decades.

But while heavy subsidies can grease the machinery, they do not solve some of the considerable hurdles that still thwart closer cooperation with Brazil.

The above-mentioned EU study put these quite neatly in order. Language was the top issue, and indeed, travelling anywhere in Brazil makes it remarkably clear how few people speak even basic English. But the government has recognised this too and has already launched a number of initiatives to improve English proficiency among higher education students.

Credits earned in Europe are poorly recognised in Brazil, except for those earned under bilateral agreements among universities. The same applies to the recognition of entire foreign degrees, with the same exception.

Quality assurance seems a major issue too. In Brazil publication productivity and the less tangible ‘prestige’ seem to be quite decisive factors when it comes to the recognition of foreign degrees.

Finally, Bologna is commonly cited as a hurdle, although much of this seems to be based on misconceptions.

Improving cooperation

This leads us to areas where Europe can do better to improve the cooperation climate.

The most notable is, as always, the very restrictive visa policies of European countries. But Europe could also consider making a concerted effort to better sell Bologna in Brazil even if, according to European Commission officials, this has been attempted before.

Another commonly cited problem for Brazilian students who have studied in Europe seems to be the delay in actually producing the certificates by some European universities.

Finally, the different academic calendars are a problem in most international cooperation between the northern and southern hemispheres, but this is nothing that a bit of goodwill and, most importantly, mutual trust cannot solve.

At the end of the day, it is of course only such trust that can make more open, massive and truly reciprocal mobility a reality.