Building on Brazilian scientific mobility momentum

Something happened in 2011 that made Brazil a priority for student exchange for American higher education institutions. Suddenly there was an unprecedented interest in cooperating with Brazil. Some Brazilian institutions started to receive up to a dozen visits from American counterparts per week.

The reason for this hasty movement was the announcement of the Brazil Scientific Mobility Program, or BSMP, by President Dilma Rousseff.

In short, the programme would invest BRL3.2 billion (US$1.45 billion) in international scholarships in STEM - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - and medical science over four years.

These mainly benefit Brazilians at the undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral and senior levels, but also aim to attract foreign researchers and young talent to Brazil.

It is not very surprising that due to the financial crisis in the higher education sector across the globe, many institutions did not want to miss this train and not find suitable Brazilian partners. Perhaps the most visible effect of the BSMP so far has been to put Brazil in the spotlight.

Curriculum issues

Because of a lack of student exchanges in the past and linguistic isolation, Brazilian STEM curricula are not very different from what they were in the 1930s when they were established.

New subjects have been added, but common wisdom in Brazil is that curricula must be content-based and learning the enormous list of content requires long hours in the classroom - up to 36 hours a week for some engineering programmes!

This situation is about to be challenged by the first wave of BSMP students who have returned to Brazil. They are now dealing with the important practical aspect of convincing their original institutions to fully accredit activities abroad where they spent typically 15 hours per week in the classroom.

These students represent the beginning of a new era in Brazilian undergraduate education: one where spending part of their education abroad is embedded in the curriculum. This will have consequences beyond those initially anticipated.

Brazilian STEM curricula must start to change to adapt to international standards. If it is shown that it is possible to teach better by teaching less and letting students learn in extra-class activities, the local academic community will have a long and heavy fight on their hands against outdated regulations and legal requirements.

Curriculum modernisation will eventually be on the agenda of Brazil's decision-makers.

Two-way mobility

Brazil is still a fast growing economy with a lot of opportunities for academic cooperation much beyond the BSMP project, which will end in 2015. At this point it is unclear if there will be new funds to continue the programme.

BSMP has already shown that Brazilian students are capable of performing well in very diverse environments all over the globe and can help bring a more multicultural perspective to American institutions.

Perhaps this is the moment for American institutions to consider establishing strategic partnerships in Brazil and sending their own students to Brazil for a semester or a year, creating real student exchange and cooperation programmes based on two-way mobility.

Of course, to put such an arrangement in place will involve serious commitment from both sides. Strategic partners must be identified. For a successful exchange it is very important to understand the partners' needs and limitations. It would be very nice to offer at least some courses in English on the Brazilian side.

Top Brazilian universities often provide research internship opportunities for undergraduate students to develop their work in labs under the guidance of a faculty member and graduate students. This is a unique opportunity for undergraduate students to get involved in real research projects.

There are different kinds of institutions in Brazil, from community college-like ones to research universities. It is important to identify partners that match the desired profile.

Institutions that understand the potential of cooperation with Brazil will be able to take advantage of the current wave of interest - including the buzz around the World Cup and the Olympics - to establish new partnerships and consolidate existing ones. They should perhaps consider offering Portuguese language courses.

Brazil is rich in resources and will certainly be a very relevant economic and academic destination in the future. Its research outputs in biofuels and flex-fuel vehicles is a very interesting example of what is to come.

Sustainable student mobility with Brazil will require commitment and funds from both sides. BSMP may have created the false impression that Brazilian institutions are only consumers of higher education services abroad. Although some may be, this is not the case for the top institutions.

Brazil should continue to be a place where overseas institutions can look for good exchange students, but the times of abundant resources may end soon. Those who understand that exchange should occur in both directions and are building sustainable programmes will have access to the best fruits of cooperation.

* Leandro R Tessler is associate professor at Instituto de Fisica 'Gleb Wataghin' at Universidade Estadual de Campinas, or UNICAMP. He spoke at the recent ACE Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement discussion on the 'southern cone' countries of Argentina, Brazil and Chile.