Brazil's brightest head to US after failing UK language test

British border bureaucracy thwarts Science Without Borders scheme. Elizabeth Gibney writes

August 2, 2012

More than 100 students who had planned to come to UK universities under Brazil’s Science Without Borders scheme have gone to the US after failing to meet language requirements set by the UK Border Agency.

Under the scheme, which over four years aims to send abroad 100,000 of Brazil’s best undergraduates and postgraduates, a number of the students who passed international English-language tests did not do so at the level the UKBA requires.

Some 130 Science Without Borders scholars originally destined for the UK chose to take up places in the US rather than retake the language exams, which could have delayed their studies, Helena Gasparian, head of the Cultural and Academic Section at the Brazilian Embassy in London, told Times Higher Education.

The US Department of State sets no minimum language requirement level to obtain a student visa, although standards may be required by individual universities.

Confusion over the UK visa process has also contributed to a lower than expected overall demand for places in UK institutions, said Juliana Bertazzo, who is responsible for education cooperation at the embassy.

The scheme was launched in December for students in science, technology, engineering and maths subjects.

Organisers hoped that over the four years of the programme, 10,000 students would come to the UK, the same number as expected to travel to the US.

So far, however, just 580 are scheduled to take up places in September, compared with 2,000 for the US and more than 1,000 for Canada.

“We’re sure that the UK is on a par with the US in terms of academic excellence, so it doesn’t justify the numbers,” Dr Bertazzo said.

“We would like to put the UK in its rightful place,” she continued.

Embassy representatives said they were seeking a way around the rules and had a number of possible solutions on the table.

Ms Gasparian added that at a meeting on 18 July with David Willetts, the universities and science minister said that he was “very concerned and sympathetic”, but a solution has yet to be found.

Since April 2011 UK education providers have had to ensure that students have achieved a B2 level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages.

However university academic registrars have the right to personally waive the requirement for those students they consider to be “gifted”.

“Academic requirements should be the only requirements, if you ask me,” Dr Bertazzo said.

“That’s what a student should fulfil to be able to study abroad rather than a legal requirement from a border agency.”

The Brazilian scheme also includes a programme to bring 1,250 researchers from around the world to Brazilian institutions.

Young Talent Attraction Fellowships fund one- to three-year stays in Brazil for early-career researchers, while Special Visiting Researcher Awards allow senior scholars to visit the country for between one and three months a year over a period of up to three years.

All the schemes are part of government plans to internationalise the Brazilian higher education sector and broaden STEM skills in the country.

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