Some 5,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, the sprawling metropolis of São Paulo seems a world away from England’s West Country.
But for Justin Axel-Berg, a philosophy graduate from Bristol, this bustling hub of Latin America is now his home.
Axel-Berg, 25, is one of a relatively small number of UK graduates opting to study at university in Brazil. He is taking a master’s degree in international relations at the University of São Paulo (USP).
As course costs at UK institutions continue to rise and Brazil seeks to establish itself as an emerging global market, there has been a renewed effort by the South American powerhouse to attract English-speaking students.
A master’s “was something I had wanted to do in England but had never had the financial conditions to do”, says Axel-Berg. A comparable masters in the UK would have set him back £10,000, while Brazil does not charge fees. Additionally, he receives a living allowance of £500 a month.
“USP is by far the best recognised institution in Latin America, with a very strong research tradition, which many institutions lack here.”
The University of Sussex graduate describes an institution with limited resources but much enthusiasm for international students.
“When I started my research on applying, the information on courses and programmes was almost entirely in Portuguese, and the information on international students non-existent,” he says.
“This is a bit of a common thread in Brazilian public administration: it’s frighteningly complex and inefficient and the information is extremely difficult to gather, but every administrator you meet is friendly and helpful.
“When I ended up stranded in the UK for two months over visa issues in January, the department was in contact every day.
“Despite its size, the structure of USP means that it is very friendly. Everyone in the department knows your name and everyone on the course drinks together regularly.”
International students are a “prized minority” at USP, says Axel-Berg. In 2012, there were 1,200 foreign registrations, up from 981 in 2011, with the largest national groups being French, Colombian, Portuguese, Spanish and German.
International numbers may be on the rise, but they are still small. At the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, for example, there were just 77 foreign students from 20 different countries in 2010.
The number of Britons studying in Brazil is particularly low. At Rio de Janeiro’s Pontifical Catholic University, for instance, in 2011 only 10 members of the 1,117-strong international student body were recorded as English, compared with 206 from the US.
The Brazilian government has introduced exchange programmes such as Science Without Borders to promote academic relations between Brazil and the UK. Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, who launched the initiative, will receive the Institute of International Education’s Henry Kaufman Prize next month for her support of academic exchanges.
But Brazilian institutions have few places to turn for a cohesive and coordinated international strategy, as state and federal universitieshave autonomy from the Ministry of Education.
However, USP is leading an internationalisation charge itself, with the imminent opening of a London centre, as well as offices in Boston and Singapore. It was expected to have hired a secretary for its London operation by the end of July.
“The aims of the centres are diverse,” says Renato Jardim, director of the London Centre, USP. “I would highlight, however, as the main point, the increase in internationalisation initiatives of the University of São Paulo.”
The London headquarters will recruit students from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, although no targets have yet been set.
“Several factors were important in the…decision to have a headquarters in London,” Jardim says.
“The UK hosts well-classified universities in the international rankings, as well as a tradition in teaching, research, dissemination and technological innovation in various fields of knowledge.”
Meanwhile, São Paulo State University (UNESP) has also begun free courses in 50 subjects taught in English this year to try to encourage more English-speaking students.
The courses were designed to be compatible with the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) – a standard for comparing higher education study across borders – and the number of places available depends on the subject and its fieldwork demands.
José Celso Freire Junior, chief adviser at the office of external relations for UNESP, says: “Although Portuguese is the sixth most spoken language in the world – with about 240 million speakers – it still presents a major obstacle to the development of mobility programmes for foreign students in Brazil.
“The development of this programme seeks to provide a solution to this problem, making it easier for foreign students coming to UNESP.”
The courses offered are in disciplines in which UNESP has a specialism: agricultural sciences, alternative energy, dentistry, literature and linguistics.
“It is certainly the first of its kind in Brazil because it is an integrated programme that was built to be offered to students with a specific organisation [ECTS] in a wide range of disciplines,” Freire adds.
“Moreover, students’ time at UNESP will allow them to make contact with and develop knowledge of the Portuguese language.
“They will be offered courses in Portuguese for foreigners, as well as getting to know the market and the particularities of a country that will certainly occupy a leading role in the new global scene.
“In the medium and long term, it is hoped that through the programme, UNESP will become increasingly known internationally and that student exchanges may lead to research partnerships between these students’ mentors and UNESP researchers.”
The moves demonstrate an unmistakable desire to increase Brazil’s international profile in higher education, with specific designs on the UK market.
Such is the importance placed on establishing an academic relationship that education was one of the key topics discussed when David Cameron made his first trip to Brazil to meet with Rousseff last September.
“The UK-Brazil partnership in education is a top priority for the British government,” says a British Embassy spokesman.
“We strongly support the recently announced opening of a USP office in London and the efforts of UNESP to offer courses in English.
“UK students have a lot to gain by choosing Brazil as their studydestination. We hope that otheruniversities feel encouraged to take similar paths.”
For Axel-Berg, studying in Brazil has provided opportunities he felt he would have missed in the UK.
“After two years here, it’s my home. Frustrating, ugly and violent as it may be, São Paulo is a great place to live,” he says.
“It is certainly not an easy route, and learning some Portuguese before you arrive is a must, but it is hugely rewarding.
“Because of this course, I’ve had a job offer to teach philosophy at a private university next year, and I’m currently translating a book on environmental management in the Amazon.
“I’m not sure I would have done any of this, staying in England.”