Still a long way to go on internationalisation

In the last few weeks, reports and articles have highlighted the performance of higher education in China. Data shows that the number of international students from China is soaring. Catherine Montgomery discussed the Chinese higher education megaproject. The QS university rankings 2018 released in June showed the rise of East Asia and Pacific universities, mainly the Chinese ones.

However, how about the other two biggest emerging nations? India and Brazil are the largest higher education systems in the world in terms of numbers of students (alongside China and the United States) and the largest developing economies after China. How have they performed?

Brazil and India have not had an exciting performance and certainly have a long way to go, but some important developments should be noted.

International students

Although Brazil is the fourth-largest higher education system in the world, it is only the 22nd in terms of outbound mobility, with 40,891 students studying abroad in 2016, according to UNESCO data.

This number has increased in recent years under the government programme ‘Science without Borders’. However, it has not been enough to significantly boost the country in the international education arena. It is highly likely that this is going to change in the near future as Brazilians start to see that undergraduate and postgraduate programmes abroad can be an important part of their career plan.

India, on the other hand, is the largest sending country of foreign students in the world after China. The South Asian country sent 255,030 students abroad in 2016. International Indian students, alongside their Chinese counterparts, have been the focus of American, European and Australian universities’ international student recruitment plans.

If some differences between Brazil and India can be highlighted in terms of outbound mobility, the same cannot be said about inbound mobility: both countries receive a very small portion of the world’s international students at just 1.34% combined.

This low international interest in both countries is linked to a range of issues, including quality of teaching, research output, international reputation, the language barrier (mainly in the case of Brazil) and social and economic problems.

Growth in scientific outputs

Brazil and India have steadily increased the number of scientific articles their researchers publish, according to Scopus data. In 2005, Brazil ranked 15th and India 11th in the world for publications. Ten years later, in 2015, Brazil ranked 13th and India 5th.

Brazil produces 54% of Latin American scientific articles and 2% of the world’s, meaning that the whole Latin America region only produces roughly 4% of global scientific articles. Although Brazil has played a pre-eminent and growing role in science and technology in the region, it struggles when compared to the growth of its emerging Asian counterparts.

As argued by Professor Simon Marginson, systems like those in South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore have exhibited a special developmental dynamism and have created a distinctive model of higher education. Today, East Asia (alongside Western Europe and North America) is an important centre of knowledge production and academic excellence globally.

Over the period 2000-2015 the number of scientific articles published by Chinese researchers increased nine-fold, from 46,000 in 2000 to more than 416,000 in 2015. Although it is possible to question the quality of those scientific outputs, the numbers are impressive.

In 2015, almost half of scientific articles (48%) published by Asian researchers were produced by China and 14% by India. Ten years earlier, in 2005, those figures were 38% and 9% respectively.

Public vs private sector

The performance of Brazilian and Indian higher education systems is still highly dependent on government funds and, broadly speaking, the best universities are in the public sector.

Recently, the Indian government announced a plan to develop 20 world-class universities (10 of them private) with a focus on STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – subjects. In turn, within 10 years, the selected institutions will have to achieve a place in the top 500 of the main global rankings. In the latest QS world university rankings, the first 10 Indian universities on the list – the first of which is the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi at 172nd place – are all public institutions.

Of the first 10 Brazilian universities in the ranking – the first of which is the University of São Paulo (in 121st place) – eight are public. The University of São Paulo is also the only Latin American university in the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings 2017 released last week.

Some institutional initiatives in the private sector, however, deserve to be recognised. Some traditional Catholic universities in Brazil such as the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul, and Unisinos, among others, have turned up in some international rankings in recent years.

Unlike most private institutions, they are highly research-oriented and have a clear focus on quality. Similarly, in India, the private universities Manipal and Amity have in recent years proved to be important and well-regarded centres of science and technology and are in several international rankings.

Although a lot of question marks hang over the quality of private institutions in emerging nations, there are some good examples of how the emerging private sector has been not just crucial to massify systems, but also to improve them in terms of scientific output, innovation and internationalisation. Certainly, the private sector has transformative potential and will be crucial in the development of higher education in the next few years in both countries.

The challenges

It is believed that modern economies are increasingly based on knowledge and that human capital has become the backbone of prosperity. In this context, emerging countries like Brazil and India face two simultaneous pressures.

On the one hand, higher education in these countries is still exclusive and only serves a small sector of their populations, especially in the case of India, which has a lower gross rate of access than Brazil and even China. This fact reinforces the further potential for the continued expansion of higher education, possibly at a faster rate than currently.

On the other hand, emerging nations have to deal with the challenges faced by developed countries such as the pressure to internationalise and to increase research outputs.

It is clear that China has been dealing with those two simultaneous pressures with reasonable success and that its ‘higher education megaproject’ is an essential part of its social development and growing global influence.

If higher education is an indispensable factor in a country’s social development, Brazil and India, as two of the 10 largest economies in the world, have still got a long way to go to improve their higher education systems.

Even though some positive changes are slowly occurring, they still have a long way to go with regard to internationalisation, science development and achieving world-class universities. The way in which emerging countries like Brazil and India deal with these challenges is something to watch over the next years.

Bruno Morche is a higher education specialist, Edtech consultant and doctoral researcher in Brazil. He holds an MA in comparative education from the UCL Institute of Education in the United Kingdom and his international and professional background – giving lectures, working as consultant and researcher – encompasses many countries such as Brazil, the United Kingdom, India, Chile and the United States. Email: