Brazil’s doctoral production lessons for Africa

The remarkable achievements of Brazil in PhD training – from 800 to 12,000 doctorates a year in three decades – could provide a model for African countries trying to expand doctoral production. Crucial factors in Brazil were support from the academic community, evaluation “with consequences”, funding and political commitment.

This is according to Professor Renato Janine Ribeiro, a professor of ethnics and political philosophy at the University of São Paulo and former evaluation director at CAPES – the Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education.

He was speaking at a workshop held near Johannesburg recently, hosted by South Africa’s National Research Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, on “Expanding and Sustaining Excellence in Doctoral Programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa: What needs to be done?”

The greatest growth in PhD graduate numbers in Brazil was during the two decades to 2004, when their numbers rose from 800 to 10,000 a year, Ribeiro said, and since then the growth had flattened out – mainly because PhD programmes became “saturated”.

What had driven the rapid growth was “very serious” evaluation by peers and funding from the government.

Today there are 3,000 postgraduate programmes in Brazil, half of which are doctorates and the rest masters. In 2010 there were 12,000 new doctors produced and 41,000 new masters graduates, a ratio of 3.4 masters per doctorate.

Doctorates and masters are integrated in the same system because doctoral programmes are mostly in the state capitals and masters predominate in the hinterland. “If you separate them it would aggravate the problem of the two-tier system,” said Ribeiro.

“If we had placed too much stress on doctorates at the expense of masters, we would have let go a lot of good masters programmes and taken away opportunities for people in the hinterland to have graduate training.”

Evaluation agencies

There are three main evaluation agencies in Brazil dealing with science and research evaluation, two at the federal level and one for the state of São Paulo.

The CNPq – National Council for Scientific and Technological Development – rates individuals or groups conducting research, and CAPES develops and funds graduate programmes. The agency for São Paulo state is called FAPESP – São Paulo Research Foundation – and it too fosters research and scientific and technological development.

CAPES has a board chosen by the government, but has peer committees whose members – leading researchers – are nominated by the provinces and selected by the board.

“The crux of the matter is support from the academic community,” said Ribeiro. This has enabled CAPES to be highly effective – unlike the system evaluating undergraduate studies.

There are three kinds of courses: masters, professional masters and doctorates. “Professional masters are evaluated on their own. We don’t yet have professional doctorates. It is a matter that has been discussed, but we haven’t decided whether this would be good,” Ribeiro said.

Evaluation of masters and PhD programmes is done every three years – there is an evaluation currently underway – in 46 fields of knowledge identified by CAPES. Committees for the fields of knowledge scrutinise a great deal of data, on which evaluation decisions are based.

“There is no reputational survey. Nobody is asked which course he or she thinks is the best. We try to deal with objective data.” While this kind of evaluation is difficult, it is accurate, Ribeiro argued. Frequently there are perceptions of which the top programmes are – but the data reveal otherwise.

“The work of the committees is validated by a council of representatives of all fields.” Each representative has to convince colleagues in the council of the validity of the evaluations of his or her committee.

Programmes are awarded grades from one to seven. Those with very low grades – one or two – “are immediately shut down”, said Ribeiro. Three to five mean regular, good and very good, and six and seven mean excellent and are reserved for doctoral programmes.

To offer PhDs, courses must achieve a grade of at least four. A doctorate usually takes about four years to complete, Ribeiro pointed out, and so if there is any chance that a programme could be shut down in the coming years, it may not offer PhDs.

“There is a ‘solidarity principle’. Evaluation is very competitive, and there is a danger of creating a Hobbesian war of all against all.” Programmes with the highest CAPES grades of six and seven must help other courses that are less successful.

“So for those that consistently achieve the best grades, it is at the expense of cooperation with other programmes. And no programme can get grades six or seven if it has not cooperated with less developed courses.”

Agency funding

Funding via the federal agencies CAPES and CNPq is allocated using three main criteria.

First, funding is linked to the evaluation grade: “Programmes that perform better will get more money,” said Riberio. Another factor is region, with courses in less developed states receiving more funding.

And a third is field of knowledge, with some fields funded more than others according to priorities. “For instance, engineering is very well loved by our government. Philosophy is not so loved.” Funding from the São Paulo agency FAPESP is based mostly on merit.

Most full-time doctoral students receive full scholarships from the government – a measure, along with the strong evaluation agencies, of its commitment.

Many masters students also get scholarships, and there is funding for programmes, for instance for laboratories and libraries. “We are trying to emphasise multi-users, so that resources get used by several groups,” Ribeiro said.

In 2001, there were 80,000 bursaries from the federal agencies for postgraduate students, two-thirds for masters and one-third for PhD students. By 2010 the number of bursaries had doubled to 160,000.

Evaluation with consequences

Evaluation with consequences is key to Brazil’s postgraduate success, said Ribeiro.

The first consequence is funding. “The second consequence is unpopular but it is good – it is closure, with bad programmes shut down. In 2001, 5% of programmes were shut. Three years later it was 3%, and three years later than that it was 1.5%.”

One reason for the drop, Ribeiro explained, is ‘pedagogical visits’ to programmes that are performing badly. The idea is to ascertain the reasons for poor performance and provide advice on how to improve. The same practice is applied to proposed new graduate courses.

“This has been very good, especially for the hinterland. It has been instrumental in raising the number of masters degrees and even of doctoral degree programmes and integrating into the system those who are doing a good job.”

At the undergraduate level, evaluation is done by experts not peers, and is not supported by the academic community. Low-performing courses are warned and there are further evaluations, so it can be two or three years before a course is closed – and sometimes there is action in the courts. “It is a failure of the ministry of education not to have dealt with this.”

Evaluation concerns graduate studies programmes, not research groups. “Research groups that do not educate masters or doctors are more or less discouraged in Brazil. The feeling is that research programmes perform better if they are educating new people.”

The main criterion in evaluation is research quality as transmitted to the student. Others are the ‘impact factor’ of publications in journals, degrees awarded and their quality, and publication of theses and dissertations including where they are published. Emphasis is also placed on the quality and distribution of supervisors.

In Brazil, periodicals matter and so a local system called Qualis has been developed: a group of scholars meet for a week and rate all periodicals in their field, enabling a local ‘impact factor’. Since 2007 there have been attempts to develop a Qualis for books, which are essential to the humanities, and also to have a Qualis for patents.

“The idea is that we should not impose on people how they should produce. We should try to understand how people produce and then evaluate it according to the best criteria in the field,” said Ribeiro.

Since 2005, it has become obligatory to publish all theses and dissertations on the Web, if they are not published in a periodical or as a book. “A lot of knowledge that has been funded by society is thus available to those who have paid for or are interested in it.

“There is an additional effect. If degrees have been awarded to those who do not deserve it, it is shown. If there is plagiarism, it is shown. If there is non-original work, it is shown,” said Ribeiro.

So Brazil has not only succeeded in radically increasing the number of PhD degrees it produces – at the same time, and as importantly, the country has achieved this while maintaining doctoral quality.