Academic Excellence Requires Public Funding

Good universities in Brazil aren’t expensive: what costs real money is failure to create a knowledge society

By Fernanda de Negri, Marcelo Knobel and Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz. *

Published in O Estado de S. Paulo 05 January 2018

The fiscal crisis of the states and of the Union and of several important universities has provoked a debate on models of university financing and scientific research in the country. The debate is welcome, as well as the proposal of alternatives that can boost the formation of people and the production of knowledge in Brazil.

Several leading universities around the world, public or private, have more diversified sources of income – donations, wealth funds and tuition fees, among others – than Brazilian public universities. Even so, who pays most for the costs of the world’s great universities, whether public or private, remains the state.

Endowments are equity funds, usually from donations, common in North American universities. Revenues from such funds usually cover something like 5% of annual expenses. Tuition fees, on the other hand, are not, in and of themselves, the solution, at least not for research universities. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for example, they amount to about 10% of revenues.

The same goes for research resources coming from companies, which at MIT are about 5% of annual revenue. At the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) have been close to 3% in recent years. No abysmal difference here.

The world’s best universities, in addition to teaching, produce high quality research and impact, with social and economic benefits above their costs. That is why the State is one of its main financiers. At MIT, the US government’s research and grant contracts are the institution’s primary source of revenue: 67% of the total for research in the five-year period 2011-2015. At Oxford, about 50% of revenue comes from government. In Germany, where universities are mostly public, this percentage is even higher. At the Technological University of Munich, for example, more than 60% of current revenue comes from the government.

When talking about research funding, the role of the state is even greater. In England, it is estimated that 66% of the university’s research resources come directly from the British government and another 11% indirectly come from the European Union.

In Brazil, the sources of income are not as diversified as in other countries. And it is also true that our best institutions cost relatively little to the Brazilian state. A comparison between Unicamp and MIT, two universities of excellence in their countries and with great vocation for the production of technology, evidences this fact. Unicamp has, in addition to state government onlendings and extra-budgetary revenues, annual revenue at purchasing power parity of about $ 1.1 billion, less than half that of MIT.

It turns out that MIT has 4,500 undergraduate and 6,800 undergraduate students, while Unicamp has 19,000 graduate students and 16,600 graduate students. The number of teachers, in turn, is practically the same, just under 1,900 teachers in both institutions, and the number of technical-administrative staff is slightly higher in MIT. Unicamp has more than triple the students, with half the budget and the same number of employees and teachers, being one of the most important research centers in the country.

The volume of resources that MIT receives more than Unicamp is probably what makes the US institution one of the best universities in the world. These resources are invested in new research centers, laboratories and equipment and in the temporary hiring of researchers – post-doctoral trainees at MIT are more than 5,000 while at Unicamp there are only 270. These professionals are definitive to make the machine MIT research work just as well. Even so, Unicamp is the Brazilian university with the largest number of patents applied to the National Institute of Industrial Property (INPI).

Scientific research is essential not only to stimulate innovation and economic growth, but also to solve critical issues of our development. New vaccines and new treatments for diseases affecting the Brazilian population, technologies capable of increasing agricultural and industrial productivity, knowledge capable of mitigating the effects of global warming on our agricultural production are some of the examples. And the state is the great financier of science worldwide. Innovation, however, requires business investment.

Good universities in Brazil are increasingly open to the demands of society – including companies. They also need to seek funding alternatives and demonstrate transparency and visibility into costs and results. They also need to be aware of the needs of one of the world’s most unequal societies. After all, it is the whole of society that defines, and must be in a democracy, the resources that will be allocated to higher education and scientific research.

Good universities in Brazil need and can show society that they cost little considering their quality and results. They need to modernize budget management, creating internal control mechanisms that allow decisions to be shared, transparent and consistent with our economic reality, demonstrating to society the costs and impacts.

And Brazil needs to define how many good research and teaching universities can maintain international competitive conditions, considering that it is expensive even for a country not to know how to create knowledge. *

* Fernanda de Negri is from the Institute of Applied Economic Research (Ipea); Marcelo Knobel is dean of Unicamp and Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz is scientific director of Fapesp


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