May 21, 2024

Universities in Brazil are too closed to the world, and that's bad for innovation

When Brazilian president Dilma Roussef visited China in the beginning of May, she came back with some good news (maybe too good to be entirely true). Among them, the announcement that Foxconn, the largest maker of electronic components, will invest US$12 billion to open a large industrial plant in the country. The goal is to produce iPads and other key electronic components locally.

The announcement was praised, and made it quickly to the headlines of all major newspapers. There is certainly reason for excitement. Brazil lost important waves of economic development, including industrialization (which only really happened in the 1940´s), or the semiconductor wave, an industry that has shown but a few signs of development in the country until now. (continue reading)

The president´s news also included the announcement that Foxconn would hire 100 thousand employees for the new plant, being 20% of them engineers. The numbers raised skepticism, for various reasons. Not only they seem exaggerated, but Brazil simply does not have 20,000 engineers available for hire. In 2008, the number of engineers in the country was 750,000 and the projection is that if growth rates continue at the same level, a deficit deficit in engineers is expected for the next years.

The situation increases the pressure over universities to train engineers and also to cope with the demands of development and innovation. This is a complex debate, but it is worth focusing on one aspect of the Brazilian university system: its isolation from the rest of the world. In short, Brazilian universities, both in terms of students and faculty, are almost entirely made of Brazilians. As an example, at the University of Sao Paulo (USP), the largest and most important university in the country, only 2,8% of a total 56,000 students are international international. In most other universities the number of international students tend to be even smaller. Regarding faculty, the situation is not different. There have been a few recent efforts by some institutions (mostly private) to increase the number of international professors. But there is still a long way to go.

The low degree of internationalization is already causing problems. For instance, it makes it difficult for Brazilian universities to score well on world ranks. By way of example, no Brazilian university has ever been included in the top 200 universities of the Times Higher Education World Ranking, a ranking that pays especial attention to internationalization efforts.

Even if rankings might not be the main issue, the fact that the university system is essentially inward-looking indeed creates problems, making it harder for innovation. For instance, many of Foxconn’s new plant engineers might end up being hired abroad. If some sort of integration is not established with Brazilian universities, that will consist of a missed opportunity for transferring technology or developing local capacity.

The challenges of integrating such a large operation with universities are huge. Even for small scale cooperation, it turns out that the majority of universities in Brazil are unprepared to deal with international visitors, either students or faculty. For an international professor to be formally hired by a local university, she will have in most cases have to validate her degree in Brazil. The validation process can be Kafkian, requiring lots o paperwork (including “sworn translations”) and time, often months or years. This poses a challenge not only for professors seeking to teach in Brazil, but also to Brazilian who obtained a degree abroad and return home. Local boards of education do not recognize international degrees, regardless if they have been awarded by Princeton or the Free University of Berlin. Students return home formally with the same academic credentials they had before obtaining a degree abroad. The market often recognize the value of the international degrees, but the the university system does not.

The challenges are visible also at the very practical level. Most of universities do not have an office in charge of foreign admissions or international faculty or students. Many professors who venture into the Brazilian university system will go through the process without formal support, counting on the efforts and enthusiasm of local peer professors who undertake the work of dealing with the details of the visit (obtaining a Visa, work permit, or the long bureaucratic steps to get the visitor’s salary actually being paid).

The lack of internationalization is bad innovation. As pointed out by Princeton’s computer science professor Kai Li during a recent conference on technology cooperation between the US and China organized by the Center for Information Technology Policy, the presence of international students and faculty in US universities has been crucial for innovation. Kai emphasizes the importance of maintaining an ecosystem for innovation, which not only attracts the best students to local universities, but help retain them after graduation. Many will work on research, create start-ups or get jobs in the tech industry. The same point was made recently by Lawrence Lessig at his recent G8 talk in France, where he claimed that a great deal of innovation in the US was made by “outsiders”.

Another important aspect of the lack of internationalization in Brazil is the lack of institutional support. Government funding organizations, such as CAPES, CNPQ, Fapesp and others, play an important role. But Brazil still lacks both public and private institutions aimed specifically at promoting integration, Brazilian culture and international exchange (along the lines of Fulbright, the Humboldt Foundation, or institutes like Cervantes, Goethe or the British Council).

As mentioned by Volker Grassmuck, a German media studies professor who spent 18 months as a researcher at the University of Sao Paulo: “The Brazilian funding institutions do have grants for visiting researchers, but the application has to be sent locally by the institution. In the end of my year in Sao Paulo I applied to FAPESP, the research funding age of the Sao Paulo state, but it did not work out, since my research group did not have a research project formalized there”.

He compares the situation with German universities, saying that “when I started teaching at Paderborn University which is a young (funded in 1972) mid-sized (15.000 students) university in a small town, the first time I walked across campus, I heard Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, Turkish and Spanish. At USP during the entire year I never heard anything but Portuguese”. (see Volker’s full interview below)

Of course any internationalization process at this point has to be very well planned. In Brazil, 25% of the universities are public and 75% private. There is still a huge deficit of places for local students, even with the university population growing quite fast in the past 6 years. In 2004 Brazil had 4,1 milllion university students. In 2010, the number reached 6,5 million. However, only 20% of young students in Brazil find a place at the university system, different from the 43% in Chile or 61% in Argentina. The country still struggles to provide access to its own students at universities. But at the same time, the effort of internationalization should not be understood as competing with expanding access. The challenge for Brazil is actually to do both things at the same time: expanding access to local students, and promoting internationalization. If Brazil wants to play a role as an important emerging economy, that´s the way to go (no one said it would be easy!). One thing should not exclude the other.

In this sense, João Victor Issler, an economics professor at EPGE (the Graduate School of Economics at Fundação Getulio Vargas), has a pragmatic view about the issue. He says: “inasmuch as Brazil develops economically, it will inexorably increase the openness of the university system. I am not saying that there should not be specific initiatives to increase internationalization, but an isolated process will be limited. More important than the internationalization of students and faculty is opening the economy to commerce and finance, a process that will directly affect long-term economic development and all its variables: education, innovation and the work force”. João Victor´s point is important. If internationalization follows development, there is already some catch up to do. The country has developed significantly in the past 16 years, but that has not corresponded to any significant improvement in the internationalization of universities.

A few strategies might help achieving more openness on the part of Brazilian universities, without necessarily competing with the goal of expanding access to local students. One of them is the use ICT´s for international collaboration. Another is providing support to what is already working. But there is more that could be done to improve internationalization. Here is a short list:

a) Development organizations such as the World Bank or the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB) can play an important role. Once the internationalization goal is defined, they could provide the necessary support, in partnership with local institutions.

b) Pay attention to the basics: creating specific departments to centralize support for international students and faculty. They should be responsible for the strategy, but also help with practical matters, such as Visa, travel, and coping with the local bureaucracy.

c) The majority of Brazilian universities´ websites are only in Portuguese. Even the webpage of the International Cooperation Commission at the University of Sao Paulo is mostly in Portuguese, and many of the English links are broken.

d) Increase the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT´s) as a tool for cooperation and for integrating students and faculty with international projects. Increasing distance learning programs and cooperation mediated by ICT´s is a no-brainer.

e) Create a prize system for internationalization projects, to be awarded every few years to the educational institution that best advanced that goal.

f) Consider a policy-effective tax break to the private sector (which might include private universities), in exchange for developing successful research centers that include an international component.

g) Brazilian organizations funding research should seek to increase support to international researchers and professors who would like to develop projects in Brazil.

h) Regional integration is the low-hanging fruit. Attracting the best students from other Latin American countries is an opportunity to kickstart international cooperation

i) Map what is already in place, identifying what is working in terms of internationalization and supporting its expansion.

j) Brazil needs an innovation research lab. Large investment packages, such as the government support to Foxconn´s new plant should include integration with universities and the creation of a public/private research center, focused on innovation.

Below are the the complete interviews with Volker Grassmuck and João Victor Issler, with their perspectives on the issue.

Interview with Volker Grassmuck

Volker is currently a lecturer at Paderborn University. He spent 18 months in Brazil as a visiting researcher affiliated with the University of Sao Paulo. His visit contributed significantly to the Brazilian copyright reform debate. He partnered with local researchers and law professors (as well as artists and NGO’s) to develop an innovative compensation system for artists, which has become part of the copyright reform debate.

1) How do you think the Brazilian Universities are prepared to receive students and professors/researchers from abroad?

I did not experience any special provisions for foreigners at USP. The inviting professor has to navigate university bureaucracy for the visiting researcher just as for any Brazilian researcher. I did experience a number of bizarre situations, but these were not specific to me, but the same for all in our research group.

E.g.: In order to receive my grant I was forced to open an account with the only bank that has an office on the USP Leste campus. The money from Ford Foundation was already there, and it was exactly the same amount that was supposed to be made over to my account at the same day of the month. But every single month had to remind the person in our group in charge of administrative issues that the money had not arrived. She would then go to the university administration to pick up a check that physically had to be carried to the bank to deposit it there. If the single person in the administration in charge was ill this would be delayed until that person came back.

Another path a foreigner can pursue is to apply for a professorship at a Brazilian university. I looked into this while I was there and got advice from a few people who had actually done this. Prerequisite would be a “revalidating” my German Ph.D. This is a long procedure, requiring originals and copies of diploma, grades etc. authenticated by the Brazilian Consulate, a copy of the dissertation, maybe even a translation into Portuguese, an examination similar to the original Ph.D. examination plus some extras (e.g. “didactics”) that you don’t have at a German university and a fee, in the case of USP, of R$ 1,530.00. In other words, Brazilian academy does not trust Free University of Berlin to issue valid Ph.Ds and requires me to essentially go through the whole Ph.D. procedure all over again. And then I would be able to take a “public competition”, which is yet another procedure unlike anything required by a German university.

2) What is the situation in the German universities? Are they prepared and/or do receive foreign students and professors/researcher?

Being German I have not experienced being a foreign student or researcher here. But here are some impressions: When I started teaching at Paderborn University which is a young (funded in 1972) mid-sized (15.000 students) university in a small town, the first time I walked across campus, I heard Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Arabic, Turkish and Spanish. At USP during the entire year I never heard anything but Portuguese, except in the language course where there were people from other Latin American countries, two women from Spain and one visiting researcher from the US. Staff at Paderborn is less international, but once or twice a week there is a presentation by a guest speaker from a university in Europe or beyond.

This is anecdotal, of course. I’m sure objective numbers would show a different picture. The Centrum für Hochschulentwicklung (CHE) does a regular ranking of German universities. It includes their international orientation. This year’s result: the business faculties at universities of applied science are leading with 50%. Only 35% of universities got ranked as being internationally oriented, with sociology and political sciences being the weakest.

I wonder how Brazilian universities would rank by the same standards.

c) Do you think there is a connection between innovation and foreign students at local universities?

No doubt about it. I did see an international orientation is two forms: 1. People read the international literature in the fields I’m interested in in. But without having actual people to enter into a dialogue with this often remains a reproduction or at best an application of innovations to Brazil. 2. People travel and study abroad. A few students and professors travel extensively. Some students from our group went to Bolivia, Mozambique, France during my year there. So there is a certain internationalization „from Brazil” but my overwhelming impression was that there is very little academic internationalization „of Brazil.”

Interview with João Victor Issler

Joao Victor Issler is an economics professor at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas Graduate School of Economics, who has been been closely following the recent internationalization efforts. His full bio here.

a) How do you see the presence of international students and faculty at the Brazilian universities?

The presence of of both is quite rare. There are a few isolated efforts here and there by a few groups. For example, in Economics, we have PUC-Rio (Pontifical Catholic University at Rio) in Economics and IMPA (National Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics) who have at their masters and Ph.D. level students from Argentina, Chile, Peru etc. Our school, EPGE (FGV Graduate Scool of Economics) hires professors outside Brazil, but we do not have specific incentives for international students. Beyond Economics, I know that the University of Sao Paulo is seeking to attract international students, but it is hard to tell at what schools and how many

b) Foxcoon announced it will open a new plant in Brazil, and will hire 20,000 engineers for that. We clearly don´t have that many engineers. Do you think that the internationalization of universities could help the country to build better capacity for developing its tech-industry?

These numbers announced cannot be trusted. In any way, the general perception is that there is a deficit of engineers in Brazil. The tech-market, however, is an endogenous variable, correlated to our GDP per capita, the level of education of the working force, number of houses with access to drinkable water, infrastructure, etc. Inasmuch as Brazil develops economically, it will inexorably increase the openness of the university system. I am not saying that there should not be specific initiatives to increase internationalization, but an isolated process will be limited. More important than the internationalization of students and faculty is opening the economy to commerce and finance, a process that will directly affect long-term economic development and all its variables: education, innovation and the work force.

c) In other countries, there are institutions such as the Goethe Institute, or the Humboldt Foundation in Germany, that end up attracting international talents. The same goes for the US, with the Fulbright program. Why not in Brazil?

Germany and other European countries face problems due to the shape of their age demographic pyramid, whose base is small compared to the top. They have a better capacity to offer places in the university, that go beyond German students. Thus, it is possible to attract international students, in order to fill the present capacity. It is hard to say how this structure will evolve. They might reduce the installed capacity, or increase the search for international students. And they are looking for Brazilian students, for instance, especially engineers. Generally, developed countries tend to attract good students (and wealthier) than the developing countries, what explains this movement towards Germany, the US or Canada. To me, the US are the most important model regarding the higher education industry. In the beginning of the 20th Century, there were already many Japanes and Chinese students at universities in the US and Europe. With the development of Japan, this movement decreased in the end of the Century. Brazil today (for instance, the University of Sao Paulo) attrachs a few good students from Latin America. And it could attract more if we develop faster than the rest of the region. In Brazil, CAPES (for which I was an advisor until recently) plays a similar role than the institutions you mentioned. They are engaged in several bilateral agreements for students and professors. This openness is certainly positive. For students and professors, it is important to consider the hierarchy and quality: the best students tend to go to the US and Europe. We end up with the midle, and others go to countries where the development level is lower. As I mentioned, I don’t believe it is possible to change this pattern unilaterally, unless we want to apply huge public resources on that. In my view, it is not a priority, given the current levels of subsidies already applied to higher education in comparison with fundamental education in Brazil.

d) In your opinion, and considering the experience of EPGE, what are the advantages or disadvantages of increasing interationalization at Brazilian universities? Would that reduce space for Brazilians?

Increasing the universe of choice always improves the final results. Therefore, I see only advantages and I don’t see how we can be against internationalization. However, as I mentioned, I believe that an unilateral process will be limited to change higher education in Brazil (and also its impact on innovation and technology). Openning universities might not reduce the places for Brazilians, provided it is an organized and planned movement, correlated to our development level. If it is unilateral, then there can be indeed a loss for Brazilian students and professors.

e) Finally, do you see a relation between innovation and the internationalization of universities?

Yes, I do think the relation is positive between the two variables, but I don’t think it is possible to take any of them as isolated variables.


  1. Daniel Vargas says

    Great post. There are trends to internationalize universities all over the world. The debate is increasingly important even within law schools.

  2. Congratulations Prof. Ronaldo Lemos.
    It is grateful to read such crisp thoughts well articulated about the conditions of the Brazilian Universities.
    It does reflect the precariousness of the system and how much effort should be directed to make Brazil good in essence and not only cosmetically. Internationalization plays a major role in development, and the government knows that plain development is only achieved after years of generous investments in R&D and Basic Education.
    Closed-mind, narrow thinking and bureaucracy are the biggest threats to the Brazilian Educational System.

  3. lindy lin` says

    More complex than just to decide to internationalize Brazilian universities, Seems a bit off-topic

  4. Anonymous says

    How so?

  5. Anonymous says

    Acho que as pessoas não entenderam que os assunto a ser discutido é sobre a internacionalização das nossas universidades ou seja o intercambio de professores e alunos estrangeiros, o que contribui para a diversificar as experiências acadêmicas.
    Então chega pessoas reclamando da falta de negros nas universidades. Me polpe, quem não tem oportunidade pode muito bem criar sua oportunidade saindo da zona de conforto e até mesmo aproveitar o sistema de cotas que explicita ´´ a inferioridade do negro que precisa de vagas extras para entrarem na univerisidade´´, então seria isso que os negros deveriam fazer para garatirem seu lugar ao sol ao invés de assumirem um estado de coitadismo.

  6. Anonymous says

    Deveriam contar quantos alunos negros ou professores negros existem nas universidades brasileiras, isso sim.

  7. Anonymous says

    “O presidente brasileiro Dilma Roussef”?!

    • Anonymous says

      A frase “o presidente brasileiro” aparece porque esta é uma tradução automática feita pelo Google. O texto original foi escrito em inglês (segue o link para ele abaixo). A tradução automática é relativamente boa e permite a leitura em português, mas devem ser descontados erros como esse.

  8. The language issue goes without saying. It is certainly one of the barriers to be overcome. Other non-English speaking countries have successfully increased internationalization. The article mentions the case of Germany and also proposes regional integration with other Latin-American countries. And I disagree that “practically no one else in the world speaks Portuguese” (it’s the 8th most spoken Language, and 3rd most spoken European language). Of course Brazil plays an important role in that, but other Portuguese speaking countries should not be neglected.

  9. The issue is more complex than just to decide to internationalize Brazilian universities. Practically no one else in the world speaks Portuguese, and the programs in Brazil are not in English.

  10. Anonymous says

    What does the internationalization of Brazilian universities have to do with freedom to tinker, or with internet security? Seems a bit off-topic.

    • …of technology policy in the form of educational policy. It relates to the process of innovation, tech transfer, the R&D sector, etc. So, a lot.