Big and bold

The University of São Paulo aims to match Brazil’s growing global influence, says João Grandino Rodas

March 7, 2013

The emergence of Brazil as a major player in the world economy, mostly as a result of growing political and economic stability over the past 20 years, brings with it an urgent need to redesign the country’s science and technology system, particularly its universities.

From a relatively isolated country with an economy based on the export of mineral resources and traditional agricultural, animal and dairy products, Brazil has evolved rapidly into a developing industrial economy increasingly reliant on cutting-edge knowledge.

Such reliance is a relatively recent phenomenon in Brazil. The University of São Paulo, the largest and oldest research university in the country, was established in 1934, but well recognised national frameworks for a strong science and technology system were developed more recently. Financial support agencies for research were established only in the 1960s, and full-time research and postgraduate programmes were created in most Brazilian universities in the 1970s.

In spite of these late starts, the University of São Paulo has succeeded in becoming a leading institution. Our achievements may be credited to a combination of factors: internal rules for faculty evaluation and promotion that are considered the most rigorous in the country; continued and steady financial support from the São Paulo state government (unlike most public universities in Brazil, the University of São Paulo is maintained by state rather than federal funds), including significant resources for research; working conditions and research infrastructure that attract talented young scientists; plus public visibility and a tradition of quality that attracts the most competitive students.

As a result of these elements, the University of São Paulo has a tendency to concentrate national talents, one of the prerequisites of a world-class university.

In the years ahead, we have an overarching goal: we want the University of São Paulo’s influence in education, science and technology to match Brazil’s burgeoning power on the global economic and political stage.

In this light, our challenge is twofold: prepare a generation of professionals attuned to and equipped for a new reality, intensifying the links between education and the opportunities created by a growing knowledge-based economy, while at the same time maintaining the leading role that the university plays in science and technology in Brazil (it is responsible for 23 per cent of the country’s scientific output and all doctoral degrees granted nationally every year).

Since the university’s foundation, research has been an essential part of its mission, although it has always valued all areas of knowledge. As a result, the same effort that is put into hard science and technology is also being devoted to the social sciences and the humanities, including sociology, political sciences, international relations and anthropology. The university has always cherished and promoted interdisciplinary interactions between the hard sciences and the humanities.

More recently, the institution has fostered the creation of interdisciplinary groups as the basis for research focused on major questions facing the nation and the wider world: in addition to external financial support such as research grants and contracts, the university has recently launched a competitive programme with its own budget that is designed to organise interdisciplinary groups and multi-user laboratories.

Mass high-quality education is the most pressing bottleneck facing Brazilian development. The quality of primary and secondary schools across the country remains unsatisfactory (as revealed by the scores achieved by Brazilian students in the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment evaluation), and the proportion of young Brazilians entering higher education is too small compared with the figures for developed economies.

With more than 55,000 undergraduates and almost ,000 postgraduate students, the university cannot expand significantly in the near future. Its main mission in this context is to improve the quality of its pedagogy and to nurture a generation of well-trained professionals and leaders in all areas of knowledge.

This will require a strong emphasis on graduate education, with special attention paid to modernising teaching methods and curriculum organisation, redesigning course structures and substituting flexible planning for rigid rules. However, this is easier said than done in a university that has 42 teaching units (faculties, institutes and schools) with a high degree of self-governance, which provide 240 courses from which the 11,000 undergraduates who enrol each year must choose (there is little chance of them switching courses later on).

The University of São Paulo’s main obstacle is its size: today, more than 100,000 people belong to the university community, including students, faculty and support staff, distributed across 10 campuses throughout the state of São Paulo, the furthest situated more than 300km from the university headquarters. This structure generates a lot of strain and administrative wear and tear, and jeopardises the university’s community life. As a result, there is great diversity and heterogeneity among the campuses (aided by their diverse regional and historical influences). However, looked at another way, the glass is half full: internal diversity is one of the university’s riches and a tool for taking advantage of present-day opportunities.

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