Flying down to Rio fuels new North-South romance

Canada seeks long-term relationship with growing higher education superpower. Jon Marcus reports

July 12, 2012

Credit: GettyFast track: Brazil offers new avenues for research and academic collaboration, according to the head of Canada’s mission group for higher education institutions, and he hopes his country has gained ground on nations that have been slower off the mark

High-level delegations of foreign officials visiting Brazil to drum up trade are now a regular occurrence, but a group that touched down in Rio de Janeiro in April was on a mission that was more unusual.

The mission did not seek to secure minerals, agricultural products or petrochemicals, which Brazil exports in abundance. Rather, this group of government leaders and 30 university presidents from Canada sought students and scientific collaborations.

While other countries are falling over themselves to strike deals with and attract students from Asia and the Middle East, Canada has made a determined effort to establish a bridge to Brazil, which last year moved from seventh- to sixth-largest economy in the world, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, displacing the UK.

“This is a country that’s on the move,” said Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC), which helped to organise the trade mission. “It’s not an emerging superpower: it is a superpower.”

In tandem with Brazil’s economic growth, the country’s university enrolments have tripled over the past 10 years. It has quietly moved into the top 15 countries (first in Latin America) in terms of scientific output, as measured by the publication of academic papers, according to the AUCC. Seven out of 10 of the most productive Latin American universities by this standard are Brazilian.

But free education at home means that few Brazilians study abroad, exacerbating the problem in this Portuguese-speaking country of a lack of scholars proficient in the more widely used academic languages of English and French.

This has also largely kept Brazil off the radar of higher-education officials elsewhere in the world, although a British delegation including nine vice-chancellors and the UK’s universities and science minister, David Willetts, visited in 2011. That visit led to an agreement that the UK would host around 10,000 Brazilian students, and could ultimately produce a research partnership between the two nations.

“Brazil was not perceived as an important player in the international scene until very recently,” said Leandro Tessler, director of internationalisation projects at the State University of Campinas. It “started to appear seriously in the international education scene”, he said, “as a result of its impressive recent economic growth”.

Impressive display of attention

The fast-growing nation has also attracted attention with its newly announced Science Without Borders programme, under which the government and private industry will pay the full tuition of more than 100,000 students sent abroad over the next few years.

“Considering the possibilities of the [Brazilian] higher-education system, overlooking Brazil may be a mistake,” Professor Tessler said.

It is a mistake Canadians, at least, do not intend to make.

Canadian and Brazilian universities have already signed more than 110 exchange agreements, and 75 more, worth a collective C$17 million (£10.7 million) were negotiated in the week-long mission in April.

Also during the mission, Brazil committed to send 12,000 of the Science Without Borders students to Canada, second only to the US, which will get about 16,000 of them.

“We’ve seen a lot of delegations come before who are interested in Science without Borders,” Carlos Nobre, national secretary in Brazil’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, told the visiting Canadians. “But we’ve never had 30 university presidents. I’m very impressed.”

The admiration is mutual. “Here’s a government that recognises that to be competitive in the 21st century you have to invest in education,” Mr Davidson said of Brazil.

Canada’s strategy is not only to attract more of those tuition-paying Brazilian students but to build more research partnerships with Brazilian universities, especially the kind that come with support from Brazil’s booming private sector.

Canada already has more investment in Brazil overall than it has in India and China, bilateral trade between the two countries is up 150 per cent since 2002 to a total of C$6.7 billion annually, and a report by a Canadian parliamentary committee on foreign affairs and international trade in May named education as a driving force in expanding Canada-Brazil relations.

Meanwhile, competitor countries have been slower to recognise the potential, Mr Davidson said.

“Particularly our colleagues in the United States are not there to the scope that they are in other Latin American markets, and that works well for Canada,” he said.

That lead may narrow. Some 250 US higher education institutions now have, or are negotiating, deals with Brazilian counterparts, according to the New York-based Institute of International Education.

And while that is still only about one in 10 US universities, “there’s tremendous interest among US higher education institutions in cooperation with Brazil”, said Mary Kirk, the organisation’s senior counsellor for academic exchanges.

Still, only about 9,000 Brazilians study in the United States, making it a distant 14th among countries of origin of international students at US universities.

And while that number will increase this coming academic year by 2,500 under Science Without Borders, Ms Kirk said, it remains far fewer than the 20,000 Brazilian students per year who come to Canadian universities, making its sector the number one destination for Brazilians.

Meanwhile, only about 3,000 Americans study in Brazil, mainly because so few Americans speak Portuguese. Some US universities are instituting “Portuguese for Spanish-speakers” programmes to help close that gap.

Linguistic rhythms in harmony

In Canada, by contrast, “there’s a natural affinity for the Latin culture, because French is an official language of Canada”, said Heather Munroe-Blum, principal of McGill University in Montreal. Her institution has more than 50 collaborations with Brazilian universities in areas including biofuels, engineering and information technology, and four more agreements were signed during April’s trade mission.

Some 20 per cent of McGill’s students are from outside Canada, and its robust international activities have an estimated economic impact in Quebec of more than C$320 million, according to independent estimates.

Overall, international students bring in C$6.5 billion per year, more than the nation earns from exports of lumber or coal, the AUCC said.

Perceptions about Brazil among higher-education leaders in other countries “lag reality”, Professor Munroe-Blum said. But she added: “Brazil is now on the international agenda.”

Mr Davidson said he would prefer that Canada kept the secret to itself. “I should say that there’s not much going on there,” he said, laughing.

The Brazil strategy is expected to be emphasised anew in a report due this autumn about Canada’s international education opportunities.

“We need to be intentional about pursuing new markets and new forms of engagement,” Mr Davidson said. “We talk of Canada’s universities as an under-leveraged asset.”

Canada and Brazil have also signed a new air-transport agreement to widen airline services and a deal to work together on planning the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. And they have set up an exchange among Canadian and Brazilian corporate chief executives and are cooperating on possible space projects.

To smooth the way for academic exchanges, the two nations signed the Canada-Brazil Framework Agreement for Cooperation on Science, Technology and Innovation, which allows easier joint research and development, exchanges and loans of equipment and materials, and travel for scholars.

One of the most visible scientific collaborations between the two countries is on synchrotrons, which can provide a source of light so brilliant they allow matter to be seen at the atomic scale. Brazilian universities are developing a huge new synchrotron that is to be used to light the torch at the 2016 Olympics.

“In the long term, it can be a competitive advantage both for Canadians and Brazilians to be academic references for each other,” Professor Tessler said. “We can do much more together.”

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