• Digital Tweed

    Digital Tweed® is the work of Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project. If successful, these posts will inform and entertain, and at times also annoy. A little dissonance can be a good thing.


Saudade Brasil

My colleague from São Paulo, Fredric Litto, offers insight and counsel for those interested in exploring academic opportunities and partnerships in Brazil.

December 13, 2012

[Editor's Note:  This guest post on Digital Tweed was prepared by my colleague Fredric Litto, professor emeritus at the University of São Paulo and the president of the ABED - The Brazilian Association for Distance Education.]

Visitors who come to Brazil and who have gained even a modest appreciation and understanding of the country and its culture often come to know one of the most popular words in Brazilian Portuguese: saudade.  This refers to one´s missing, or longing for, something or someone Brazilian: a place, food, or way of doing something; or even the nostalgia of Brazilian yearnings of yesteryear.  However, Elizabeth Redden’s informative article “All Eyes on Brazil” (October 4, 2012) highlights a new and different nuance of saudade --  a longing reflected in the “gold rush” attitude of a growing number of North American university administrators regarding potential opportunities to be found in the growing demand for post-secondary education in Brazil, a rapidly developing country that has jumped from 12th to 6th place in the ranking of the world’s economies in less than a decade.

Of course Brazil is just the current infatuation for American academics: China and the Gulf State nations preceded us. As with the American experience in Asia and the Gulf States, successful navigation of the terrain requires more than just enthusiasm and an institutional brand, particularly in an unfamiliar environment in which terminology can sometimes be misleading and customary expectations of academic and professional behavior can be shattered in the shortest time imaginable.

I speak of and about Brazil based on my experience as a Brooklyn-boy who (happily!) went native. I married a Brazilian exchange student while in graduate school at Indiana University some five decades ago. A research year here in 1970-71 supported by a SSRC-ACLS  grant expanded my love for my wife to include an infatuation and love for her country.  I resigned my faculty position at the University of Kansas and relaunched my academic career at the University of São Paulo, one of Brazil’s premier public research universities.

So let’s talk, candidly, about higher education in Brazil.  What must academic “gringos” (our term for any foreigner) understand about doing business with academic professionals and government ministers in Brazil?

Let´s begin with language. Here as elsewhere, nuance matters.  Knowing Spanish can help in communication in Brazil because it is an idiom rather easily understood by native-speakers of Portuguese.  But going in the opposite direction is not necessarily an easy task: the nasality of spoken Brazilian Portuguese, the peppering, in everyday talk, of current slang (especially that drawn from the latest televised soap opera) and indigenous people´s terms can be unsettling, and even baffling.

For example, ganância. in Spanish (the Latin-based language preferred by most North Americans), the word means “profit,” with no opprobrium whatever attached to it.  In Brazilian Portuguese, however, ganância has only one meaning: greed.  The potential for confusion and possibility of giving offense in an important negotiation is significant.

Language issues play out in other ways. The Brazilians, of late, have decidedly followed French and German habits of not accepting, without change, terms originally coined in English.  A “curso tecnológico” (technological course) normally has nothing whatever to do with technology—it simply refers to a large segment of undergraduate courses which compact content into two or three year programs (much like community college courses in the United States) and getting students out into the job market more quickly.  The same is true of English terms such as “blended learning” (in Portuguese called “aprendizagem semi-presencial” — semi-presence learning).

Similarly,  I always enjoy telling visiting scholars or high-level administrators from abroad that the official protocol in Brazil (inherited from the Portuguese who were the colonial power for over 300 years) for addressing, in writing or orally, a university rector is, simply, “Your Magnificence” (Vossa Magnificência).  Not even the President of the Brazil receives such an honorific — s(he) only gets a “Your Excellency.”  Not surprisingly, more than one visiting campus president or chancellor from Europe or the United States seemed eager rush home to implant the Vossa Magnificência practice immediately.     

The historical context in which higher education developed in Brazil helps to  explain some of the differences encountered by academic visitors. Whereas the Spanish created universities in their colonies in the New World as early as the 17th century, Portugal prohibited the publication of books and periodicals until the beginning of the 19th century, when its king, fleeing from Napoleon, moved to Brazil, bringing with him his library, his printing presses, and his desire to “bring a little culture” to his largest colony by creating four “technical schools” (one for medicine, two for law, and for one mining), but not a university, where people might think, criticize and upset his kingdom.  Only in the early 20th century were public instruction (K-12) and higher education begun in Brazil, catering exclusively to the elite of society throughout the country.  The democratization of access to higher learning began only in the 1960s, slowly increasing until the late 1990s.  Hence the relative “youth” of Brazilian universities, learned societies, and scholarly libraries.   (For an in-depth account of how, in Latin America, policies on socio-economic issues, including education, are created and maintained,  The Politics of Policies, a 2005 research report produced by Inter- American Development Bank, is a must-read document.)

The academic entrepreneur who seeks opportunities in Brazil should be mindful of the education landscape and infrastructure as he or she maps issues and opportunities:

  • For the vast majority of children in public schools, the K-12 school day in Brazil is a four-hour day.  It is only with great difficulty can  this limited school day be expected to prepare the millions of educated citizens needed for the knowledge economy of a modern nation.
  • The principal classification of tertiary (postsecondary) institutions is: public (federal, state and municipal) which are totally tuition-free (at least for the foreseeable future); confessional (sponsored by religious denominations); private, not-for-profit ; and private for-profit.
  • At present just over six million students are enrolled in higher education in Brazil, which is 14 percent of the cohort group of 18-24 year olds in the general population.  In contrast, both Argentina, Chile and Bolivia have 35 percent of the same age group matriculated in higher education. In order to reach the goal of sustaining a world-class position, we here in Brazil must at least triple the number of post-secondary students in the next few years.
  • Public universities in Brazil enroll about twenty percent of the students.  In contrast, for-profit postsecondary institutions, some owned by families and some by large multinational corporations, account for almost eighty percent of the students pursuing postsecondary education in Brazil.
  • Compared to many other nations, distance education at the postsecondary level (now in a transition from satellite-based teleclassrooms to web-based learning), started here in Brazil very late, in 2002.  But distance education has grown dramatically over the past decade and currently enrolls over one million students, representing 20 percent of all undergraduate and postgraduate students.  Launched in 2006, the federal government´s tuition-free Open University of Brazil, a consortium of over 90 public institutions, already has 250,000 students, and it is growing rapidly.
  • Article 207 of the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 gives autonomy to institutions holding the designation “university” in areas of pedagogy, administration and finances.  However, the Ministry of Education, located in Brasília, finds it necessary to monitor postsecondary institutions, both public and private/for-profit (especially the latter), to avoid the practice of infractions in the categories of consumerism and academic quality, and, in extreme cases, suspend their activities.
  • Public institutions which are research oriented, promote faculty on the basis of scientific productivity, impose light course loads, and offer attractive retirement plans. The faculty union for public universities is highly proactive, frequently staging general strikes for higher salaries; in 2012, the strike, in all federal institutions, lasted 180 days, requiring major rescheduling of academic activities for hundreds of thousands of students.
  • Instructors in private for-profit entities tend to possess less-advanced academic degrees, are paid according to the number of hours taught, and are not expected to engage in research. For-profit institutions periodically engage in a “weeding process” in which doctoral-degree holding professors, who receive higher per-hour remuneration than those holding only masters degrees, are let go; retirement plans are modest for this category.
  • There is no “liberal arts” education in Brazil, nor do universities here impose  “distribution requirements” which expose students to other areas of study besides their own.  Medicine, law, journalism and library science are all self-contained undergraduate programs.
  • Home-study (K-12) is prohibited by federal law. With one or two exceptions, there are no special programs for gifted students; no advanced placement programs; no intercollegiate sports; no tradition of debating activities in schools or universities; with the exception of several rural universities (specialized in agronomy and agro-business) and one specialized engineering school, there are no residential institutions where students live on campus;  thus, almost all learners have only the option of a “street-car college” education.
  • Unlike North American students, who customarily develop an affective relation to the high school and university where they study, and continue this attitude over the years after graduation, in Brazil, with a handful of exceptions, there are no alumni associations, no homecoming activities, and no major donations to institutions, public or private, on the part of former students.
  • When negotiating with administrators, it would be advisable to recall that here in Brazil  there is an enormous tolerance for ambiguity, a preference for avoiding confrontation, and a conscious effort to not cause “loss of face” for anyone involved in the negotiation process. Administrators rarely say “No!” when offered a proposal that they do not favor.  Instead, they place the document in a drawer from which it never is withdrawn but is reported as being “still under consideration.”
  • In public institutions, the rectorship, (the equivalent of the president or chancellor of an American university) is an elected position which changes every four years, even though the law permits a second term.  This frequent rotation of leadership gives each political group within the university its period of power, placing its natural leader in the top position, and eliminating the need for searching outside the institution for new leadership. On the other hand, it frequently means that agreements, national or international, are not necessarily carried forward under the new administration. Additionally, the decision-making process in public institutions can be extremely sluggish, requiring approval by collegiate committees at various levels. In contrast, private/for-profit institutions typically experience far less leadership churn and also move faster to close negotiations.   
  • There is considerable lack of knowledge, among university administrators in Brazil, of the general operating procedures and principles of North American postsecondary institutions, even among those individuals who did their graduate studies in North America, but kept their attention fixed only on departmental affairs. In general, the social sciences and humanities professors in Brazil tend to study in European institutions, and favor the academic literature and didactic models from that part of the world. In contrast, faculty in the technological and professional fields tend to study in North American universities and  generally prefer American-models for academic productivity. Consequently, any efforts at establishing agreements with new institutional partners should always include detailed memorandums of procedures and expectations set forward by both sides.
  • Unfortunately, anti-Americanism still exists in some Brazilian universities (particularly in the public research institutions), a vestige of the rapid recognition and extended support which the United States government gave to the military regime which upset a legally-elected left-leaning government in 1964 and continued in power for twenty years. As a new, younger generation begins to assume the positions of leadership in Brazilian universities, it is possible to see ever less ideologically-based decision-making, and that is to the good. The tensions which have long characterized the philosophic differences between the European and North American academic communities are still, slowly, fading away, helped by gestures like Brazil´s Science Without Frontiers program, the European Community´s many scholarly exchange programs, and the United States´ Fulbright Program, among others, which are sure to converge to meet the overall goal of drawing together, into a single community of learning and practice, students of all ages and fields of study.

The bullet points above suggest a long list of daunting barriers to doing partnerships in Brazil.  Yet Brazil needs foreign investors, including academic investors: the tested experience of centuries-old educational institutions in North America and Europe will be essential if Brazil is to triple postsecondary enrollments over the next decade.  Brazil´s ambition to play a more important role on the world scene depends on its ability to develop a qualified work force which in number and excellence can sustain our hopes and aspirations. In return, Brazil can provide its international partners with inventive and imaginative faculty members, and also graduate and undergraduate apprentices who, in conjunction with their own human resources, can advance knowledge and work towards making a more just, more productive, and better informed society in general.


Biographical Note:  Brooklyn-born Fredric Litto is a professor emeritus at the University of Sao Paulo, where he served as a professor of communications for 36 years.  Dr. Litto was the founding director of the University's  Escola do Futuro (School of the Future), a self- sustaining laboratory begun in 1989 and consisting of some 70 researchers/producers of digital learning materials, digital open-content multimedia repositories of humanistic material for learners in Portuguese, and learning objects in science education used annually by over two million young and adult learners.  He currently serves as the president of ABED — The Brazilian Association for Distance Education — which he helped to found in 1995.  Prof. Litto is also a member of the Board of Trustees of ICDE-International Council of Open and Distance Education (Oslo).


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