By John Bramwell

31 October 2013 - 16:40

Students graduating from UNESP in Brazil. Photo (c) Luiz Gustavo Leme, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
Students graduating from UNESP in Brazil. Photo ©

Luiz Gustavo Leme, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

The British Council's John Bramwell describes how the booming South American economy faces complex challenges, following a recent discussion among Brazilian university leaders about how to improve the country's higher education system.

How Latin America is dealing with higher education issues

In Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, education and policy leaders are debating new issues in higher education and skills. Questions include how universities can work with business to meet the critical needs of people in their countries, how to open access without sacrificing quality, and how international education can have real impact on research, rather being just ‘academic tourism’.

We asked senior higher education leaders in each country to focus on a particular debate on behalf of the region. They'll share their conclusions at Going Global, the British Council's annual international higher education conference, which will be in Miami in April 2014. What comes out of those discussions will be reflected in policy and national strategy in their home country.

Brazil's higher education challenges

In Brazil, universities are wrestling with what international education should look like, and what purpose it should serve. As the Rector of the Federal University of Rio Grande de Sul, Dr Professor Carlos Netto put it, when talking about the problems of international collaboration: 'Love at first sight is fine; but trust at first sight? Now that is far more difficult.'

All this is happening in a complex country context. For the first time, no Brazilian university appears in the top 200 world universities. That's despite being halfway through one of the world’s most ambitious outward mobility programmes, the Brazilian government's Science without Borders scheme, which funds 100,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students to the world’s best universities.

There are further challenges. Research spending has doubled in the last five years, but the number of international patents remains stuck at 13,800. Brazil boasts one of the world’s most rapidly developing economies, but many of its population are out of work, or prone to debilitating sicknesses like diabetes.

At the moment, Brazil has more than 2,400 universities, and five to six new institutions open every month. With growth this fast, it's hard for Brazilian government policy to keep up with the pace of higher education expansion. But despite the country's soaring youth population, there isn't a big pool of potential student talent for universities to draw from. Over 50% of Brazilian high school students do not complete their studies.

Managing Brazil's extraordinary growth

So, why have Brazil’s universities failed to connect its business strength with its society’s needs? How can Brazil turn new ideas into practical solutions for critical problems? And how can the nation’s higher education quality standards keep up with very high proportionate growth?

The Brazilian university leaders at the British Council's Global Education Dialogue in Brazil said that quality doesn’t have to be sacrificed for large scale access to education. But, they warned, it will be, if growth is allowed to continue unmanaged and unchecked. National quality assurance systems must step up to the mark, if Brazil is to attract and retain academic talent.

They argued that universities do not exist only to advance knowledge, but to answer society’s needs. There is a balance that must transcend individual government priorities, and this balance must evolve, rather than be prescribed.

Finally, they said that money does make a difference - so long as funds are targeted to meet a specific need. Research should be focused on areas that need it. Where there is money, research will follow, but business, government and academia need to work together to make sure that the gold rush is in the right direction, and ensure that the knowledge is transferred and research flows back into new products and services. The decisions they make must be swift and smart. Not only is standing still not an option, but slow progress isn’t either. Rapidly managed growth is the only way forward in a competitive and challenging world.

The question is, who should take the lead in managing this expansion? What's the right balance between universities' autonomy, and government steer, for Brazil's higher education growth?

If these Brazilian education leaders are right about these issues, then the implications for their country are significant and will shape national thinking and policy on higher education.

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