Football star Ronaldo moved to London this year. The famed Brazilian striker was not looking to develop his sporting skills; the “phenomenon” retired from the pitch in 2011 to launch a sports marketing business.
Instead, the 37-year-old native of Rio de Janeiro came to Britain to start a job placement with WPP, the global advertising agency, under the stewardship of advertising supremo Sir Martin Sorrell, the company’s chief executive.
“I won’t leave him alone,” said Ronaldo of his mentor. “I will be asking him questions all day ... just like a striker.”
Despite his singular fame and fortune, Ronaldo is one of tens of thousands of Brazilians moving abroad to expand their horizons and learn new skills.
This diaspora is being driven by its home country’s rising demand for highly skilled workers and a school system that fails to produce an adequate supply.
Despite having some top-notch universities, Brazil regularly has scores near the bottom of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment rankings of educational attainment, with about 30 per cent of 15-year-old students generally considered below proficiency.
Language is another barrier to greater knowledge transfer.
“Brazil is quite a closed country, both in terms of trade and language,” says Celso Lafer, head of Fapesp, the São Paulo Research Foundation.
“Portuguese, for example, may be a universal language, but it is not an international one,” he says, paraphrasing Fernando Pessoa, the celebrated Portuguese poet.
Fapesp has been sending graduate students to study abroad since the late 1990s and Mr Lafer, a former foreign minister, also invites foreign academics to teach in Brazil as part of Fapesp’s internationalisation drive.
Yet Fapesp is not the largest force in Brazil’s attempts to expand the frontiers of its educational system, despite its R$1bn ($454m) annual research budget, equivalent to 1 per cent of the state of São Paulo’s economy.
The biggest spender is Science Without Borders, a pet project of Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president. SWB, set up in 2011, is a strategic attempt to boost the country’s economic growth rates.
With a R$3bn budget, SWB aims to send 101,000 Brazilians abroad by 2015 to study at some of the world’s best universities, especially in the US and the UK, where there is the bonus that classes are taught in English.
Chosen students – some PhDs but mostly undergraduates – will study in areas deemed essential to Brazil’s future, especially biotechnology, petroleum engineering, and ocean science. The idea is that developing these areas will help the country, already the world’s third-largest food producer, to build on its natural resource wealth.
“Take Israeli oranges and Brazilian soya. Both grow in places where nature did not intend them. Both are the result of bold research and development decisions,” said Orit Gadiesh, chairman of Bain & Co, a management consultancy, during a World Economic Forum talk in Rio de Janeiro in 2010.
“But,” she said, “Israel has moved on. Oranges no longer contribute much to economic output – although the irrigation systems and high-tech businesses that grew out of them do. Brazil’s challenge is to further exploit its own agro-industrial intellectual property in a similar way.”
To do that would require abundant skilled labour. Hence SWB, just one of the ways in which Brazil is seeking to augment its well known shortage of “knowledge workers”.
University graduates can earn four times more than high-school graduates, a ratio higher than in any OECD country and, although Brazil produces 30,000 engineering graduates a year, Mexico has three times as many, despite having a population half the size.
The number of Brazilians studying at US campuses is also only a few per cent of the combined Chinese and Indian numbers.
For universities in the US and Europe, SWB represents a huge potential windfall, and many have leapt at the opportunity to recruit Brazilian students paying top-end fees.
Yet, sadly, the scholarship scheme has been riddled with problems from the start.
The plan to send 101,000 students abroad is so ambitious that lower-quality students are being chosen to pad out the numbers, critics say. According to official statistics, 37,000 fellowships had been processed by August 2013, with 64,000 still to go.
“There is a gap between the intention and the action,” commented one university admissions officer. “The bottom quintiles are sometimes not good enough.”
Then there is the usual Brazilian bureaucracy. In one case, a group of SWB students at the University of East London had to borrow money from the institution after Brazil failed to send them their grants.
Furthermore, when they complained about the delay to SWB administrators, they were asked if they wanted to return home. That response was pilloried in the Brazilian press as “Arrogance without Borders”.
Problems are perhaps to be expected with such a big scheme. Doubly so in the case of Brazil, where state bureaucracies tend to respond slowly. Yet it is also true that no other Latin American country has a scheme that comes close to rivalling it.
“Dilma Rousseff deserves credit for the priority she has given it,” says Mr Lafer. “Even if the screening is less rigorous than it should be, the end result will be positive: more Brazilians will have studied abroad.”
To sceptics, it may sound as though taxpayers are simply funding a number of expensive “gap years”, but Brazil has been here before. Forty years ago, the government funded students to acquire PhDs abroad in agricultural science, aircraft design and energy exploration. Today, the country is at the forefront of all three fields.