Evaluating the legacy of ‘Ciência sem Fronteiras’

Laboratory research (stock image)
Frederico Menino

Frederico Menino is a PhD candidate in Sociology at The New School for Social Research. His research focuses on Brazilian higher education policy and foreign relations, with special emphasis on the internationalisation of Brazilian universities, scholars and students. Since 2012, Frederico has also worked as Educational Aide at the Consulate-General of Brazil in New York, where he supervises the Brazilian Scientific Mobility Program (a.k.a. 'Ciência sem Fronteiras').

When the 'Ciência sem Fronteiras' ('Science without Borders') programme was launched by President Dilma Rousseff in the end of 2011, few could foresee how deeply the economic, social and political outlook of Brazil would be transformed five years later. An emerging power in the early 2010s and soon to host the FIFA World Cup and Summer Olympics, Brazil had resisted the worst impacts of the global financial crisis fairly well and remained an increasingly influential geopolitical actor. The favourable winds pushed the country to also strengthen its position in the 'global knowledge economy' via a series of initiatives in the field of international education. Among those, the 'Brazilian Scientific Mobility Program'– or Ciência sem Fronteiras (CSF) as it became known in the United States – was certainly the most remarkable, and reflected the grand ambitions of the time:

The mobility program proposed here aims to launch the seeds of what could revolutionize the R&D system [...] The best students and researchers will undertake research in the best and most relevant universities around the world. [...] The main goal of the program is to promote the consolidation and expansion of science, technology and innovation in Brazil by means of international exchange and mobility.

Nonetheless, as is usually the case in educational policy, broad goals rarely come accompanied with pre-defined evaluation tools or robust accountability mechanisms. When ambitions are too high and targets are too vague, the task of accurately defining and measuring success can easily turn into a giant headache. Matters become even more complicated when policies that are born with the promise to 'revolutionise things' are taken by surprise by a world in which 'things' themselves are changing in a faster pace than usual. This is certainly the case of Brazil, a country that has experienced in the last couple of years one of the most severe economic and political crises in decades.

Despite the sudden and strong adversities, CSF has neither vanished nor been forgotten. A second phase of the programme was announced in 2014, with the promise of another 100,000 international scholarships until 2019. Frozen a year later due to budgetary concerns, CSF is currently undergoing a profound revision. On the surface, the multi-faceted debates taking place in Brazil at the moment converge into one main question: how to evaluate – and learn from – the legacy of CSF?

Assessing outcomes

As we look deeper into the ways in which policy-makers, alumni, scholars and civil society in general are reflecting upon CSF, we realise that the programme and many of its unintended consequences are finally being discovered. Rather than finding objective answers to specific questions, people are getting to know what CSF effectively is and how it can be improved. More than a pragmatic discussion about the right metrics or tools that should be utilised to monitor the impacts of this unprecedented policy, the debate taking place today signals to long-term aspects of Brazilian higher education policy, national development and foreign relations.

CSF had various original goals. But the only one that could be effectively traced from the programme's outset was the number and distribution of scholarships. In this regard, the initiative was rather successful: well over 90% of the 101,000 scholarships promised in 2011 were delivered until the end of CSF's initial phase (between 2012 and 2016). During this period, an unprecedented number of Brazilian undergraduate and graduate students – mainly in the STEM fields, but coming from diverse social backgrounds – were fully funded by the Federal Government to study and research in a variety of academic institutions all over the planet.

Yet, beyond the number of scholarship holders, their schools of origin and destination, little is still known about them. Moreover, despite the notorious absence of evaluating mechanisms established from the beginning of CSF, few disagree that the long-term impacts of the programme will only be possible to measure years from now.

So far the most relevant source of data about CSF has been from the institutions – in Brazil and abroad – that centralised the processes of selecting, placing and monitoring scholarship holders worldwide. Because the design of the programme – which focused on individual scholarship applications and only required minimal involvement from both sending and recipient universities – agencies such as the Brazilian Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES), the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and their partners in each country (e.g. the Institute of International Education (IIE) in the US, DAAD in Germany, or Campus France) usually concentrated on decisions regarding student evaluation and monitoring. Those institutions ultimately decided who could be awarded and where students would end up – as long as 101,000 scholarships were distributed!

Discovery #1: Science has Borders; language is one of them

The enormous efforts to select and place large numbers of Brazilian students abroad provided valuable learnings to all institutions engaged in the promotion of Brazilian international education. Among those learnings, perhaps the most significant was the discovery – or confirmation – that foreign language proficiency is in fact a serious barrier to the internationalisation of Brazilian higher education and science.

Although several warnings had been made before the implementation of CSF, few could anticipate with precision the real difficulties encountered by the Brazilian Government when trying to recruit students with satisfactory knowledge of a second language. The problem started to become evident since the first calls for applications, when CAPES and CNPq had to lower foreign language requirements in order to allow larger numbers of students to participate in the programme. The problem only became more explicit as the programme evolved: approximately one third of CSF students took part in some form of language training abroad, something that had not been anticipated in the original plan of Ciência sem Fronteiras.

At first, the recognition that the government was investing large sums of public money to pay for language instruction overseas led many critics to raise concerns about the real costs and benefits of the programme. Lately, however, the empirical recognition of this problem has contributed to broader support, with parallel governmental policies, especially 'Idiomas sem Fronteiras' (IsF) or 'Languages without Borders'. Administered by the Ministry of Education, IsF is an attempt to disseminate foreign language instruction among university students, researchers and faculty in Brazil. Structured around the international offices of different universities, the programme also intends to serve as a trans-disciplinary focal point for efforts to boost internationalisation in Brazilian higher education.

The consensus, therefore, is that Brazil needs to address its 'language problem' before it attempts higher flights on the global education stage. In order to internationalise, Brazilian students, universities, faculty and educational bureaucracies must speak the language(s) of internationalisation.

Discovery #2: Universities must be involved in Internationalisation

Although it may sound tautological, another key finding from the initial phase of CSF was that universities matter. Policy-makers and other influential stakeholders in Brazilian higher education today agree that no long-term legacy of BSMP will be guaranteed unless Brazilian universities are more directly involved in the continuous evaluation of the programme and planning for its future. Different from what has happened in the last five years, Brazilian universities must participate more actively in the selection of scholarship holders and the continuous monitoring of their international academic experience.

Such discovery in part resulted from the realisation that CSF was implemented after very limited consultation with universities, scientific associations and a broad range of non-governmental organisations already engaged in international education in Brazil. Disregarding a long tradition of interchanges between Brazilian higher education and foreign academia, the excessive centralisation of the programme in the Federal Government not only generated some resentment among institutional actors but it also exposed the limits of an internationalisation model focused on individual mobility rather than sustained institutional cooperation. Investing in individual scholarships and building human capital is crucial, but only universities can provide the links for durable transnational institutional cooperation.

On the one hand, the experience of CSF confirmed that when universities are left out of the design and implementation of governmental programmes, they tend to have fewer incentives to engage with their own students and scholars overseas. Instead of seeing students as institutional ambassadors and potential vectors for internationalisation, universities end up conforming to the secondary roles assigned to them. In other words, when treated as outsiders in a governmental programme, universities behave as such. Not convinced about the institutional benefits that CSF could provide beyond the individual benefits it provided to scholarship recipients, many universities limited their involvement in the programme to bureaucratic actions, such as stamping students' transcripts and keeping track of registration.

On the other hand, CSF exposed, clearer than ever before, the enormous heterogeneity among Brazilian higher education institutions in regards to their preparedness to navigate the world of international education. Whereas an elite group of institutions have an established portfolio of international cooperation, the vast majority of Brazilian institutions have little or no expertise in the area. International offices, when they exist, are understaffed and lack cohesive internationalisation strategies. Moreover, mechanisms to validate foreign accreditations and the infra-structure to receive foreign academics are usually obsolete and counter-productive.

In half a decade of existence, CSF allowed a more accurate diagnosis of this problem. As a response, initiatives to engage the historically autonomous and diverse universe of Brazilian higher education have proliferated in the last few years. The Brazilian Association for International Education (FAUBAI), in collaboration with the British Council, has recently published a guide to English-taught programmes in Brazil. The greater visibility of FAUBAI's annual conference – and its frequent presence at international events, such as NAFSA and EAIE – has also contributed to a consolidated national debate on internationalisation.

Also worth mentioning, CAPES has recently published a comprehensive guide to the top graduate programmes in Brazil, as a means to attract more foreign scholars to the country and stimulate Brazilian universities to structure their international offices. Altogether, those and other initiatives attempt to bring universities together to share practices, expertise and also to play a more decisive role in the definition of Brazil's internationalisation agenda.

Discovery #3: There is a lot to learn from international students

Last but not least, the success – or failure – of CSF will ultimately be decided only when more is known about those most affected by this policy: scholarship holders themselves. So far, the initial phase of CSF exposed that there is much to be learned about this generation of young, talented and internationalised Brazilians and their potential contributions to national development.

A few efforts have been made in the last couple of years to overcome this gap. In October 2015, the Office of Transparency of the Brazilian Senate published the results of a survey sent out to over 80,000 former CSF students. Although inconclusive, the study signals that scholarships benefited students from various regions, income levels and higher education institutions, which helped to refute the thesis that CSF was an elitist policy. CAPES has also been conducting an extensive analysis aimed at measuring the placing of former CSF students into the labour market and their impact on postgraduate studies. Preliminary data reveals that a large share of CSF undergraduate students (28%, against the national average of 7%) have entered the top graduate programmes upon their return to Brazil. As for student placement in the job market, conclusions are blurred due to the deep effects of the current economic recession on career prospects among recent graduates.

In addition to government sponsored evaluations, important evidence is being produced by voluntary networks of Brazilian international students and alumni mobilised in recent years. Most notably, organisations like Rede CsF and BRASA have collaborated to produce the recent publication of the first Brazilian 'Ranking of Entrepreneurial Universities'. The ranking was elaborated in consultation with students and university officials and translates, into practical terms and policy recommendations, many of the aspirations of returned CSF students. Another voluntary alumni organisation, MyCsF, has analysed results from multiple surveys intended to unveil how former international students can contribute to the improvement of university experience and curricula after returning to Brazil.

Finally, CSF has recently inspired a number of scholars, in Brazil and abroad, to investigate this unique programme in depth, through a variety of ethnographic and qualitative methods. Although results from those studies are only gradually becoming available, their assumptions and frameworks of analysis invite us to look at the legacy of CSF from wider perspectives. Overall, new analyses are challenging the frequently narrow and utilitarian association – particularly evident in government rhetoric – between investments in international scholarships and economic returns in the form of human capital. More than a collection of individual experiences or the mere acquisition of technical and professional skills, the widespread transnational academic mobility set forth by policies like CSF may spark profound transformations in areas as diverse as the academic culture of a given country, the consolidation of democratic values and international affairs.

Seen from this angle, the hopes around CSF are even greater today than they were five years ago. In a time of economic retraction, political gridlock and social unrest, vital answers may be found in the innovative impetus of a talented generation of internationalised young Brazilians.

The Measuring Success blog series draws from the ACU's experience in scholarship design, administration, and analysis, and our connections in the sector, to explore the outcomes of international scholarship schemes for higher education.