Brazilian Universities Find Challenges in Internationalization

Caio Guatelli for The Chronicle

Signing an agreement to exchange their faculty members and students between Brazil and China are Adnei Melges de Andrade, a vice rector at the U. of São Paulo, which has doubled its enrollment of foreign students, and officials of Henan U.
September 04, 2010

Matias Spektor, the head of international relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas, an institution that includes one of Rio's top business schools, had hoped to hire a number of foreign academics to teach there.

Born in Argentina, raised in Brazil, and with a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford, he wants his students to have access to the best minds in academe. He has the resources. He even has Rio de Janeiro, a backdrop that few universities in the world can rival.

But Mr. Spektor believes his dream has little chance of being fulfilled. "It is just impossible getting the older academic," he says. "They won't come."

Established professors who have tenure and a solid academic reputation don't want to work in Brazil, because they think it's an academic wasteland, he says. "And for an academic that is competitive internationally, young, and ambitious, coming to Brazil is death unless you're studying Brazilian music or tropical diseases or something distinctively Brazilian."

Mr. Spektor isn't alone in his frustration. Brazil is not a hot spot on the international academic scene. Universities looking for institutional partners, foreign students looking to study abroad, and professors searching for posts in other countries rarely consider Brazil as a first choice.

But circumstances are slowly changing. Brazil's elite higher-education institutions are beginning to embrace internationalization after decades of insularity. They are more aggressively pursuing professors and students from other countries and setting up ties with institutions abroad.

And a growing number of universities elsewhere are looking to Brazil for research and exchange partnerships, thanks to the country's status as an emerging economic power. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's push to make Brazil a more active player in world affairs has also heightened overseas interest in academic institutions here.

'A Key Country'

Certainly, Brazil's top universities find they have no shortage of suitors from abroad.

A number of Brazilian institutions have signed deals recently with universities elsewhere. The University of São Paulo recently arranged a student- and faculty-exchange agreement with China's Henan University. In April, the University of Wisconsin at Madison announced a plan to deepen its ties to Brazil and its higher-education establishment.

"We have started a series of symposia about Brazil. We are identifying some strategic partnerships with universities in Brazil," says Giles Bousquet, dean of international studies and vice provost for globalization. "It is a paradigm shift, and that paradigm shift is refocusing the university in educating graduates that are going to see the emerging powers as a key group of partners and Brazil as a key country."

Administrators at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro say the number of requests they have received to develop international exchanges is higher than ever. "We have gone from having partnerships with between 50 and 60 foreign universities six years ago to around 200 today," says Geraldo Nunes, coordinator of international agreements.

As for the flow of students and faculty in and out of Brazil, no organization tracks those figures. But the country's major universities report that while overall numbers remain small, foreign-student enrollments are on the rise, and the numbers of their own students who choose to spend time abroad are increasing as well.

The University of São Paulo, which typically is the top-listed Brazilian university in global rankings, has doubled the number of foreign students on its campus, to around 1,600 out of 80,000, over the past four years, says Adnei Melges de Andrade, vice rector for international relations.

Brazil's Ministry of Education did not respond to interview requests, but the federal government has played a part in the internationalization of higher education here. It has set up two universities for Brazilian undergraduates that also aim to recruit heavily from elsewhere in Latin America and from Africa, and it has increased the number of scholarships for foreign students coming to study in Brazil.

Tough Sell

Despite those efforts, however, Brazil remains a tough sell, in large part because it has little tradition of overseas exchanges.

"Unfortunately, Brazilians don't go abroad too much, and Brazil as a destination for international students is not as popular as other destinations in the world," says Francisco Marmolejo, executive director of the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration (and a contributor to The Chronicle's WorldWise blog). "This is a fact. It is not an exclusive problem for Brazil; other countries in Latin America face similar challenges. But considering the size of education systems in Brazil, the numbers are very low."

Brazil also presents a number of obstacles to foreigners, from the obvious, like language and bureaucracy, to the opaque, like the longstanding insularity that has left the South American giant close to invisible in intellectual circles. It may be the fifth-most populous nation in the world, but its universities and academics are only starting to become known.

"There is this enormous ignorance about Brazil outside Brazil," says Mr. Spektor, the Rio professor. "The major academics will think nothing of flying off to conferences in Beijing or Delhi, but they won't fly here."

To compensate, Brazilian universities are trying some new strategies. Mr. Spektor, for example, having failed to snag big names on long-term contracts, is offering them two-week residencies. He hopes that will not only enable his students to hear from international experts at last, but also show the lecturers a side of Brazil that they will talk about back home.

Language Barrier

The State University of Campinas, a major research university known as Unicamp, is trying a more ambitious strategy. It recently placed job ads in the journals Science and Nature, in hopes of drawing the kind of talent it needs to become a world-class university. It already produces a significant portion of Brazil's scientific research.

Although more than 200 people responded, Unicamp cannot hire any of them outright, thanks to the peculiar policies of Brazil's state- and federally supported universities. Job applicants must first pass a concurso, or entrance exam. But the concurso is in Portuguese and is highly competitive, making it all but impossible for new arrivals to succeed.

So Unicamp has decided instead to bring new hires in on short-term contracts, which will allow them to learn the language and get to know their new home.

"Professors who are chosen to come here will spend one or two years here with their salary paid for by a scholarship," says the rector, Fernando Ferreira Costa. "At the end of those two years, if they want to stay, a normal concurso will be opened, and they can compete. They are highly qualified, and it is hoped that by that time, language will not be a problem."

Language is, in fact, the biggest barrier facing Brazilian universities hoping to hire from abroad. Portuguese is not a common second language, and there is a marked reluctance in Brazilian higher education to offer courses in English.

Unicamp, which offers to teach Portuguese to new faculty members and students from abroad, is considering offering lectures in both Portuguese and English. Most of the professors in its graduate programs are capable of teaching in English, administrators note.

"We'll probably offer [courses] in two languages at the start," says Leandro Russovski Tessler, coordinator of institutional and international relations. "But there is a problem in Brazil, because giving classes in English is akin to betraying the national sovereignty. But we are flexible."

Hurdle After Hurdle

Language is far from the only challenge for foreigners. For both students and professors, securing a visa is a long and tortuous process. Even after visas are approved, getting the actual stamp in the passport can take months.

"A lot of letters have to be sent; visas take a long time," says Suzana Monteiro, a former president of the Brazilian International Affairs Counseling Forum, a group of university professors who provide assistance to institutions seeking to develop exchange programs.

Even with visas in hand, living in Brazilian cities is expensive. Two recent studies rated the cost of living in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo above those of New York and Los Angeles.

And, of course, security is an issue in a country where crime rates remain high. Visiting academics and students "have to learn not to walk alone at night, to go in groups, to avoid unlit areas, and not carry a lot of cash," says Ms. Monteiro.

But perhaps the most pressing issue after language is housing. Few Brazilian universities have dormitories, and landlords insist that renters provide guarantors who will put up property as collateral.

Few outsiders can offer such guarantors, so Unicamp has struck deals with local families to rent rooms to visiting professors. The university is also working with a real-estate agent to help outsiders find appropriate accommodations and cut through red tape.

Keeping up Momentum

Despite the obstacles, Brazilian universities expect that their internationalization efforts will pay off. The numbers of students and faculty members involved in exchange programs is rising, according to administrators in charge of such programs. Unicamp, for example, plans to triple both the number of students it sends abroad and the number of international graduate students it enrolls by 2015.

The University of São Paulo expects to increase fivefold its number of international students during the next four years, says Mr. Melges de Andrade. It is constructing a building that will contain language schools and some dormitories, and is working with the city to set up housing for visiting students in unused buildings near Metro stations.

Last year the Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education granted scholarships to 4,344 Brazilian students to study abroad, twice the number it sponsored 10 years earlier. The National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, Brazil's equivalent of the U.S. National Science Foundation, increased the number of scholarships it gives to doctoral and postdoctoral students to study abroad from 176 in 1992 to almost 500 last year.

But Brazil also has long been a country of boom and bust. It remains to be seen whether the new efforts will transform its higher-education system.

"So many things are changing because of the new status of Brazil and the increased interest in Brazil and Portuguese," says Leslie Bethell, a former director of Oxford's Centre for Brazilian Studies. "I hear all over the place that people are signing deals to try and exchange students. But how far it has gone I am not sure. I am a bit skeptical. Brazil has always been a reluctant to do this."