International Mobility of Students in Brazil

By the early 1990s, Brazil’s economy had hit rock bottom. During the past 20 years a different scenario has emerged, and Brazil has become the sixth largest economy in the world. Experts predict that it could soon become one of the world’s top five economies.

While Brazilian society became modernized and its economy grew, higher education institutions also expanded in size and quality. Nowadays, the Brazilian university system reflects world standards and, according to some rankings, some of Brazil’s universities are among the 200 best in the world. Higher education could not have grown without economic development and the reverse may become true in the future in the new era of knowledge economy. For that to become a reality, Brazil needs to pursue research and technology transfer links. That is where international student mobility and exchange can play a very important role. In response to the increasing demand for skilled human resources, active student mobility will help create a qualified workforce in Brazil. Student mobility in Brazil, particularly at the graduate level, has a long history that includes the international mobility of PhD candidates and researchers, a process that started in the early 1950s with the creation of the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES) and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a significant number of Brazilians training abroad. After returning home, these scientists contributed to the vigourous development of the science and graduate education in Brazil. CAPES and CNPq have played an important role in this process through funding several bilateral projects with different countries. Nevertheless, although Brazilian science has demonstrated significant growth in recent years, the interaction between the academic research and the business sector still needs to be drastically improved.

To encourage the internationalization of technology and innovation, there are currently many initiatives aimed at raising the intensity of international student and/or faculty mobility in Brazil. In July 2011, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced an audacious scholarship programme known as Brazil Scientific Mobility (formerly Science Without Borders), an initiative which aims to send up to 101,000 fully funded Brazilian students abroad for training in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields by 2015. The total budget for the period of four years is estimated to be around $2 billion dollars. After two semesters and an internship, the students will return to Brazil to obtain their degrees.

The main challenge for many Brazilian students applying for study abroad programmes is their lack of foreign language skills, mainly English. Thus, English Without Borders, a government-sponsored English language training programme was created, with the aim of preparing students to meet the Brazil Scientific Mobility language requirement, as well as other scholarship programmes requiring English proficiency. In addition, the Brazil Scientific Mobility programme provides Inbound Fellowships with the aim of bringing to Brazilian universities and research centres early-career researchers and senior scholars under an unparalleled funding scheme. The Young Talent awards fully fund 1-3 year research stays in Brazil with a package that includes round-trip tickets, relocation expenses, a tax-free lecturer-level monthly allowance, a contribution toward research costs and funding for research assistantship. A 2-3 year grant is available to senior researchers through the Special Visiting Researchers fellowship with round-trip tickets for every 1-3 month annual visit to Brazil, a tax-free senior-level monthly allowance, a contribution toward research costs and funding for a Sandwich PhD in their home country and a Post-doctoral Fellow in Brazil. According to Christian Müller, Director of DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service in Rio de Janeiro, “Science Without Borders has put Brazil on the map of International Education”. So far, 38,272 Brazilian scholarship students have been placed at host institutions from more than 30 countries. The top 10 destination countries are the United States, France, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland. The candidates are first nominated by their Brazilian university and their participation must be approved by CAPES or CNPq. The final decision to accept a student in the programme is made by the participating host institution.

Other similar initiatives have been successful in fostering the international mobility of Brazilian undergraduate students. Some universities have implemented specific strategic plans for internationalization, using part of their budget to finance the mobility of students and faculties at specific international partners. Since 2011, state research foundations, such as the São Paulo Research Foundation, have offered scholarships to students enrolled in undergraduate, Masters and PhD programmes to spend up to one year in a research laboratory or institution abroad doing work related to their project in Brazil (Grant for Research Studies Abroad).

The private sector has also become a rising force in promoting student international mobility. Santander Bank’s mobility programme and Fundação Estudar’s studying-abroad programme are examples of such practice. Erasmus Mundus is another important programme by which students have acquired international academic experience. Since its inception in 2004, more than 540 Brazilian students have been selected for Erasmus Mundus scholarships. Although most of the initiatives described here are mainly unilateral and not real exchange, it is expected that they will contribute in the internationalization process of the Brazilian universities.

One specific barrier that commonly discourages international students from studying in Brazil is the language, as very few Brazilian institutions offer undergraduate programmes or courses in English. This is a major challenge, and unless we address this in a fundamental way, our developmental goals may be undermined. Despite that, a number of successful double degree programmes in engineering have been established between Brazilian research universities and European or American institutions. In most cases, courses in Portuguese as a second language to foreign graduate and post-graduate students are offered.