From where I sit - The red (tape) and the black

August 16, 2012

Imagine a university that receives a fixed 2.2 per cent of the tax revenue of a rapidly growing economy's richest state. This is the case for the University of Campinas (universally known as Unicamp) in São Paulo, Brazil. Indeed, the three research universities in the state (which accounts for 40 per cent of Brazil's economy) receive 10 per cent of tax revenue by law (the oldest and largest, the University of São Paulo, gets the biggest share). FAPESP, the state's research agency, receives a further 1 per cent, which is then mainly awarded to the universities on a competitive basis.

São Paulo, founded in 1934, and Unicamp, established in 1966, are recognised as the top universities not only in Brazil but also in Latin America. The challenges of academic development in the Brazilian context are considerable, making Unicamp's accomplishments even more impressive. Its experience is illustrative of the problems of building world-class universities in difficult environments.

Unicamp is a public university - subject to the often extraordinarily complex regulations governing such institutions in São Paulo state. While public universities everywhere are accountable to government, the constraints seem to be particularly onerous in developing and middle- income countries.

Indeed, both Brazil and Russia, members of the Bric (Brazil, Russia, India and China) fraternity of powerhouse economies, seem to have especially burdensome restrictions. Almost everything, even awarding contracts for tiny projects, is subject to competitive bidding. Record-keeping is immensely complicated, and without question red tape gets in the way of fresh thinking and project implementation. While bureaucracy and accountability are hallmarks of the contemporary university everywhere, the challenges seem greater in some places than in others.

Unicamp actually receives less money than meets the eye because it is responsible not only for academic salaries for more than 1,700 faculty and 8,000 staff, but also their pensions, which are quite generous. More than 80 per cent of the university's budget is devoted to salaries and pensions, leaving relatively little for academic initiatives or other purposes. And salaries are determined not by discipline, research record or teaching productivity, but by seniority and longevity.

Governance is a challenge, too. Academic leaders, from departmental chairs up to the rector, are elected by students, professors and other university staff. Unicamp is gearing up for a rector election next year. Those running for office are already campaigning, lining up coalitions; some are making promises that seem impossible to keep.

In this context, long-term strategic planning and academic leadership are difficult or even impossible. Appointments are made internally, with no chance to hire from the outside. And the electorate may not be thinking about higher education issues: the students' union, for example, is controlled by Trotskyites.

What does Unicamp have going for it? For the moment at least, it has an innovative leadership that is trying to improve the university on a number of fronts. Its rector, Fernando Ferreira Costa, and his team are not only trying to build the university's performance and reputation as a world-class research institution, but are also engaged in a programme to attract more students from traditionally underserved socio-economic groups.

In a way, Unicamp is symbolic of many of the top universities in the Bric countries. Observers who argue that such institutions will soon dominate the top tier of global higher education are ignoring their deep-seated problems.

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