Adnei Melges de Andrade is a busy man. As vice-rector for international relations at the University of São Paulo, his office is increasingly the first port of call for visiting ambassadors, ministers and even prime ministers and presidents.
His institution, widely seen as Brazil's top university, sometimes receives as many as five delegations a day. "In 2010 we had 88 delegations; in 2011 it was 142," says de Andrade. "This year we had 105 by June, and I think there will be many more."
With higher education budgets in Europe and the US being cut, it is perhaps not surprising that politicians and vice-chancellors across the world are interested in the Latin American giant and its growing spending power. According to one report, The State of Science 2011, produced by the Network of Ibero-American and Inter-American Science and Technology Indicators (RICYT), Brazil invested $24.9 billion (£15.6 billion) in research and development in 2010. Although cuts to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation budget last year may dent this figure slightly, it will still be from a base three times bigger than in 2002. Adjusting for the purchasing power of each currency, Brazil now spends more on R&D than Canada or Italy.
The boom in spending has seen a commensurate rise in scientific output. The number of papers by Brazilian authors in the Thomson Reuters Science Citation Index doubled between 1997 and 2007, making the country the 13th-largest producer of science in the world.
Approximately three-quarters of researchers in the country work in academia, and a trip to some of Brazil's top institutions reveals ample proof of the fruits of this investment.
The University of São Paulo is the top-ranked Latin American institution in the 2012-13 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, at 158, and it is the oldest university in Brazil. Its leafy campus in the city is so huge that staff move between buildings in cars, while its students - some of whom would not look out of place in London's trendy Hoxton neighbourhood - are known for keeping fit by criss-crossing the site on foot. Boasting four university hospitals and four on-site museums, the institution manages to achieve cultural dominance in a city of 11 million people, and it is set to expand even further. Some 11,500 students graduate from the University of São Paulo each year and, like other public higher education institutions in Brazil, it charges no tuition fees.
The university owes much of its might to its enormous budget. Most public universities in Brazil (typically the country's oldest and most research-focused institutions) are managed by the federal government, but the University of São Paulo receives its funding directly from the state of São Paulo, the wealthiest region in Brazil. It is not the only institution to benefit from this arrangement: in a set-up enshrined in the state's constitution, three of its universities receive a guaranteed 10 per cent of the state's tax revenues each year between them. Up to 90 per cent of the funding distributed by the São Paulo Research Foundation, FAPESP, also typically goes to academics and students at these institutions via grants and scholarships. The foundation itself receives another 1 per cent of state tax revenues to spend on research, innovation and education - the equivalent of about £350 million a year.
According to Paulo Artaxo - a professor of environmental physics at the University of São Paulo's Institute of Physics who holds a multimillion-pound grant from FAPESP and the UK's Natural Environment Research Council - research funding is more readily available at his institution than at most universities around the world; in fact, he goes so far as to say that working conditions are "perfect".
"It's better than most universities in the US and the UK - although I can't say [that the same is true] for the whole of Brazil," he says.
São Paulo's two other state universities - the smaller, more postgraduate-oriented State University of Campinas, also called Unicamp; and São Paulo State University - are similarly booming.
Fernando Ferreira Costa, Unicamp's rector, is keen to show that his institution competes among the world's best. He says that the proportion of papers published by his staff in prestigious ISI-indexed journals has grown to 70 per cent, and courses held every two months on writing scientific English, essential for publication in such journals, draw as many as 600 attendees. A programme of internal performance evaluation at Unicamp means that every member of faculty - whether junior researcher or full professor - is peer-evaluated once every three years, and academics must explain unacceptable performance, such as a lack of publications.
"If they are not able to do so, we can reduce their salary by half. You're not going to find this in another university," says Costa.
Running a tight ship has also helped the state of São Paulo's funding agency, FAPESP, achieve an international reputation as a reliable partner for collaboration. It has agreements with research councils in the Netherlands, France, the US, Canada, Germany and the UK (see box below) as well as bilateral exchange agreements with universities around the world.
The agency has a speedy 80-day turnaround time from grant application to funding for the 22,000 or so proposals it receives every year. Peer reviewers are usually themselves grant recipients, so if a review has not been delivered on time, "we freeze their funds - that usually works", says Alexandra Osório de Almeida, general manager of FAPESP's Scientific Directorate.
About one-third of FAPESP's budget goes on education via scholarships and fellowships. Another third goes to research grants, and the remainder on applied and innovation programmes. Grants cover the full range of academic research, including areas focused on Brazil's natural strengths, such as agriculture and bioenergy.
Collaborating research councils in other countries are often surprised to learn that there are few limits on the projects the agency can fund, thanks to its endowment and funding levels. Success rates for grant applications presently sit at about 50 to 60 per cent; this compares with an average success rate of 30 per cent in the UK.
But this also points to underlying problems, says de Almeida. "It's a lucky and unlucky thing. We can fund everything that we consider good, which is a comfortable position; but it's not so good because it means the science in the state isn't competitive enough to allow us to pick more selectively or add different criteria to the selection process."
São Paulo is undoubtedly in a better position than most other states in Brazil, where, de Almeida explains, the situation is not so rosy. The state of São Paulo is home to 21 per cent of the country's population but accounts for more than 50 per cent of investment in science and technology. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation's UNESCO Science Report 2010, 60 per cent of all scientific articles originate from just seven universities in the country. Four are in the state of São Paulo. Only five of the country's 26 states - São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Pernambuco and Rio Grande do Sul - have active and significant research bases, adds de Almeida. "It's not that much."
This is one of the issues facing Helena Bonciani Nader in her role as president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science, and one on which she speaks passionately. According to Nader, a professor of biochemistry at the Federal University of São Paulo, or Unifesp, one of the biggest problems is that federal universities, which form the bulk of the nation's public institutions, have little autonomy.
"Why do you think the three state universities in São Paulo are doing so well? The [former] state governor [Orestes Quércia] did a wonderful thing when he gave financial autonomy to the state universities," she explains. "The Constitution of Brazil says that federal universities also have autonomy, but it's not true - how can we when each year we need to beg for money?"
Alongside perennial complaints about low levels of university pay (even Nader, a full professor and member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, says it would be difficult to live on her university income alone), a campaign for autonomy led to three months of strikes this summer, affecting about 50 of the country's 59 federal universities.
Bureaucracy is another significant hurdle the Brazilian sector continues to face, Nader adds. For example, rules that are a hangover from the country's military dictatorship (1964-85) make it difficult to import scientific equipment. Although research equipment is technically exempt from such rules, rigorous checks often have to be carried out. This "can take a year and sometimes people give up or the equipment becomes obsolete", says Nader, who is clearly exasperated by the hoops her colleagues have to jump through.
Bureaucracy also hampers Brazil's efforts to internationalise its science system, even at the best institutions, says the University of São Paulo's Artaxo. The internationally acclaimed researcher and member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change laments the amount of time it takes to get professional visas for visiting academics. He also points to rules that require academics to go through a civil service selection process, usually conducted in Portuguese, to become a full professor. "That has to be changed, but it takes a lot of time...[These are] just old rules that nobody's broken down," he says. "In the [São Paulo] Institute of Physics I don't recall any [foreign] professor being hired in the past 30 years," he adds.
Internationalisation remains one of the greatest challenges faced by Brazilian universities. In the 1970s and 1980s, federal institutions relied on sending students abroad for postgraduate studies, but Brazil's federal universities now run postgraduate courses themselves, closing off one well-worn route to the rest of the world.
The government has recently introduced Science without Borders, a scheme to fund 101,000 undergraduate and PhD students to spend time abroad as part of their studies (see box, page 34). Originally dedicated to science and engineering, the scheme is now expanding. It also includes an inward element aimed at bringing foreign postdoctoral researchers and visiting academics to the country.
FAPESP, meanwhile, has launched a "brain gain" policy, with two schemes aimed at attracting senior researchers and young investigators to work in the state of São Paulo.
"You can't really say you're good until you've seen what other people are doing elsewhere, so that's the approach we are taking in trying to improve our science - collaborating with people who are working on the same issues," says FAPESP's de Almeida.
Although bringing in professors is difficult, younger academics are beginning to find Brazil an attractive prospect, claims Artaxo. "I've had applications for postdoctoral positions from India and European countries, asking to come to Brazil. I guess the research environment in Europe is not as favourable as it was a few years ago."
It may be no coincidence that one of Brazil's most internationally diverse institutions is a private university that faces much less bureaucracy.
Whereas at the University of São Paulo less than 3 per cent of students come from abroad, the figure is 8 per cent at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio).
Ricardo Borges Alencar, deputy associate vice-president for academic affairs, says that his institution has 250 partnerships with universities around the world, and almost 25 per cent of its academic staff come from abroad, on a par with the UK average.
PUC-Rio is also one of the few universities in Brazil to teach any courses in English. Alencar is proud to detail the institution's efforts to attract and retain international students. "It helps that we have the most beautiful campus in Brazil," he laughs, with a nod to the tropical forests that surround the site.
Established nearly 70 years ago, PUC-Rio was the first private education institution in the city, and it has distinctive features. "We are very good at research and we are private - this is not the Brazilian model," says Jose Ricardo Bergmann, vice-president for academic affairs. While other private universities tend to focus on teaching, almost half of PUC-Rio's funding comes from research grants.
The university provides many outlets for its creative and enthusiastic students, Bergmann says. He points out a new architecture building that was designed by students themselves, and a robot lab where a world-champion team tinker with their latest "combot" for an upcoming robot war competition.
The Catholic university, like a small number of others of its ilk across Brazil, is non-profit. It charges about 2,000 reais (£600) a month in fees. Some 40 per cent of students receive a bursary, and about a third of its programmes achieve the top two ratings awarded by the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education, CAPES.
Unfortunately for the rapidly growing number of young people in Brazil entering higher education, not all private institutions are like PUC-Rio. In 2000, 2.8 million young people entered higher education; according to Unesco statistics, the number soared to 6.6 million in 2010, representing a rise of 136 per cent (see related file, right). But with competition for places as high as 20 to one at some public institutions, only 25 per cent of all students win a place in the tuition-fee-free system. The other 75 per cent end up at one of Brazil's 2,000 or so private colleges and universities.
Studying at most of these institutions costs much less (about one-quarter of the price) than at the private but non-profit Catholic universities and other specialist private institutions, but observers suggest that their quality is questionable. "Students at some of the poorer private universities - with huge classes predominately in lower-cost humanities and social science courses - are churned out, but the (jobs) market can't absorb them," says Nader. Brazil's Ministry of Education has begun to assess institutions for quality using the CAPES system, shutting down those in the bottom two (of seven) grades, but this conflicts with another government policy: boosting the numbers entering higher education.
The pattern of who goes to which type of university is very clear. Privately educated students end up in the free public universities; students who attend poorer-quality state schools end up studying at for-profit higher education institutions.
São Paulo's de Andrade explains: "Wealthy families pay for an extra year of study for students to prepare them for the [public] university entrance exam. It's very understandable that the families with more financial resources invest, not only to have higher education at zero cost but to have the best education," he says. "It is a vicious circle."
Brazil remains one of the world's most unequal societies, and universities are not blind to the problem. Many public institutions have introduced schemes to try to increase the number of state-educated students, as well as those from non-white ethnic backgrounds, such as by allocating them bonus marks in entrance exams.
But while affirmative action schemes are common, university leaders - and many students, too - have been reluctant to see the introduction of "quotas". Unicamp's Costa argues that programmes designed to help under-represented students achieve the academic standards needed to succeed at university are far better. His institution is piloting a scheme that recruits the top-achieving students from each state school in the city of Campinas to a two-year foundation course that prepares them for university study.
But progress across Brazil's higher education sector is too slow for the left-wing government led by President Dilma Rousseff. In August this year there was a major development: Brazil's Senate passed an affirmative action bill requiring every federal university to ensure that 50 per cent of its intake comes from state schools. This will be a huge rise; generally less than 30 per cent of public university students come from state schools, and at the most prestigious institutions the figure can be as low as 12 per cent. By 2016, places will also have to be assigned according to the racial make-up of each state, meaning that up to 50 per cent of places will go to black, indigenous or mixed-race students.
The bill gained considerable public support but it has since met with some concern from universities, which have just four years to put the changes in place. Nader says that although her organisation supports affirmative action, she is not in favour of the bill. She argues that the system could be open to abuse - for example, racial status will be self-declared - and that the policies will not achieve their aims. The problem, she says, starts much earlier in the education system. Students "are not learning the basics at school, universities can't deal with the imbalance and the student ends up leaving". Some universities even have to teach students to read before they can begin to embark on their chosen course of study, according to one professor, who asks not to be named. Pushing for wider access to higher education without improving the public school system is, he says, like trying to run before being able to walk.
But with just 16 per cent of Brazil's young people progressing to higher education, a figure way below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average, pressure to widen access is growing. Unicamp's Costa is optimistic. His university is one of a number in the state of São Paulo considering a plan to evolve into a system of federated universities, modelled on the University of California system. This would mean bringing together the much-needed community colleges, teaching and technical institutions with existing research universities, and would give good students from poor backgrounds a chance to move between them.
Indeed, Brazil's emerging world-class research universities may be allowed to continue their ascent only if they can show that they are playing their part in tackling inequality, Costa predicts; it is a case of quid pro quo. The state government is "convinced of the need to maintain our funding - but of course we are aware we have to increase the diversity of our students. We are trying."