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Connecting with Brazil: Is the U.S. Moving Backwards?

I just concluded a trip to South America in which I had the opportunity to speak to audiences in Brazil and Chile, and to interact with colleagues involved in higher-education policy in the region. Today, I will refer to the Brazilian case.

As readers may be aware, higher education in Brazil has experienced tremendous growth in recent years. Currently, more than six million Brazilians are enrolled in higher education. In contrast, a decade ago, there were only two million students in the system. Most of the increase in capacity has come from the explosive growth of private institutions. A decade ago private institutions represented 60 percent of the national enrollment while today they attract 75 percent of students nationwide. Despite such spectacular growth, additional work remains to be done since, according to the OECD, only 10 percent of Brazilians between ages of 25 and 64 have some college education compared with countries such as the U.S. where 39 percent of the same age cohort has a college education.

There are many structural challenges associated with such massive growth, including limited connection with previous levels of education, excessive and rigid academic workload in most academic programs, a very low proficiency in a second language, practices of institutional governance preventing more professionalization in the management of institutions, and strict visa regulations which hinder the enrollment of more foreign students, among others.

Nevertheless, Brazilians have been able to define growth and consolidation of higher education as a major priority for national development. This includes not only creating new institutions–some of them with an intriguing international vision such as the Federal University of the Southern Border or the Federal University of Latin American Integration, but also allowing the private sector to invest in higher education. In addition, major efforts have been made to strengthen the teaching and research infrastructure in the country. For instance, at the selective University of Sao Paulo 98 percent of its faculty members have a Ph.D and 85 percent are full time. USP offers 207 doctoral programs in which more than 13,000 students are enrolled. It has a record of more than 7,500 indexed articles published internationally annually. This contributes to explain why USP is considered, along with UNAM in Mexico, as the top university in Latin America and among the most prestigious in the world.

Another prestigious institution, the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP), is graduating more than 800 Ph.D graduates on an annual basis, and it publishes more than 2,300 internationally indexed scientific articles.

More recently, the Brazilian government announced a massive program aimed at training more than 75,000 Brazilian graduate students abroad. The Brazilian government intends to prepare these students in selective and prestigious universities all over the world. Is the U.S. prepared to become involved in attracting a majority of these students? This requires the development of long-term relationship with peer institutions and a more active presence in the country. Some U.S. institutions such as my own, the University of Arizona, historically have developed strong linkages with peer institutions in Brazil and even have established a permanent group of faculty and staff members interested in developing collaboration. However, this is not a common practice. In fact, collaboration between U.S. institutions and Brazilian counterparts is in general still limited. For instance, at the University of Sao Paulo, 50 percent of their collaborative agreements are signed with European institutions, while only 10 percent are with universities in the U.S.

Although U.S. higher-education institutions should pay more attention to trends and collaborative opportunities in Brazil, programs aimed at strengthening inter-institutional collaboration between both countries have been suspended. At least, that is the case of the U.S.-Brazil Higher Education Consortia Program, managed by FIPSE in the U.S. and CAPES in Brazil. Since its inception in 2007 the U.S.-Brazil program has supported the creation of 51 partnerships in a variety of fields of study. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts at the federal level in the United States, the 2011 competition of the program was suddenly and unilaterally cancelled leaving a variety of partnerships between American and Brazilian institutions in limbo. Is this a wise idea? Sometimes it seems like we are walking backwards.

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