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This is the second blog on The World View this week that addresses challenges and initiatives for Brazil's efforts to internationalize higher education. 


The Brazilian Ministry of Education announced last month the launch of a US$ 90 million program called Institutional Program for the Internationalization of Brazilian Higher Education and Research Institutions (Capes-PrInt). This news comes 7 months after the announcement of the end of the Science Without Borders scholarship program, which sent more than 100,000 Brazilian college students in STEM fields to study abroad. The funds will be disbursed as grants given to Brazilian higher education and research institutions to fund up to 40 internationalization projects in knowledge areas prioritized by the institutions themselves. A call for proposals is a smart strategy after the Science Without Borders (SWB) program ended with so much criticism about its goals, design, and the return on investment. Letting higher education institutions develop projects that addresses their own needs will put the responsibility for properly spending public funds in the hands of those who are best equipped to promote internationalization in Brazil.

Higher education in Brazil is largely seen as a public good. There are a little over 100 public universities and these are fully funded by the government. Since access to the public institutions is highly competitive and the number of Brazilians interested in pursuing a college degree highly outweigh the number of seats available in these institutions, there is a large number of demand-absorbing for-profit institutions, which often provide low-quality services at a low tuition rate. It was in this context that Brazil’s former president, Dilma Rousseff, implemented the popular Science Without Borders scholarship program.


Investing in International Student Mobility

The Science Without Borders (SWB) program was an enormous attempt at internationalizing the Brazilian higher education. The goal was to send 100,000 undergraduate and graduate students in STEM fields to study abroad. The scholarships allowed students to spend one year at foreign universities considered by the Brazilian government to be of high quality so that they could have access to resources and opportunities that Brazilian universities could not provide.

The initial design of the program was problematic. The program did not address aspects of internationalization other than student mobility, particularly difficulties resulting from the very nature of the Brazilian higher education context. The Brazilian system was not prepared to deal with high numbers of transfer credits from the U.S. and European Higher Education Area. Many students returned without being able to incorporate credits they received abroad towards their degree in Brazil. While the knowledge gained from these courses will most likely be extremely valuable for students regardless, poor planning often delayed a returning student’s graduation by one year or more.

Another challenge for the SWB was the low English language proficiency of the scholarship recipients. During the early stages of the program, students who had been granted the scholarship but did not have the required English language proficiency were given the opportunity to spend one academic year studying English as a Second Language (ESL) in the host country. At the end of this period, a large number of students were still not able to meet the minimum language requirements of the host institution and the SWB program was obliged to fund an additional semester of ESL. Funding language training in a foreign country had not been a goal of the SWB. As a result, an enormous allocation of resources were diverted to preparing students to study abroad, while abroad. Had the administrators of the SWB program prepared better and made arrangements for these students to receive foreign language training in Brazil, costs would have been reduced significantly.

Science Without Borders was very popular among students, many of whom explained that without the scholarship they would never have had the chance to study abroad. Many say that it was an important opportunity to develop English language skills and it is true that better English skills will help these students academically and professionally. However, improving English language capacity was not the goal of the program. Rather, giving limited and low-income students opportunities to studying abroad was one of the main points in Rousseff’s reelection campaign and it is still unclear what impact the SWB had in achieving this or in internationalizing Brazilian higher education.


A New Attempt

The Capes-PrInt is a new attempt at internationalization that comes with a smaller budget and more strategic goals. The Ministry of Education has determined that 70% of the resources will be put towards partnerships with foreign institutions from countries that have maintained effective cooperation with Capes, among them, the United States. American institutions may see an increase in interest for partnerships. Other guidelines for the projects include hiring faculty with internationally recognized work and hosting international scholars. It is certainly a shift from a shiny scholarship program with unsustainable costs that was widely used as political capital.

One major and ambitious goal of the Capes-PrInt program is to transform colleges and universities into internationally-oriented institutions. By developing research networks, international cooperation, and the mobility of faculty and graduate students, it will promote change that should benefit more cohorts of students. The projects are planned to start in August 2018 and should last up to 4 years. The Brazilian government is showing awareness that higher education in Brazil needs to invest in internationalization in order to stay relevant and that only investing in sending students abroad and restricting investments in STEM fields may not be enough.

The US$ 90 million budget for the Capes-PrInt is small compared to the more US$ 2 billion spent with the SWB. A 4-year program with a small budget is not going to elevate Brazil to an internationally competitive level in terms of higher education. However, investing in domestic institutions and leaving a legacy of international initiatives for future cohorts of students may be more successful than the SWB ever was.


Roberto Arruda is a doctoral student in Higher Education Administration at Kent State University


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