Brazil leads the charge from Latin America

As is by now fairly well-known in our line of work, in July the new Government of Brazil announced a rather eye-catching 75,000 scholarships, over the next three years, for their own students to study abroad. They are intended mainly for courses and research in STEM subjects. This is part of the government’s ‘Science Without Borders’ (SWB) initiative (subtitled ‘A special programme for international mobility in science, technology and innovation’) and represents an investment of some R$3.2bn ($1.8bn). Numbers like that attract the attention of governments (not to mention Rectors, Presidents and Vice-Chancellors) everywhere. Brazil is counting on an additional 25,000 places from the business sector.

Funding will be split between two federal agencies, the Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES) and National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). The places include 27,100 undergraduate scholarships, 24,600 fellowships for PhD students to spend one year abroad, funding for 9,790 four-year doctorates, and 8,900 post-doctoral fellowships for 1-2 years. There will also be 390 fellowships for research to be conducted in Brazil and intended to bring home Brazilians working abroad.

The objectives of the programme are to:

• Advance the science, technology, innovation and industrial competitiveness through the expansion of international mobility
• Increase the presence of Brazilian researchers and students in institutions of excellence abroad
• Promote greater internationalisation of Brazilian universities
• Increase knowledge of the staff of innovative industries in Brazil
• Attract young talent and highly qualified researchers to work in Brazil

The many priority areas identified include engineering, natural sciences, geosciences, bio- and nanotechnology, biomedical, health, computing, aerospace, drugs, agriculture, oil, renewable energy and green economy, nuclear, natural disasters – and the creative industries.

The federal science and technology minister, Aloizio Mercadante, said that the programme was a response to the country's growing demand for qualified engineers and scientists, notably in the life sciences. It was designed to facilitate a 'quantum jump' in training for strategic, high-tech sectors. Indeed, new figures released last week by the OECD show that Brazil produces a low proportion of graduates in science and engineering – less than 15%, though the OECD average is only 21% (p.76).

It is not surprising that the government wishes to see more student mobility. The OECD also shows that in 2009 only 0.3% of tertiary students in Brazil were not Brazilian nationals (the proportion would probably be even less if the figures referred to ‘international’ rather than ‘foreign’ students). Outbound statistics are likewise low: in 2008, according to UNESCO figures, only 23,400 Brazilians went abroad to study for a foreign degree. This is a lower outward mobility rate than for notorious stay-at-homers in the US and UK. (Mexico’s rate is marginally higher than the US and lower than the UK.) The SWB has been criticised as a ‘programme to promote brain drain’ but on current form Brazil has little to fear there.



                                                                    And the Reitores next?


Other countries are moving to capitalise on the Brazilian initiative. A sizeable UK delegation including the deputy PM, universities minister, businesspeople and a dozen university leaders visited Brazil in late June. The joint statement arising indicated a commitment to cooperation and welcomed additional funding, by BG Group (part of what was once British Gas), of up to 450 scholarships for Brazilian students to the UK over the next five years. Further information on the UK approach is available from the UK HE International Unit and their newsletter, International Focus.

It is understandable that the UK would wish to increase its level of engagement with Latin America generally. Although research links are strong and growing, in 2007 there were about 7,100 students from Mexico, Central, and South America in the UK. Spain and Portugal alone send more than this.

Brazil (along with India, China, and Israel) is a participant in Canada’s International Science & Technology Partnerships Program (ISTPP), launched in 2005. Canada’s PM Harper went to Brazil in early August to meet with his counterpart, President Dilma Rousseff, presumably as part of Canada’s efforts to engage the new economic powerhouses and diversify its foreign-policy focus away from Washington. Money follows money, and Canada announced 11 scholarships and a C$5m ($5m) injection for the ISTPP.

Americans are forging ahead with Brazil. Relations with the previous government were not warm, but President Obama made a state visit in March, and this was followed on 1 June by a meeting of Secretary of State Clinton and Brazilian Minister of External Relations Antonio de Aguiar Patriota for a second US-Brazil Global Partnership Dialogue. Their joint statement promised an Action Plan to enhance student exchanges at the under- and postgraduate levels in science and technology.

This is happening: the Institute of International Education (IIE) in New York is already implementing the undergraduate part of the Science Without Borders programme in the US. Its website contains an application form for Brazilian undergraduates to complete (by 1 October for 2012 entry). Candidates need to be nominated by their institutions in Brazil, and those names are forwarded to CAPES where the selections will be made. The IIE then place the selected candidates in those US institutions chosen by CAPES to host SWB participants.


Latin America - Flags


Prospective host institutions also have to go through an application process, and this is where things might depart from the original script. The minister’s presentation (in Portuguese) indicated that they wished to send students to the best universities worldwide, by which was specified the top 50 from the Times Higher and QS World University Rankings. He said that the two government agencies involved were in the process of negotiating agreements; no doubt those negotiations involve changing the rankings criteria originally proposed.

The IIE indicates that prospective institutions in the US are required to:

• Offer strong coursework relevant to (mostly) STEM fields,
• Accept documentation through IIE including the Common Application, TOEFL score reports, transcripts,
• Be welcoming to international students by offering excellent support services, appropriate housing, meal plans, and assistance in securing internships.

No mention of world top 50 in there. But given that Brazilian students already favour the US as a destination for higher education (about 7500 were there in 2008, more than double the number for anywhere else), the US should enjoy a hefty slice of the SWB funding.

Brazil’s attempt at a quantum leap is possible because it has cash to spare from rising commodity prices. Times Higher Education reported recently that the federal government is also investing £815m ($1.3bn) in public-sector HE expansion at home. This programme, with its emphasis on spreading capacity in rural areas with the lowest education attainment levels, is reminiscent of India’s building programme, though in the Brazilian case the scale appears to be realistic and realisable.

Its currency is also overvalued which hurts exporters (including universities) but cannot hurt Brazilians wishing to spend abroad. The Chronicle reported last week that other South American countries, such as Chile and El Salvador, likewise have more to spend and seek to place more of their students abroad. It noted that Chile plans to offer 30,000 scholarships by 2018, Ecuador plans more than 1,000, and Colombia is sending more in 2011 than in the previous 18 years put together.

Mexico presents a contrasting case. It was hammered by the recent recession. It has to get by with fewer riches and has no comparable programme. It does, however, have some excellent universities with international links. As in Brazil, the poor cannot afford the private-sector universities, but even the best Mexican public institutions are strapped for cash. It was reported last week that in 2010 the enormous Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM) selected only 5800 of the 55,000 young people who passed its entrance exam for any of its degrees. This past summer, the Universidad Autónoma de Guerrero rejected 1/3 of its applicants, which led to a hunger strike.

To make matters worse, it was reported last year that some American universities banned all university-sponsored activities in Mexico after drug-related violence led to a travel warning from the State Department. This is inconvenient for US students and universities, but disastrous for Mexico.

But within this difficult climate, Mexico’s economy is tied to that of the US and it continues to look north. CETYS University President Fernando León-García said this week that Mexicans who send their children to the States for education do so because of the value of ‘learning English and being bicultural’.

CETYS, one of the top private, not-for-profit, universities in the country, this week hosted a Higher Education Leaders conference in Mexicali to discuss the challenges to HE around the world, with the participation of university leaders from the US, Canada, Europe, Ghana, China, India, Korea and Australia.

Latin American countries are involved in many regional coordination initiatives. CONAHEC dates to 1994, the year the North America Free Trade Agreement came into force. It facilitates the establishment of academic collaborations and exchanges between Canada, the US, and Mexico.

THE reported last week on a three-year EU-funded initiative (Alfa Puentes) to link 23 university associations across Latin American and Europe. It was launched in May and aims, inter alia, to contribute to institutional development and help deepen the level of internationalisation of Latin American universities, to improve the capacity of national university associations to contribute to governmental policy development, and to improve understanding of qualifications frameworks and QA. It will support the three existing regional blocs (Mercosur, Andean Community, Central America/Mexico) and 16 university associations within them.

European associations involved are those from Spain, Germany, Poland, France, Portugal, as well as the EUA and the Santander Group, which itself is already active in Latin American cooperation and mobility projects. THE reported that at least part of the motivation was the possibility of greater access to the Latin American student market, including in the context of the recently lowered mobility from Mexico to the US.
Brazil and Mexico offer recently contrasting fortunes and strategies, though all countries of the region pursue a mixed bag of initiatives: regional, bilateral and multilateral. The latter two are, by definition, more closely aligned with national goals. Brazil’s Science Without Borders programme shows that the bilateral approach is currently where the money is.