In Brazil on a delegation with the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of State for Universities and Science. As usual with these delegations, they tend to be a mixture of frenzied last-minute reorganizations and moments of formal ceremony. They certainly require serious stamina occasioned by crammed programmes and non-stop travel.
But this delegation was buoyed by the Brazilian government’s announcement of 75,000 studentships to study abroad over the next four years, each worth $30,000, of which the UK looks set to obtain a good number.
What is striking about Brazilian higher education its range and variety. There are numerous private institutions, some of which are of good quality. There are state universities. There are federal universities. There are a number of federal science and technology institutions like CAPES, along with many national institutes of science and technology. There are a number of companies (most notably Petrobras and Embraer) which have close associations with universities. I was able to visit the University of Sao Paulo, an august institution boosted by the fact that a proportion of the State of Sao Paulo’s sales tax goes to universities (other countries take note).
What became clear to me was that Brazilian higher education is now in a state of take-off. Brazilian research is often world class. It is the 13th biggest knowledge producer as measured by numbers of papers. In particular, Brazilian research in is paramount in fields like engineering and aspects of the biological sciences.
In a meeting with luminaries from the world of Brazilian higher education, what was clear was that they are bullish about the future and that the scholarship scheme is a tangible expression of that optimism, as well as a desire to diversify the locations in which students study (which are currently led by the United Sates and France).
What is very different from many other countries which are now in economic take-off is that Brazil already has a thriving university system which has achieved many successes. It needs to expand its higher education system rapidly but the goal that has been set for participation rates seems entirely possible. In fact, it is about the same rate of expansion as the UK has achieved over the last 30 years.
There are clearly still problems. For example, the elite universities tend to be populated by students from well-off backgrounds. But Brazil is hardly the only country that can be accused of that. Again, there is very considerable variation in quality. Again, Brazil is hardly the only country that can be accused of that. It has a shortage of researchers to match its ambitions. Once more, Brazil is hardly the only country that can be accused of that.
In other words, this cannot be seen as a situation in which a country needs “help.” Rather, it requires a partnership of equals in which the non-Brazilian partner realizes that the Brazilian partner has much more to offer than the prospect of studentships abroad. Those studentships are a sign off greater engagement but an engagement that will be a two-way process right from the very start.