Academically excellent, but deaf to society’s needs

The concept of a 'New Flagship University' as portrayed in John Douglass’ new book brings together two different ideas of what a leading university should be. First is the traditional one of the university as a place of outstanding academic performance. Second, it imbues the university with a pro-active role in social and regional development.

A new flagship university not only performs highly influential research, but also plays a relevant role in fighting social inequalities and in helping regional development. In this sense one can say that a new flagship university would be a critical asset for any country facing the major challenges posed by our contemporary society.

In this article, I will examine the University of São Paulo, or USP, in Brazil against this model. USP is the country's leading institution in research and graduate education.

From an academic perspective, it would be difficult to find a flaw in the university’s profile: since the 1980s holding a doctorate degree has been a prerequisite for being accepted as a member of the university's faculty. Nowadays, 99.8% of USP's academic staff hold a doctoral degree and are active researchers. This is rare even among the best Latin American universities.

In 2015 nearly 34% of its 89,000 students were pursuing doctoral and masters degrees on one of its more than 323 graduate programmes. In 2014 the university awarded 2,704 doctoral degrees.

Contrary to what happens with other levels of education, graduate education in Brazil has been subject to strict periodic peer-review evaluation since the mid-1970s. And since then, USP's programmes have performed well. In the last round (2014), 20% of the country's best programmes – those deemed to have an international profile – were from USP.

Its reputation is also acknowledged at the international level: the last QS World University Rankings by Subject evaluated 36 areas in more than 3,500 universities. In this exercise, USP's programmes were positioned among the top 50 in eight areas, and the programmes from another 21 areas were in the top 100.

In spite of its scientific and academic achievements, and even considering its relevant roles at regional level, USP's social performance lags behind what one would expect from a new flagship university.

In a country plagued by strong social inequalities, in the past 10 years USP successfully opposed the adoption of quota programmes for minorities and children from lower income families, even when other formulae have proven inadequate for democratising access.

Since the end of the 1990s the university has also resisted the adoption of professional masters degrees, a major reform proposed in 1996 by the Ministry of Education for opening graduate education to purposes other than the needs of an academic career.

In 2014, while the university filed more than 90 patent applications, it only licensed three.

Although different departments and institutes sustain strong outreach programmes and play relevant roles at local and regional levels, these activities are not recognised in the rigid framework used for career development or in the university budgetary process, which still follows the traditional formula of past patterns of disbursement.

Finally, while USP does play a relevant systemic role in Brazilian higher education, being responsible for 18% of all doctoral degrees granted annually in the country, this role has never been embraced by the institution's policies. Even if academics from USP are involved in most of the country's main research networks and assume positions of leadership there, the university has never proposed a clear framework for developing collaboration with other institutions.

From the point of view of many other Brazilian higher education institutions, USP is an old lady with an undeserved first claim on the country's resources and talents.

Governance processes

What is the missing link that prevents USP from fulfilling the role of a new flagship university? I would like to advocate that its main problems arise from its governance processes. Like all other Brazilian universities, USP does not have a governing board that can organise and provide an independent voice for its external stakeholders.

Since 1987, when the state government granted the university direct access to 4.5% of the main state revenue, a tax applied to all commercial or service transactions, USP has reached a comfortable state of ample and unrestricted academic and financial autonomy.

USP's governance provides strong representation to internal members, especially academic leaders in the form of full professors.

Nevertheless, this unrestricted autonomy coupled with the lack of a clear and independent voice coming from outside make the university deaf to societal demands and expectations, and leave the rector and the senior administration hostage to internal power struggles.

This situation, combined with the politicisation of university life, prevents the university from performing a real flagship role, providing leadership and actively searching for collaboration with other higher education institutions. If it was able to fulfil this role it would be able to play a strategic role in supporting the country towards greater social and economic development.

Elizabeth Balbachevsky is a professor in the department of political science, University of São Paulo, Brazil.