Quality Assurance Wakeup Call

Amber warning lights are starting to flash on the panel where Brazil’s policymakers oversee the trade-off between quality of higher education or academic research, and the funds they are investing in the sector. Brazil is making a big push to internationalise its higher education sector and quality is central to this enterprise.

Education and research budgets are now significant in global terms and make Brazil the only Latin American country investing one percent of its GDP in research (when federal, state and industrial resources are combined). The 2014 federal science budget (on paper at least) was US$4.5 billion (BR$9.4 billion). From 2003-2013, Brazil’s overall education budget grew 205%, from BR$33.3 billion to BR$ 101.8 billion.

Yet the quality of its higher education and the citation impact of its published research remains stubbornly low. Only one university in Brazil – the University of São Paulo – clings precariously to its top 225 spot in the Times Higher Education’s global rankings.

Massive budgets and a huge teaching infrastructure have so far failed to deliver the expected results – and analysts are trying to find out why. These are highly-sensitive issues that will determine whether Brazil’s aspiration to transform itself from commodity supplier into a knowledge-based society, can succeed.

Education Minister Henrique Paim - an eye on quality

Education Minister Henrique Paim – an eye on quality

At a recent conference on quality on higher education attended by Brazil’s education minister Henrique Paim, delegates were told that a dramatic increase in the number of courses offered by privately-owned and technical universities, is now threatening quality standards. But that is just one tiny part of the story.

The conference at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in the southern city of Porto Alegre held on November 5th, was organised by the British Council, which brought along UK university representatives and experts from the Quality Assurance Agency.

In Brazil, the British Council’s Portuguese website has published a number of presentations from the event, including statistical analysis of Brazilian higher education. You can access these by clicking here. You can read an article from the Times Higher Education supplement by clicking here.

According to Dr Rita Barrads Barata of CAPES, the federal agency exercising Brazil’s quality assurance function, in 2013 only 4.2% of university courses reached “international excellence” quality, while 68% were described as “acceptable” or just “satisfactory.” And last year, two percent of academic programmes had their registrations cancelled for underperformance. Furthermore, between 2010 and 2013, the quality of 78% of Brazilian university courses either remained the same or got worse, while just 23% improved. CAPES also logs the performance of more than 166,000 professional academics.

The quality of higher education in Brazil was one key topic at a symposium held at UCLA’s Berkeley Campus November 18th. Renato Pedrosa, from the Department of Science and Technology Policy of the University of Campinas (DPCT/Unicamp) told delegates it was hard to analyse  the performance of higher education in Brazil, due to the extremely small number of studies on the subject, especially about how people make decisions about pursuing education at this level.

Pedrosa displayed data from the Ministry of Education’s Basic and Higher Education Census, which shows enrollment in public and private institutions increased from 1.5 million in 2007 to 2.4 million in 2013. The same study indicated that, starting in 2008, the number of students enrolled in higher education actually exceeded the number of students who had completed high school by over 600,000. You can read a detailed article about the UCLA symposium by clicking here.

Overall, Brazilian university education isn’t getting better fast enough and this threatens to undermine investments. Education and allocation of budget became something of a political football during the recent presidential elections. Nevertheless, a lack of education and skills is now being identified by observers such as the Economist, as the culprit for Brazil’s flabby economy and its feeble growth statistics.

So the Porto Alegre conference came as a wake-up call to a sector in need of overhaul, and where quality assurance issues have until now largely been swept under the carpet.

True, there are honourable exceptions. At regional level serious work is being done to boost international citation impact, to raise academic standards, and police the ethics of academic researchers. The beacon and benchmark for quality is the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), which has a US$500 million budget and a solid reputation – both for funding serious science, and for forging ties with the world’s most prestigious universities, institutes and national research funding agencies.

Brazil's need to tap into  global quality networks

Brazil’s need to tap into global quality networks

Elsewhere though, convenient scapegoats are being blamed for quality problems. First come the surging for-profit universities identified at the Porto Alegre conference. These concentrate on offering undergraduate courses and invest little in post-graduate research.

These “degree factories” aimed at Brazil’s emerging middle classes were first established to meet demand that couldn’t be fulfilled by federal and state institutions, where academic gatekeepers are determined to preserve their elite status. Commercial universities have attracted the attention of global investors for their size and profitability. You can read an article about a US$6 billion M&A deal in Brazil’s private university sector by clicking here.

Yet the problem lies deeper – and scrutiny is now starting to focus on Brazil’s well-developed network of federally-funded universities. Many of these are deeply traditional, offering researchers or teaching professionals a secure career and lifestyle that’s far removed from mood of European universities where modern academics must engage with the media and society.

Yet although research by one of Brazil’s top universities has highlighted the gap between comfortable academic culture with its light-touch regulation, and fast-changing Brazilian society, there has been little visible self-scrutiny. You can read an article about this research by clicking here.

The catastrophic financial mismanagement at Brazil’s top-ranking institution, the University of São Paulo (USP), means that its reputation is likely to suffer in next year’s THE ranking. USP was widely seen as the best organized of Brazil’s universities.

USP

University of São Paulo – under financial threat

A program of wage hikes for 5,800 academic and 17,000 support staff that was approved by the former USP administration, means the payroll costs alone now exceed its overall budget, and have also consumed one third of its cash reserve. You can read a newspaper article about the financial problems by clicking here. For a detailed assessment (in Portuguese) click here. Teachers are being asked to reduce their working hours – although it’s unclear how this might affect research or quality of teaching for 92,000 students. In a transparency initiative, USP is releasing personal payroll data about all its employees. Click here to find out more.

Even worse is the question of research ethics. This year Brazilian academics learned about the country’s first-ever “name and shame” campaign in São Paulo. This was welcomed by professional bodies such as SBPC (Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science.)

Falsification of research data and plagiarism by doctoral, post doctoral students and even professors is by no means exclusive to Brazil, but it came as a shock when in October the names of five senior academics were published on the official website of FAPESP,  the agency that had funded their research. Two worked at Brazil’s most prestigious institutions, USP and the University of Campinas. You can read an article by clicking here.

The investigations into plagiarism, falsification of scientific data and ill-conduct cover a period from 2012 to 2013, but a further 22 cases are under consideration. Another 15 cases resulted in no further action. The accusations include straight copying of other authors’ text into doctoral theses, fraudulent use of images, and false claims to co-authorship of scholarly articles.

Although no other state or federal funding institution has followed São Paulo’s lead by publishing details of other investigations, it’s believed these “bad apples” are a just tiny minority. Nevertheless there is work to be done in raising the impact of the legitimate academic research that Brazil does publish.

A detailed profile of the global market in scientific research and academic impact published in 2012 by Nature, placed Brazil disappointingly in its rankings, which were based upon Thomson Reuters Web of Science data. You can start reading Nature’s coverage by clicking here. Nature’s infographics show that Brazil’s citation index for scholarly articles remains disappointing, despite its dominance of Latin America in terms of raw publication numbers. While neighbours Chile and Argentina garner citations by publishing in English with international partners, Brazil’s more parochial approach (less than one quarter of articles have such partnerships) means the overall impact of its science is low.

Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 09.09.44

According to Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, the Science director at FAPESP, Brazil has stood still for two decades. “In the past 30 years, Brazil has built a broad science base in its universities, research institutes and industry. In 2011, the nation produced more than 12,000 doctoral students and 35,000 articles in international scientific journals. Growth has been impressive. But the system as a whole lags behind in quality and impact. On average, citations of Brazilian authors were the same in 2011 as in 1994: at 65% of the world average.”

FAPESP's leadership pushing quality higher

FAPESP’s leadership pushing quality higher and higher.

While Brazil’s higher education system remained inwardly focused on the Portuguese-speaking world, these issues might not have mattered so much. But the internationalisation push has made the quality standards gap glaringly visible – just at a time when economic slowdown is putting all budget items under renewed scrutiny.

Fast-growing interest international interest in Brazil’s higher education scene is a result of two factors. A well-funded mobility programme called Science Without Borders that promotes overseas study for up to 100,000 undergraduates, has swelled the coffers of European and US universities and whetted appetites of visiting Deans and Rectors for more cooperation. More than 13,000 science undergrads have been to the US to study. Brazil has just announced a parallel Humanities programme called “Languages Without Borders,” with fresh promises of cash. Portuguese readers can learn more by clicking to read this article.

At the same time Brazilian bodies such as CAPES, the federal agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education, are keen to attract an inward flow of special visiting researchers to the country, offering generous tax-free cash such as the Science Without Borders offer of US$7,500 per month plus travel and research grants of US$28,000 a year.

"Science without Borders" - or without English?

“Science without Borders” – or just without English?

For those heading in both directions on the Science Without Borders ticket, quality is important. It’s been reported in the Times High Education that some Brazilian students have been sent home because their poor English language skills prevented them learning enough science at Canadian and Australian universities. Likewise, incoming PIs need to know the local postgrads they’ll supervise will be able to add value to their in-country research.

As if the higher education scene wasn’t complex enough, there’s a final wrinkle in the shape of an unfolding tug-of-war for resources between pure research, and its applications for industry and training.

University academics are on record as saying the government’s National Knowledge Platform Program, launched in June 2014, could transfer resources to industry that should have gone to universities. Jacob Palis, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC), told SciDevNet news service that fostering collaboration between industry and research institutions shouldn’t mean simply diverting funds earmarked for basic research toward industry.

At the level of basic technical education, the federal government’s Ministry of Education and Science is pouring resources into Pronatec (National Programme for Access to Technical Training and Work) set up in 2011. This is aimed at assuring youth employment through vocational training and apprenticeships. President Dilma Rousseff claimed that eight million would sign up to Pronatec courses, some delivered by companies linked to commercial universities.

"More of the same" promise augurs economic uncertainty  and drift.

Rousseff’s “Pile ’em high” Pronatec vocational  program meets political needs

But Pronatec has been subjected to critical scrutiny. A report by the BBC claimed up to 60% of young people are abandoning the courses they’re enrolled in, after receiving sign-on gifts including electronic tablets. In October 2014 it was reported that Brasilia’s Public Accounts Tribunal had uncovered commercial providers drawing funds for non-existent students, forcing the then-candidate Dilma Rousseff to defend her programme.

From post-doctoral research down to the humblest apprenticeship, quality assurance is emerging as a key issue in Brazilian education. Delivering the best outcomes will further not only the individual careers of those calling on institutions to deliver worthwhile study, but also the nation’s development goals. As the stakes are raised through internationalisation, quality becomes more important than ever to Brazilian research and higher education.

Researching in Brazil

Brazil’s best-known scientist, the veteran nuclear physicist  José Goldemberg,  in September 2015 took office as the president of  the São…

Read more