International virtual education needs greater support

One of the main responses to the COVID-19 lockdowns has been the migration of higher education internationalisation from face-to-face environments to digital environments. That is, the virtualisation of internationalisation. One of the already established models is the use of ‘Virtual Exchange’, a name used to designate educational programmes that use technology to allow geographically separated people to interact, communicate and develop global skills.

These programmes require high-quality technology, facilitated by professionals. These professionals need specific skills as students aim to communicate with people from other parts of the planet who speak different languages and want the same ability to learn and communicate as they have in-class. That’s the ideal, but how does it play out in different countries?

Socio-economic gaps

Brazil currently has a population of approximately 210 million, of which eight million are enrolled in higher education. The Brazilian higher education system is quite sophisticated, given its diversity and the multiplicity of types of institutions.

According to a 2018 study by the Higher Education Census, the system currently comprises 2,537 institutions, divided between the public and private sectors. The most significant number of higher education institutions is concentrated in the private sector, consisting of a total of 2,238 institutions, representing 88.21%. There are 299 public institutions, equivalent to 11.78%.

According to a 2018 report by the National Association of Directors of Federal Institutions of Higher Education, the majority of students (70.2%) at federal universities are of low-income groups.

Data shows the disparities in educational socio-economic profiles and highlights the difficulties that many students, especially in the public system, face to pay for their studies. At a time of pandemic, differences in socio-economic status will undoubtedly become more pronounced, further increasing the intellectual gap between members of the Brazilian population.

This fact will be a divider between students who can aspire to an international experience and those who will have more difficulty in being able to compete professionally in the new globalised scenario.

The differences were already noted in the face-to-face internationalisation processes. Many programmes were designed for the elite – and will be more present with virtual internationalisation, given only a small number of students have the skills and ability to access the new opportunities.

The internationalisation of Brazilian universities

Brazil has always been portrayed as a country with strong international cooperation actions. Moreover, the productive and effective internationalisation of Brazilian higher education institutions has been significantly strengthened in recent years, especially with the academic mobility programme for undergraduate students, Science Without Borders.

The latter provided the opportunity for many institutions to become part of the global education context, stimulating the development of partnerships with the best institutions from all parts of the planet. As a result of this programme, many higher education institutions accelerated their internationalisation processes, establishing partnerships and offering the possibility of international academic mobility programmes to their students, researchers and professors.

With the shutting down of the Science Without Borders Programme, due to a lack of government resources, many partnerships ended, breaking the sequence of international activities. This meant each institution needed to seek not just financial support but alternatives that could ensure the continuity of the internationalisation process.

Excellent projects and outstanding partnerships remain, but the majority of higher education institutions and especially their students suffered since the opportunities for academic mobility it provided were no longer offered.

In 2017, the Brazilian government launched the Programme for Institutional Internationalisation – CAPES-PrInt – which aims to internationalise higher education, particularly its graduate programmes.

Despite offering a fantastic opportunity for all Brazilian higher education institutions to compete for the programme, only 36 institutions won funding and more than 90% of Brazilian higher education institutions were excluded from the possibility of having public resources for their internationalisation programmes. One of the basic requirements was the establishment of a good internationalisation plan, something not all higher education institutions had.

What we can infer from this is that the level of internationalisation of Brazilian higher education institutions, despite many efforts, still needs to be strategically planned and depends a lot on individual institutional initiatives. The system demands more inclusive and more robust government policies so that it can include the largest possible number of institutions.

Students, faculty and researchers aim for better internationalisation opportunities, supported by financial resources, technical support, training and regulatory aspects, with clear policies aimed at a more balanced internationalisation strategy.

Now, with the pandemic interrupting face-to-face activities, the alternative is Virtual Exchange. However, for this to happen, one of the minimum conditions is that institutions have good international partnerships they can count on to develop Virtual Exchange projects.

For virtual internationalisation to have more impressive results, it is essential that higher education institutions, both public and private, from the North to South of Brazil, can participate equally and sustainably in international cooperation programmes and projects with highly qualified partners.

So even in a moment of virtual internationalisation, it is evident that many higher education institutions will still be excluded from the process due to the absence of partnerships, programmes and international projects.

Digital distance or digital isolation

The digital gap, including access and usage issues, needs to be given greater consideration if Brazilian higher education institutions are to be included in the new Virtual Exchange movement.

The 2018 Continuous National Household Sample Survey on Information and Communication Technology, released on 29 April by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, shows that one in four people in Brazil does not have internet access. In total numbers, this represents about 46 million Brazilians who have no access to online education.

The survey shows that the percentage of Brazilians with internet access increased in the country between 2017 and 2018. The data, which refer to the last three months of 2018, show an increase from 69.8% to 74.7%, but also point out that 25.3% of the population is still without internet access.

Reasons given for not using the internet relate to a lack of access and lack of knowledge about how to use it (around 41.6%); a lack of interest (34.6%); the cost of services (11.8%) and the cost of equipment needed to access the internet, such as cell phones, laptops and tablets (5.7%).

As long as the cost and other issues related to access to information and communication networks prevent people from getting online, Brazil will not be able to exploit the potential of virtual internationalisation or Virtual Exchange.

Linguistic distance or linguistic isolation

Another critical factor that can limit the access of Brazilian students to virtual internationalisation opportunities is related to the issue of proficiency in foreign languages, especially in the English language, since most of the collaborative online international Learning (COIL) programmes are offered in English.

A relevant study entitled “Demands for English Learning in Brazil”, developed exclusively for the British Council by the Data Popular Research Institute, aimed to understand the interest of the Brazilian middle class in learning English.

With a focus on aspects related to work and employability, particularly concerning the middle class and the lower upper class, this research sought to understand the overall picture and to understand the drivers and consumption habits of Brazilians.

The survey showed that only 5% of the Brazilian population knows how to communicate in English – and, of these, only 1% is fluent. Brazil is 41st in a ranking of 70 countries for English fluency, below other Latin American countries such as Ecuador, Chile, Peru and Mexico.

According to the survey: “The Law of Education Guidelines and Bases and the National Curriculum Parameters, both for elementary and high school, determine the teaching of a foreign language. However, experts, teachers and even the government recognise that teaching English in basic education, whether private or public, fails to train students with a good level of proficiency in that language.

“The main causes, according to these interlocutors, are common to other problems identified in basic education: little structure for adequate language teaching and classes with a high number of students. Add to that the insufficient workload and the difficulty of finding teachers with adequate training.”

This finding reaffirms that new students need substantial help to improve their linguistic knowledge to be able to participate in academic mobility programmes, whether face-to-face or online.

Therefore, given the potential for Virtual Exchange to continue internationalisation at this time, it is essential that there is significantly more and immediate investment in English language teaching and that basic guidelines for language teaching in Brazil are revised.

Ways forward

The Brazilian higher education system is well regarded. Major universities are cited among the international rankings that evaluate the best higher education institutions in the world. Its previous international cooperation projects have resulted in exemplary partnerships, are analysed by experts and are seen as being among the best in the world. Brazil is undoubtedly an economic power, in addition to being a country with powerful educational potential.

The pandemic, however, highlights some of its current failings. Three significant gaps need to be addressed: the digital gap, the linguistic gap and the fragility of its international cooperation partnerships. Internationalisation cannot be made available only to the academic elite. It must be made available to the entire population.

Analysis shows that there are good models around the world, where, through the joint actions of government, private sector and universities, quick solutions to the kind of enormous problems seen in this pandemic moment have emerged.

What is expected of a vast country with great higher education institutions? Governments need to work together with the private sector, drawing on the high-quality knowledge developed at universities and the social commitment of members of the population, to ensure this pandemic does not only have negative results. It can instead teach us to put into practice the concepts of co-working, co-learning and co-production of knowledge.

There is no doubt that the world will be different as we emerge from this pandemic. In an internationally globalised world, we will have to think about how we build societies based more on equity, inclusion, sustainability and compliance.

Let’s focus on responsible internationalisation and not let the pandemic destroy our dreams.

Professor Dr Luciane Stallivieri is a researcher in internationalisation of higher education and knowledge management and a professor of the graduate programme in university administration at Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Brazil.