A recent blog by Luciane Stallivieri about the ambitious Brazilian mobility program of college students (Brazil's Science Without Borders Program, May 31, 2015) hit the nail on the head regarding several issues in this debate. Although the numbers are really impressive for a four-year-old program, Sallivieri mentioned several problems, including the selection of students, the language barriers and the lack of proper evaluation of the outcomes of the program.
These reflections resonate with a recent report on international mobility programs from eleven countries, commissioned by the British Council (UK) and the DAAD (Germany), that indicates that the results of the scholarships are not adequately monitored. The study was led by Prof. Philip Altbach of Boston College (USA), and the GO Group, and had the support of experts from eleven countries — Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. The study examined the motivations behind the national mobility programs, the size of the programs, how they were funded and managed, how students were selected, and how programs were evaluated. The full study (The rationale for sponsoring students to undertake international study: an assessment of national student mobility scholarship programmes) can be downloaded at: http://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/britishcouncil.uk2/files/outward_mobility.pdf.
Generally speaking, the study shows that many countries recognize the importance of international exchange to strengthen education and science and technology systems, and have launched mobility programs (of greater or lesser magnitude) towards this objective. In general, most of these countries seek to protect that investment by requiring that students return to their home countries for a given number of years after completing study abroad. However, there are very few examples of countries that monitor and routinely assess the impact and effectiveness of their scholarship programs abroad. There are no concrete data on student performance during their training abroad, on any change in performance after their return, on the perception of faculty of the possible benefits (academic, motivational, change of perspective), or the impact on job opportunities.
In addition, another interesting finding is that most programs do not have any follow-up programming to collect data that might improve the program in the future or facilitate the effective engagement of students returning to their country of origin. The study suggests that programs would maximize their impact if they had clearer objectives and took fuller advantage of the experience of returning students. The report clearly shows that most of the countries responsible for the scholarships schemes have not yet conducted studies to measure tangible benefits of mobility and generally limit outcomes measures to the number of scholarships and geographic breadth of the placements. It is essential that more comparative studies be carried out, so that countries can learn from best practices as well as the mistakes and successes of others. It would be interesting to build indicators related to the specific objectives of each program to analyze more consistently the impact of these public policy initiatives.
As soon as the “Science Without Borders” program was launched in 2011, I wrote an opinion article with some criticisms (see "Brazil Seeks Academic Boost by Sending Students Abroad"). At that moment, I raised several points:
- The challenge of finding enough qualified students, with minimum language requirements, capable and willing to travel abroad and study in top world universities.
- The importance to extend the program to other fields of knowledge (beyond STEM fields).
- The diplomatic problems with long-term HE partners, such as Portugal, causing some negative reactions.
- The unbalanced character of the program that should really be an exchange mobility program, with reciprocity from the counterpart university to support and stimulate their students to perform academic study in Brazil. This would be extremely beneficial to Brazilian universities to boost their incipient internationalization process.
- The issue of further planning and discussions concerning priorities for spending public money in overseas universities.
Unfortunately, most of these “predictions” have happened, and were enhanced by others, including the elitist character of the initiative that obviously privileged students with higher socio-economic background (better previous education, language skills, etc). Other problems appeared in the implementation process, with the placement of students, delays in the scholarships, and lack of communication with the home Universities. It is not clear yet how the academic grades are being interpreted by the Brazilian universities, and there are no figures regarding completion or dropout rates, distribution of students to different universities, or other important statistics that should be available to the public considering this huge public investment.
Finally, with the economic crisis that is now taking place in Brazil, there is a feeling among the scientific community that financial resources to the science and technology sector were redirected to the Science without Borders program, now suffering from a shortage of necessary investment.
There is no doubt that the Science without Borders program has produced many benefits, as mentioned in the Luciane Stallivieri essay. However, many problems must be addressed by the Brazilian government in the next phase of the program in order to make it more manageable, provide a better return for Brazilian society, and finally, to gain credibility among global partners and within the domestic higher education and science and technology sectors.
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