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10th Sep 2012

Suitors line up for a strengthening Brazilian market

"Brazil is not an emerging superpower; it is a superpower." — Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC) Let's consider a few developments, and if Brazil hasn’t been on your radar it quickly will be:

  • Brazil is the No. 6 economy in the world by gross domestic product, moving from 7th last year and displacing the UK in the position (according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research).
  • Of its nearly 200 million people, 33% are under the age of 19.
  • The Brazilian currency, the real, doubled in value, from 3.5 to the US dollar in 2002 to 1.7 in February 2012, making study abroad far more feasible for students.
  • According to agency association BELTA, 215,000 Brazilians studied abroad in 2011 compared to 167,432 in 2010. BELTA predicts a jump to 282,000 students this year.
  • Brazil’s massive Science Without Borders initiative will send more than 100,000 Brazilian students abroad to study over the next four years, as Brazil seeks to redress a shortage of skilled labour in its economy.

A domestic education system in flux

The facts assume still greater significance in light of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s August-enacted legislation that reserves half the spots at federal universities for public school students and gives priority to Afro-Brazilians. The legislation aims to increase access for poorer, often black and mixed race Brazilians; currently, only 2.2% of Afro-Brazilians have access to a university education. However, critics predict that the legislation will push a greater number of wealthy Brazilians away from free federal post-secondary institutions - which may take a hit in terms of the quality and reputation of their degrees as they adapt to the new affirmative action quota rules - to private, tuition-paying options. One of these options, of course, is study abroad.

Who is setting their sights on Brazil?

With programmes like Science Without Borders, greater overall wealth, and nervousness about the domestic university system, study abroad is increasing in attractiveness to the huge student-aged Brazilian population. When Brazilian students leave their country for education, where are they going? The answer is fluid. To date, Canada and Britain have had more foresight than the US in setting Brazil as a target for foreign trade including education. Canada in fact has more overall investment in Brazil (a total of CDN $6.7 billion annually) than it does in India and China. According to Times Higher Education, “Canadian and Brazilian universities have already signed more than 110 exchange agreements, and 75 more, worth a collective CDN $17 million (£10.7 million) were negotiated in April.” Canada will also receive 12,000 of Brazil’s Science Without Borders students. “Here is a government that recognises that to be competitive in the 21st century you have to invest in education,” said Canada’s AUCC president Paul Davidson of Brazil. The UK, for its part, sent a VIP-packed education delegation to Brazil in 2011 that resulted in an agreement that the UK would host roughly 10,000 Brazilian students and might lead to a research partnership between the two nations, again according to Times Higher Education. However, a recent snafu saw over 100 Brazilian students set to study in the UK under Science Without Borders fail to pass a language test set by the UK Border Agency. Instead of taking the test again, the students chose to redirect to the US. The US, meanwhile, has begun to see what Canada and the UK have seen for some time in Brazil. In the 2010–2011 academic year, Brazilian students represented just 1.2% of the US international student body that year. But this month, the US is sending the biggest trade mission to date of the Obama administration to Brazil. US Commerce Undersecretary Francisco Sanchez is leading the mission, a principal goal of which is to attract Science Without Borders students. Sanchez is quoted as saying:

[Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has] stated publicly that she wants half of [Science Without Borders’ 101,000 students] to go to the United States and specifically to study in the STEM areas: science, technology, engineering, and math.

Language and visa issues will figure into study abroad decisions

Brazilian students, whose mother tongue is Portuguese, are said to generally have less proficiency in English than their Indian or Chinese counterparts. Already, as noted above, Brazilians’ lower English proficiency has caused some to feel unable or unwelcome to remain in the UK to study. Unlike the UK Border Agency, however, whose visa system has also been criticised for confusing and/or barring entry to prospective foreign students, the US Department of State sets no minimum language requirement level to obtain a student visa (though individual universities may, just as in Canada). This may be affecting student mobility patterns as we speak. Times Higher Education notes:

So far, just 580 [Science Without Borders students] are scheduled to take up places [in the UK] in September, compared with 2,000 for the US and more than 1,000 for Canada.

Aside from overall country rules on language and visa requirements, it seems that preparatory language programmes and language support in general will be important to establish for universities seeking to recruit Brazilians.

The word is out

Speaking to Times Higher Education about Brazil, Canadian AUCC president Mr Donaldson joked, “I should say that there’s not much going on there.” The reality, of course, is much different. Canada’s strategy of pursuing Brazil not only for tuition-paying students but also research collaboration has been trailblazing, but other countries are showing their eagerness to earn a larger share of the market. Along with Canada, the US, and Britain, New Zealand and Australia have Brazil on their priority lists and other European countries such as Ireland are also eager. Tens of thousands of students from the world’s sixth-largest economy are faced with unprecedented circumstances allowing them to study abroad: what will your country, and your institution or agency, be doing to court them? Sources: Times Higher Education, University World News, Science Guide, Inside Higher Ed

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