Five Reasons Why Brazil Doesn’t Move Up the Rankings

The language of instruction and most national journals in Brazil is Portuguese, so the country loses essential points.

December 4, 2017

In a race for the top spots, how can you compete at the same level of the big players? In the world of higher education it is not an easy task. When looking at the better-known rankings—the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) and Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings—one has to notice that the institutions in the top 30 have not changed significantly in recent years. In the THE, the biggest change has been the inclusion of two Chinese universities—Peking University, ranked 42 in 2016 and 27 in the current 2018 edition, and Tsinghua University, 35 in in 2017 and 30 in 2018.

Brazil, another developing country and included in the BRICs, cannot seem to achieve similar success. With more than 200 million inhabitants and 8 million students in higher education, the country currently has six institutions in the top ARWU 500: the University of Sao Paulo in the 151-200 range; the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and the State University of Sao Paulo in the 301-400 range; the Federal University of Minas Gerais, the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and the University of Campinas in the 401-500 range. In the Times Higher Education top 500 rankings, only the University of Sao Paulo (251-300 range group) and the State University of Campinas (401-500) are present. It is worth noting that these institutions are public and tuition-free, unique in comparison with most institutions in the top 500 rankings.

So why can’t Brazil rise to the challenge and place its universities at the top? Five reasons help explain this. First, one must consider that the university curriculum is an important factor in talent development. Brazilian students must follow rigid and highly-specialized programs of study for four to six years that include a dissertation at the end and without the possibility of choosing which classes to take or exploring different areas. Thus, students are forced to think similarly, something that does not contribute to creativity or innovation, necessary skills in today’s society.  If students do not like the program of study, they must drop out and retake the admission exams, a tradition that contributes to high dropout rates that reached 49% in 2014 (it was 11.4% in 2010). 

Second, rankings prioritize research as an important criterion in their methodology, with ARWU using “scientometrics” as the only criteria to rank institutions. This favors countries whose language of instruction is English as the most important research tends to be published in English-language journals. As the language of instruction and most national journals in Brazil is Portuguese, the country loses essential points in the rankings for not devoting broad system wide efforts to publishing in English. This issue has been addressed by the Ministry of Education and CAPES, the national commission for the development of higher education. Two initiatives are taking place: one is “Languages Without Borders,” that offers language courses to students, faculty and staff in federal universities, and the second is using foreign languages as one of the criteria for rating graduate programs and academic production.

The third problem is the form of governance operating at public institutions. Administrators are also faculty members who are typically elected every four years—once the administration changes, institutional agenda and priorities may also change. This inhibits the development of a stable academic culture.

In addition, the national government also plays an important role in managing (or hindering) the development of public universities. For instance, there is no policy for universities to receive alumni donations. Out of 2,500 institutions, only eight universities receive funds from alumni, with the University of São Paulo receiving US$3.3 million since 2012. Furthermore, the country has failed to establish policies to encourage partnerships between public universities and the private sector, an important source of funding for other nations that also highlights the poor connection between the higher education sector and the country’s economic and social needs. Only a few public universities located in the state of São Paulo are successful at this. Private universities are pursuing a different strategy by opening technological parks on their campuses that welcome local and foreign universities with open arms.

Lastly, the government fails to develop and implement initiatives properly. One glaring example is the Science Without Borders Program that offered 100,000 scholarships to Brazilian students to study abroad during the period of 2012-2016. From its inception to the first phase of implementation six months later, the program failed to establish reasonable goals or indicators to measure success or impact in the long term. It also did not take into consideration the general lack of proficiency in foreign languages, a factor that generated additional costs since the Ministry of Education was forced to pay for language courses at the host institutions. The total investment in the program surpassed the $4 billion mark and likely could have been better invested applied to the improvement of Brazilian institutions with benefits reaching a much larger public higher education population. It is clear that the government does not have clearly defined priorities. Had the government invested on their universities in the same manner as China, Brazil’s presence on the international landscape might be completely different now.

In summary, Brazil has a unique higher education system that has been able to insert several institutions in the top 500 of the rankings. Nevertheless, the future is not guaranteed as other institutions, mainly in China, are benefiting from larger investments in academic dimensions that are favored by ranking methodologies. If the Brazilian government wants to improve its international position, it will have to increase expenditures in education, currently 4.9% of GDP and allocate resources properly. Considering that the country is currently mired in recession and political turmoil, it is hard be optimistic about change any time soon.


Kelber Tozini is a masters student at Boston College and a research assistant at the Center for International Higher Education. His research focuses on the students' choice process to study abroad and the impact of large-scale mobility programs. 




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Kelber David Tozini

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