José Celso Freire Junior, Head, International Office, São Paulo State University and Director of FAUBAI (the Brazilian Association for International Education), and Patrícia Gasparini Spadaro, International Projects Coordinator, São Paulo State University
Higher education in Brazil faces major challenges under President Michel Temer. In December 2016, the government passed a constitutional amendment that pegs social spending to inflation for 20 years – an austerity measure described by one U.N. expert  as “[placing] Brazil in a socially regressive category all its own.” Both health services and education spending will effectively be frozen where they are now for two decades.
The newly passed amendment amplifies the effect of the Ministry of Education’s 2016 decision to cut spending on higher education for a third successive year. From the perspective of institutions that rely on federal funding for research, a March 2017 announcement of an additional round of deep cuts to the country’s already limited federal science budget  added further pressure to already strained budgets.
In the international education community, the official cessation of Brazil’s Science Without Border program is one of the most important casualties of these austerity measures. What may be less familiar is the impact on a broad swath of young Brazilians. These cuts threaten access to quality education for the substantial majority of Brazilian youth who otherwise couldn’t afford it. From 2002 through 2016, Brazil’s federal government promoted policies that increased enrollments in higher education. The impact has been substantial: From 2002 to 2012, college enrollments in Brazil doubled – although many of the country’s seven million tertiary students ended up in newly launched, for-profit institutions of questionable quality.There are 99 federal institutions in Brazil, enrolling about 940,000 students, and also 108 state institutions, enrolling 600,000 students. The private sector is much larger, with 2,100 institutions and 4.8 million students enrolled. Federal universities are fully subsidized by the national government.
To offset that trend, Brazil’s government simultaneously guaranteed that it would, via a carefully coded form of affirmative action, provide a pathway to Brazil’s federally funded universities for graduates of public secondary schools. Half of all seats at federally funded universities would be reserved for low-income students.Pedrosa, Renato & Simões Yamaki, Tania & Carneiro, Ana Maria & Y. Andrade, Cibele & Sampaio, Helena & Knobel, Marcelo. (2014). Access to higher education in Brazil. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning. 16. 5-33. 10.5456/WPLL.16.1.5. The rationale, as noted in one 2014 analysis, has been straightforward.
“Public secondary schools are universally recognized in Brazil as low quality, and therefore attendance at them is a proxy for low socioeconomic status (SES). Elites and the middle class send their children to private schools and often enroll them in costly test-preparation programs as well. This leads to higher acceptance rates for private-school students at the free, elite public universities. Therefore, affirmative action policies in Brazil have developed provisions based [in part on] attendance at public high schools.” Ibid.
As of 2017, the effect of policies aimed at increasing equity and access at federal universities – those affected by recent cuts – have been notable, even in fields that traditionally been the reserve of Brazil’s elite such as engineering and medicine. This year, students from public schools represent about 45 percent of the enrollees in engineering and medical schools. Next year the percentage will rise to about 50. These figures represent a huge gain: In 2014, the National Institute of Educational Studies, a Brazilian government agency reported  that 89 percent of medical school students were graduates of private high schools.
Where Equity and Access Meet Brazil’s Internationalization Agenda
When President Dilma Rousseff announced Science Without Borders (SwB) in 2011, the goal was to open access to international study and research abroad to 101,000 students from all backgrounds. That goal remains intact. The fact is that, in 2017, Brazil’s commitment to internationalization, especially at the institutional level, is more profound than ever.
And for all the ink spilled over criticism of the SwB, the fact is that the program has provided insights that will allow its successor to be shaped in a way that it deepens impact not just for the individuals who study abroad, but also for Brazil’s scientific community, industry, and institutions.
Science Without Borders suffered some problems from the outset. Among the most notable were:
- Lack of an effective qualitative evaluation. SwB set out to send 100,000 Brazilian students to top universities abroad, but did not establish concrete goals for measuring the success of the program, or indeed for its impact other than the hope they would return from short-term programs abroad with experiences that would positively affect improve Brazilian higher education. “They [will] come back with a whole new approach with their courses,” Denise de Menezes Neddermeyer, former director of international affairs for the Ministry of Education, told The Hechinger Report  in 2015. “If Brazil is wise enough to capture all this good energy the students are bringing, there will be good results.”
- Difficulties in the recognition of academic activities developed abroad. Multiple barriers limit the transferability of academic credentials from one Latin American country to another . Similar challenges around transferability and credit recognition occurred when SwB students studied abroad short term.
- Projection of Brazil as a “buyer of higher education” rather than as a country with high quality institutions in its own right. In 2016 and 2017, Brazilian institutions topped the Times Higher Education’s Latin America university rankings lists. Moreover, Brazil has, in terms of research capacity and scientific production, reached maturity – a so-called steady state.http://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Documents/International-Briefs-2014-April-SouthernCone.pdf  and the country has come to an ideal time to think about a reformulation of scientific production priorities and their evaluation criteria. The current trend is to focus on the investment in quality and not simply to increase international indicators. The new program will focus on excellence.
- Unintended messages that Brazil was ‘a golden cow’ in the international arena. With its commitment to rapidly send so many fully funded students abroad, Brazil’s government put many SwB students, most of whom were undergraduates, in the situation of arriving on campuses that were not fully equipped to support them once they were on campus. Linguistic challenges were especially common. As linguistic Maria Crane noted in a 2014 article  on SwB-inspired mobility among Brazilians, the country was “recently been ranked 38th in the world among countries with “low proficiency” in English. This is not surprising, given the fact that in Brazil the old grammar-translation method of teaching is still prevalent in schools, and teachers lack training in communicative approaches to foreign-language learning. Low English proficiency can make it difficult for Brazilian students to enroll and succeed in institutions abroad.”
- Failure to capitalize on internationalization efforts at the institutional level. Brazilian higher education institutions, in general, did not craft strategic plans for the internationalization of the science produced by researchers who went abroad. Final output and dissemination was left to the discretion of individual initiatives. Moreover, the academy was largely dissociated from Brazilian industry, and unable to contribute to the sector’s research and development or innovation needs.
After Science Without Borders: The Brazilian Universities Excellence Initiative
The replacement for SwB is being rolled out now. The president of CAPES, (Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel), Prof. Abílio Neves, describes the new program, tentatively named the Brazilian Universities Excellence Initiative, as taking a far more strategic approach to sending Brazilian students and scholars abroad than SwB ever did.
The most fundamental difference between the program is neither size (small-scale vs. enormous) nor academic level (graduate vs. undergraduate) nor duration (long-term vs. short-term). Rather it is forethought: Brazilian institutions must develop and present strategic internationalization plans before they are approved for the funds to send scholars abroad.
The good news is that, for all its shortcomings, SwB did, in fact, set institutions up for greater long-term success in the effort to internationalize in a coherent and sustainable way. SwB gave them four years in which to develop robust international relationships. It enabled them to scale up student exchanges, diversify international partnerships, develop financing mechanisms, work through the intricacies of credit transfers, and more. The institutional knowledge already accrued through SwB will provide a tested structural base for the new program.
The Brazilian Universities Excellence Initiative is that program. It pushes institutions to develop strategic and symmetrical institutional partnerships. It will also increase the minimum required qualification of students, administrative staff, and researchers/academics who participate. Policies designed to attract renowned academics, researchers, and young talents to Brazil are also part of the program.
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of the program is that it seeks to avoid the fate of SwB – rapid demolition. Instead, it is designed to be a sustainable and permanent policy that facilitates the internationalization of HEIs and Brazilian post-graduate programs. It also seeks to involve Brazilian institutions in the internationalization process in a fundamental way. It forces them to be proactive in application for funding. It also requires that they articulate a means for institutional appropriation of knowledge acquired by researchers abroad, thus increasing the impact of student mobility on the academic community as well as other sectors of society.
The core goals of the program are to achieve institutional excellence and to enhance the stature and quality of the graduate programs and research structures involved. Key objectives include:
- Funding activities that will:
- Set the foundation for the development of solid transnational partnerships focused on joint research and academic programs
- Provide scholarships for qualified individuals (outgoing and incoming) at the graduate level
- The expectation is that Brazilian universities will invest the funds they receive in structured activities that are designed to promote internationalization at home in undergraduate and postgraduate classes. These activities include:
- Use of international tests for placements
- Course instruction in foreign languages
- The establishment of policies for reciprocal recognition of credits and diplomas
- Investment in non-academic staff to support internationalization activities.
Such rigor is welcome. Brazil’s public universities are facing new and very steep constraints. Moreover, they are still trying to understand the new priorities, motivations, and needs of potential partners.
In the end, advancement of the country’s higher education system – which is tied to the nation’s economic and development goals overall – will only happen through continued efforts to ensure the gains in access, in equity, and in internationalization made since 2002. It will only happen through sustainable, mutually beneficial partnerships.
On all those fronts, the Brazilian Universities Excellence Initiative is a worthy successor to Science Without Borders, one that focuses on quality, systemwide transformation, and the development of a sound foundation for internationalization that lasts.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).
|↑1||There are 99 federal institutions in Brazil, enrolling about 940,000 students, and also 108 state institutions, enrolling 600,000 students. The private sector is much larger, with 2,100 institutions and 4.8 million students enrolled. Federal universities are fully subsidized by the national government.|
|↑2||Pedrosa, Renato & Simões Yamaki, Tania & Carneiro, Ana Maria & Y. Andrade, Cibele & Sampaio, Helena & Knobel, Marcelo. (2014). Access to higher education in Brazil. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning. 16. 5-33. 10.5456/WPLL.16.1.5.|