Science Without Borders under scrutiny

Both public and private higher education institutions in Brazil are showing an increasing interest in internationalisation. Internationalisation is viewed as an important instrument that can have an impact on both teaching and research. Cooperation agreements, as well as initiatives to participate in national and international networks, are multiplying. In this respect, the Brazilian programme 'Science Without Borders' has been of utmost importance.

The government is committed to expanding those sectors that support technological innovation and modernisation in order to strengthen the overall competitiveness of the country. This has been accompanied by measures to build the skills needed in science and technology that are considered strategically important.

For this reason, the Brazilian government launched the Science Without Borders programme in 2011 with the aim of promoting the consolidation and expansion of science, technology and innovation in Brazil through international exchange and mobility.

The programme supported 92,816 students between 2011 and 2016, from undergraduates to doctoral students as well as post-doctoral fellows and researchers in the fields of science, engineering and health to get training and teaching abroad.

It also intends to attract high-level post-docs and researchers from overseas to strengthen higher education institutions and national research institutions in these areas. The planned investment amounts to BRL5.4 billion in the Brazilian currency (approximately US$1.66 billion).

Suspension of new fellowships

Recently, however, although the Brazilian authorities claim that the programme will not be closed, they have publicly admitted that new fellowships have been suspended due to a lack of funds. Students who are abroad will continue receiving funding, but those who were recently selected are not able to move forward with the programme.

In the five years the programme has been running, the vast majority of students came from the South and Southeast regions, the richest regions of Brazil: São Paulo (20.7%), Minas Gerais (17.1%) Rio de Janeiro (8.7%), Rio Grande do Sul (7.3%) and Paraná (6.9%) states. The other 21 states and the Federal District represent approximately 40% of students on the programme.

Those who went on the Science Without Borders programme were able to travel to a myriad of countries. The United States received the most, with 27,821 students, followed by the United Kingdom (10,740), Canada (7,311), France (7,279), Australia (7,074), Germany (6,595) and Spain (5,025). Other countries, such as Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden and South Korea, received a total of 21,031 students. The US and the UK received 41.5% of students between them.

With regard to scientific fields, the highest number of fellowships were given to engineering and technology students (44.78%), followed by biology, biomedicine and health sciences (17.31%). Nearly four out of five fellowships (78.9%) were given to undergraduates and 13.4% to graduate students.

On 24 July 2016, the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel – CAPES in its Portuguese acronym – of the Brazilian Ministry of Education announced some of the changes that will occur, including the suspension of fellowships for undergraduate students.

One of its big concerns is the monitoring of students, tracking their career progression when they return to the country. In terms of doctoral and post-doctoral fellowships, CAPES said it is necessary to think about how researchers fare in the labour market.

Lack of oversight

Although the programme’s reformulation is in progress, there are no details about how students will be monitored. One of the greatest concerns is that the programme was developed without much involvement from Brazilian higher education institutions. Because of this, the government believes that it significantly benefited individual students, but did not add much value to Brazilian universities. Moreover, as students were not really monitored, measuring impact is difficult.

The programme also indiscriminately awarded graduate, masters, doctoral, specialist and post-doctoral fellowships, but did not assess them first. Some students were given fellowships to spend a year in the United States or Canada without having taken any English test. Not knowing the language, many students failed to follow what was being said in classes and returned to Brazil with no intellectual benefit.

Lack of criteria, objectives and goals were the main problems. The Brazilian Senate is working on a bill to institutionalise Science without Borders, to discuss objectives, to identify gaps in implementation and to promote adjustments for the future.

The Senate’s Committee on Science and Technology created the proposal with the participation of 15 senators and aims to ensure that the programme becomes a permanent policy and not just linked to one particular government.


Clearly, internationalisation has become mandatory for higher education institutions all over Brazil. It is vital for increasing the mobility of professors, researchers and students. This subject is being duly considered by Brazilian institutions and its importance is steadily increasing due to the modernisation of undergraduate teaching with a view towards implementing innovation in the education of professionals, and the broadening of research outlooks.

There is also a need to develop really effective organisational structures that enable the process to become efficient and beneficial for all those involved.

Cooperation with foreign universities and colleges represents a unique opportunity for Brazilian universities, offering substantial potential for institutional growth in all these dimensions. Brazil also has its own highly qualified research groups and graduate programmes and is definitely interested in making these more international in outlook.

Bruno Morche is a higher education specialist and doctoral researcher in Brazil and holds an MA in comparative education from the UCL Institute of Education in the UK.