From where I sit - Don't always follow the crowd

December 9, 2010

There are several strategies to maintain your mental health during long-haul flights. My favourite one is to ask myself one truly controversial question and then try to make an argument for it relying solely on the information available. I recently travelled from Singapore to Brazil with one question on my mind: "Why could no Brazilian university make it into the top 200 in the world rankings?"

I started by contemplating the level of resources available to the higher education system and the efficiency with which they are allocated. Public spending on education is equivalent to 5.5 per cent of the gross domestic product in Brazil, which is just below the average figure for countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. About 20 per cent of that goes into higher education, from which 80 per cent is spent on payroll.

This mechanism clearly imposes significant pressure on public expenditure as the government tries to include a greater share of the population in tertiary education by expanding places in public institutions. In fact, only 13 per cent of the population in the 18-24 age group is currently enrolled in tertiary studies. Private universities are responsible for providing higher education access for 75 per cent of the 5.8 million students currently enrolled in the Brazilian higher education system.

Money alone does not guarantee excellence, so I also looked at how productively these resources are being applied. Scientific publication in Brazil has seen tremendous growth in the past 20 years. The number of articles published yearly in indexed periodicals has grown from fewer than 4,000 in 1990 to 34,000 in 2008, which represented 1.8 per cent of the world scientific production. This can be attributed to a strict productivity policy imposed by the government as part of the accreditation process for graduate programmes. However, how much attention have these papers received from the scientific community?

Impact measurements are controversial, but let us look at the H-index (a measure of research influence based on article citations, devised by the physicist Jorge Hirsch), which considers indexed publications from 1996 to 2008. According to this indicator, Brazil (H-index 219) lies far behind the US (H-index 1,048) and the UK (H-index 636) even after all the productivity growth of the past two decades. It seems that despite the tremendous effort made by Brazilian academics, the world has not been talking much about our ideas.

Top positions in world rankings are all about peer reputation, research volume and impact. To foster world-class institutions, the Brazilian government will have to increase cooperation with leading institutions worldwide; actively recruit promising faculty and students from the global market; increase the offer of courses taught in English; and promote career advancement based on achievement and productivity.

This cannot be achieved without painful reforms. But do we really want that? Should we pursue the same model of the research university as the developed countries? Or is there an alternative way in which taxpayers' money can be used to the greater benefit of society? Couldn't universities be occupied with serving the community that pays their bills instead of just churning papers?

These pressing questions will have to be tackled if Brazilian universities are to remain relevant in the future.

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