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Boosting Brazilian demand for long-term overseas study

It should come as no surprise that Brazil is on the minds of many. The country continues to emerge as a major world economy and is set to take centre stage as the host of the FIFA World Cup this year and the Olympics in 2016. In short, Brazil is an important market that is increasingly seen as the next big thing. But where are the real opportunities for foreign education providers?

Characteristics of the Brazilian market

The education sector in Brazil generates about US $75 billion per year and is the 10th largest sector in the economy. There are 51 million students enrolled in Brazil’s primary and secondary education system, and around 6 million students enrolled in university courses. In 2015, university enrolment is expected to reach 10 million students, many of whom will be supported by government loans. According to a US government market report:

“For the next decade, the fastest growing segment of the educational market in Brazil will be short term vocational courses due to government investments in technical schools and courses for high school students and adults. Over the past five years, demand for professional/vocational courses grew 50%.”

According to some market watchers, Brazil is also rapidly becoming one of the world’s top source countries for international students. The agency association BELTA reports that 215,000 Brazilians studied overseas in 2011, a figure that is expected to rise by about 20% annually. As we previously wrote in ICEF Monitor, most of those Brazilians who study abroad do so for short-term language learning that lasts three months or less. Although the number of those studying abroad from between four to six months is increasing, a major characteristic of the Brazilian market is this significant demand for short-term study.

Post-secondary enrolment abroad

Nevertheless, when it comes to longer-term, post-secondary enrolments abroad, Brazil is the leader among Latin American countries. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 35,000 Brazilian students were enrolled in tertiary education outside their home country in 2011, ahead of Colombia (32,000), Mexico (29,000), and Peru (24,000). Looking more specifically at the US (one of the most popular study destinations for Brazilian students), the Institute of International Education (IIE) reports that 10,868 students from Brazil were studying in the US in the 2012/13 academic year, an increase of 20.4% over the previous year.

Still, given Brazil’s total population of approximately 200,000 million, some are suggesting that the country is under-represented in global education, and can support more than its current number of post-secondary students studying abroad. Indeed, the big question is whether, when, and how Brazilian demand for short-term study – language study in particular – might expand to longer-term studies. To try and answer that question, we take a closer look at the major trends and factors driving outbound student mobility in Brazil.

Inequity in the Brazilian education model is driving demand for an education abroad

Participation in tertiary education remains an issue in Brazil, where only a small percentage of the population has access to quality higher education:

“Less than 15% of the Brazilian population aged 18 to 24 is enrolled in universities, compared to more than 36% in the US; and only 11% of Brazilians have a post-secondary qualification, as compared to approximately 40% of Americans.”

Public universities are free, but there are not enough of them to meet demand. Access has also been historically skewed toward candidates from higher socio-economic groups whose secondary school training gives them an advantage on the competitive entrance examinations.

Although the booming private education industry offers an alternative (approximately 73% of Brazilian students in post-secondary are enrolled at private institutions), questions remain about the quality of education delivered by private institutions and the cost. Private higher education in Brazil is relatively expensive, with private schools driving some of the highest net costs as a percentage of GDP per capita for post-secondary education in the world: it stands at 77%. As noted in a recent Higher Education Marketing blog post:

“Perceived instability in this booming profit-focused industry and recent legislation reserving half of public university admissions for poorer demographics is pushing increasingly mobile students to seek their education elsewhere.”

Young population, increasing wealth allow more Brazilians to study abroad

For the third of the Brazilian population under the age of 19, study abroad is a growing trend – one made increasingly possible by the country’s stable economy and burgeoning middle class. Brazil’s currency has doubled in value over the past decade and the country now ranks as the world’s sixth largest economy. But that’s not all, as Higher Education Marketing additionally notes:

“Brazil’s middle class more than tripled between 2003 and 2010, with a significant segment unafraid to spend largely on luxury items, including an international education.”

Increased spending power means that an overseas education is now up to 35% cheaper than it was five years ago.

Furthermore, Brazil’s “newly emerging class” – the 26.1 million Brazilians who have risen from poverty in the past five years – are eager for training, higher education, and vocational courses. Indeed, a greater emphasis on education will be crucial for Brazil to continue its upward economic trajectory, a fact of which the government is well aware.

Government scholarships increase international student mobility

The education sector is one of Brazilian President Rousseff’s highest priorities, and – as noted above – the government has accordingly invested in a wide range of educational programmes.

Perhaps most important for international student mobility, the government has also adopted a more proactive internationalisation policy, the highlight of which is the Ciências sem Fronteiras (also known as the Brazil Scientific Mobility Undergraduate Program or Science Without Borders). Launched in 2011, the programme provides funding to Brazilian students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), enabling them to study abroad for one year.

Designed to enhance Brazil’s lagging competitiveness in these fields and in innovation, the programme plans to send over 100,000 Brazilian students abroad between 2012 and 2015, and is one of the factors fueling the growth in longer-term studies abroad.

Other government initiatives to improve the English proficiency of Brazilian students may also increase the potential to study abroad. For example, in 2012 the Ministry of Education launched the English without Borders programme, an initiative to support university students by improving English language teaching in schools.

Practical insights for international student recruitment

Despite recent initiatives, a lack of English language skills remains the main challenge for many Brazilian students applying for study abroad programmes. The US government’s market report notes that:

“Institutions that can address this issue by providing conditional acceptance tied to English language training may have a competitive advantage in the Brazilian market.”

While the market report is targeted toward US institutions, it goes on to offer some additional insight that can be of use to any foreign education provider looking to encourage longer-term study among Brazilian students:

“As the lower income portion of the market becomes more sophisticated and families become more aware of the importance of quality education, opportunities for educational services will continue to grow. US schools interested in recruiting in Brazil should provide creative financing options, since cost (along with proficiency in English language skills) will continue to be the biggest challenge for Brazilian students studying abroad.”

To this, we offer some additional tips and recruitment considerations:

  • Brazilian higher education institutions are increasingly looking to cooperate with foreign institutions, including those in other emerging markets. As observed in the international student recruitment report from Nuffic, the Netherlands organisation for international cooperation in higher education, “These partnerships can facilitate both outgoing and incoming student and staff mobility and/or research cooperation;”
  • Brazilians highly value personal relations and this is an agent-driven market. It is essential to find and form strong relationships with local education agents to meet goals;
  • Consider concentrating resources on the states and cities with the key education institutions and highest percentage of wealth: São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

While improved access to the domestic higher education sector may increase the desire and ability of Brazilian students to study at home, Brazil will continue to look outward and to expand its position on the global stage and, as such, should continue to be an integral part of any international recruitment strategy in the region.

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