Brazil’s higher education system may still be in its infancy compared to that of the UK or USA, but while there is currently no Cambridge, Oxford or Harvard equivalent, international respect for the country’s public institutions continues to grow. The University of Sao Paulo (USP) consistently tops the national rankings and, last year, climbed to just outside the top 50 of the Times Education Supplement’s strongest university reputations in the world. Despite having felt a financial squeeze at the turn of the century, the country’s best public universities still carry a cachet that makes them untouchable in terms of academic research, but now, more than ever, they need to find efficient ways of using it to impact on Brazil’s future.
However, the higher education landscape has changed dramatically over the last two decades. Since 1996, a new federal law has paved the way for the current boom in for-profit universities, and nearly three quarters of the 2,416 higher education institutions in Brazil today are privately owned. Rather than feel threatened, however, public and not-for-profit universities have benefitted from this opening up of the national talent pool. An increase in scholarships to raise student quotas from public schools has had the positive knock-on effect of increased motivation on campus, stimulating both a competitive and determined entrepreneurial streak among a generation that values their education more deeply than ever.
“This is the sort of thing that will change this country”, says Marilza Vieira Cunha Rudge, rector of Sao Paulo State University (UNESP), who adds that by 2018, the university aims to have 50 percent of its students entering from the public system. “Public universities are maintained with taxes that the whole population pay, so it is our duty to give something back to the people.”
Beyond the federal and state universities, dozens of private and religious not-for-profit institutions also enjoy strong reputations, the latter forming the educational foundations of the country reaching back to the nineteenth century. Being church-run means they are afforded an independence to pursue specialisations, as well as being part of a ready-made international network that make them an essential part of the higher education make up. Further agility is enjoyed by those, like the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV), that have aligned themselves with the strongest public universities as research hubs and dynamic think-tanks to serve the private and public sectors alike.
Sao Paulo state’s leading lights
Brazil’s richest city and state Sao Paulo is also home to its three strongest-performing state universities, but those behind USP, UNESP and Unicamp are keenly aware of the challenges they face.
Jorge Tadeu, rector of Unicamp
How does Unicamp remain relevant?
You can only effectively work with new knowledge if you are paying attention to what is happening around the world. Any university that wants to be at the forefront of knowledge must be present the world over. We encourage our researchers, professors and students to seek partnerships throughout the world, and grad students are always pushed to conduct part of their research in other countries.
What links are there between the university and industry?
There are long-lasting partnerships that have developed throughout time, of which Petrobras is the strongest example. We have had a centre dedicated to oil research since the end of the 1980s, built and financed by Petrobras.
Marilza Vieira Cunha Rudge, rector of UNESP
How do you harness technology to benefit students?
UNESP is a multi-campus university with 34 centres in 24 cities across the state of Sao Paulo. We can bring all those centres together via videoconferencing. Through technology we also can intensify the participation of researchers overseas within our university with as little cost as possible, and this is a key tool. They can be in their lab and lecture students in our auditoriums, bringing their experience to us at very little expense.
We also aim to invest in distance learning. Technology allows a much greater number of students to ‘fit’ into one classroom.
Marco Antonio Zago, rector of USP
Brazil’s richest and most prestigious higher learning institution, the University of Sao Paulo is the country’s seat of learning, producing one quarter of its leading scientific papers and welcoming students from all over the world. None of the nearly 90,000 students pay tuition fees, but admission is strictly via the notoriously taxing vestibular exam. With campuses spread throughout the state and an annual budget of close to R$5 billion, recent financial difficulties have shown that as well as adopting the private sector’s innovative approaches in technology, lessons must also be learned from their management structures if it is to remain Brazil’s premier university.
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