Strong at the back, excellent up front

January 1, 1990

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Brazil is seeking to build a sector with quality across the board and a select squad of truly world‑class players, says Luiz Cláudio Costa

Brazil’s academy has grown massively in recent years. Undergraduate enrolment has doubled in the past decade (from 3.5 million to 7 million): from 2011 to 2012 alone, student numbers increased by 4.4 per cent. And progress has been made in terms of gender, race and class equality (although this needs to be maintained and improved to guarantee opportunities for all).

But the pace of change has raised questions about Brazil’s public higher education policy.

Over the past three decades, the federal government has worked to improve postgraduate programmes, created more university places and instituted quality assessment and accreditation for institutions and postgraduate courses. But despite these impressive achievements, it is now important that the country develop a policy that differentiates the search for all-round quality from the need for world-class excellence. Thus far, the signs are promising.

In the 1980s, democracy returned to Brazil. A new constitution promised much, but hyperinflation eroded the social gains that were made. However, as of 2000, much-needed structural reforms had produced remarkable effects in the Brazilian academy. For example, concerted efforts to promote universal access to basic education had created greater demand for university places.

In 2002, two goals for the sector were established: expansion and higher standards.

To meet the former, the network of federal universities was expanded to increase capacity and to better serve less developed areas of the country. Eighteen universities and 274 campuses have been established since 2002.

The federal government has also instituted programmes to ensure that students can access quality private provision: they include the University for All (ProUni) programme, under which institutions offer places to needy students in exchange for tax breaks; and the Student Financing Fund (FIES), which provides student loans with below-market rates on which repayments do not start until 18 months after graduation.

Together, these schemes have provided access to higher education for more than 2.5 million people.

The government has also instituted a national student selection process, with the objective of providing equal opportunities to higher education for all Brazilians, regardless of class.

But alongside ensuring expansion and access, quality and the pursuit of excellence have also been embedded in the system.

Standards have been raised and quality guaranteed through the use of tools such as the National System for Higher Education Assessment (SINAES). SINAES evaluates students, courses and institutions across the country on an annual basis. Every three years, courses in the same disciplines are examined, allowing their progress to be monitored. And every year, quality indicators for courses and institutions are published.

The assessment system is paying dividends: the World Bank reports that the Brazilian higher education system has improved massively in recent years.

To raise standards in the country’s academy still further, “universities of excellence” have been established. These are playing a key role in training cutting-edge professionals and promoting social development. They are distinguished by their highly qualified teachers and students, high levels of internationalisation, excellence in research and education, substantial investment, and efficient and autonomous administration.

After decades of policies aimed at ensuring quality, the federal government has been taking increasing interest in the need to create world-class Brazilian universities. However, this cannot come at the expense of the country’s commitment to social justice and generating opportunity for all.

To square this circle, Brazil has taken the strategic decision to make federal universities the front line in terms of excellence, while seeking to maintain a baseline of quality for all higher education in the country.

The pursuit of excellence is taking many forms, such as strategic support for research and innovation, moves to increase the number of foreign teachers in Brazilian institutions, greater student mobility and the modernisation of university management, education and infrastructure.

The Science Without Borders programme is an example of such strategic thinking: under the initiative, more than 100,000 Brazilian undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students will be enrolled in the world’s best universities by 2014, while students and academics from all over the planet will come here.

Programmes such as Science Without Borders demonstrate our commitment to international excellence and all-round quality.

Luiz Cláudio Costa was secretary of higher education at the Ministry of Education and is now president of the National Institute for Educational Studies and Research, Brazil.

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