How Brazil Is Sending 75,000 Students to the World's Best Colleges

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Brazil's Federal University of Pernambuco in Recife

With their economy booming, their currency at a level that makes even London prices seem cheap and their foreign policy one of the world's most ambitious (President Dilma Rousseff this week will to be the first woman ever to open debate at the U.N. General Assembly), Brazilians have gotten used to going abroad for tourism, business, shopping and diplomacy. Now their students are finally getting an incentive to see the world, thanks to a major government program that aims to award 75,000 scholarships to attend the world's top universities. Available only to Brazilians studying subjects of strategic national importance, like engineering, they reflect "an effort by the government to take a quantum leap in the formation of a scientific and technological elite," says Aloizio Mercadante, Brazil's Science and Technology Minister.

That's a long-overdue agenda, not just in Brazil but all of Latin America. During the 2009–10 academic year, for example, Brazil, a nation of almost 200 million people, had fewer than 9,000 students at U.S. universities; China, by contrast, had more than 127,000, India 100,000 and South Korea 72,000. That's a big reason that more than a third of the world's research and development takes place in Asia today while less than 3% of it goes on in Latin America. As a result, countries across the region are working to get more of their best and brightest into top-flight institutions like Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and the Sorbonne. Ecuador last month announced its largest scholarship program yet, hoping to send more than 1,000 students overseas, while Colombia in 2011 will place more people abroad than in the past 18 years combined. Chile is expanding its own program to offer 30,000 scholarships by 2018, and even tiny El Salvador now has a study-abroad project.

Brazil's effort, dubbed Science Without Borders, involves the federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES), which will fund 40,000 scholarships, and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, which will fund 35,000. The country's private sector is expected to bankroll another 25,000. "It's an ambitious plan," says Denise Neddermeyer, CAPES' international-affairs director. "But this cannot be achieved alone — it requires increased international collaborative effort."

That was a major impetus for U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to the South American giant last spring. He and Rousseff agreed to work more closely on vital education issues, student exchanges and increased R&D cooperation, especially in what are known as the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. U.S. colleges and universities as a result are set to enroll half of Science Without Borders' grant winners, who will pursue studies in engineering, hard science, math, energy, sustainable development, the environment, biotechnology and health.

The increased scholarship investment is possible because Latin American nations are flush with cash from the global commodities boom of the past decade — much of which has been driven by China's voracious demand for everything from oil to steel to soybeans. At the same time, their economies have largely avoided contagion from the economic collapse in Europe and the U.S. It's no coincidence that Brazil, the world's biggest producer of iron ore, soybeans, sugar and beef, and Chile, the biggest exporter of copper, are offering the largest number of grants — or that Paraguay and Peru, which grew 15.3% and 8.8% respectively last year, are among the new study-abroad investors.

Experts back the scholarships plan, but they warn that governments have to take additional steps to reap the full benefits. One potential obstacle is foreign-language proficiency. (Brazil has acknowledged this issue and is considering expanding grants to include training.) Another is ensuring that students return home to apply and share their knowledge. And the student traffic shouldn't be just one-way: "This should be part of a broader program, and that means bringing in students from outside and having a true exchange," says Geraldo Nunes, coordinator of international agreements at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. "Right now [Brazilian universities] don't have the means or infrastructure to do that."

That raises yet another key issue: improving primary, secondary and higher education in Latin America. Students in countries like Brazil continue to score at the bottom of international math, science and reading tests; and their universities, still too often steeped in the archaic pedagogy of the region's colonial era, produce far too many psychology majors and too few engineers. That reality makes it harder for Latin American economies to move from commodities to computers, from soybeans to solar panels. Brazil, for example, has made significant strides lately in areas like aerospace, evidenced by its world-class regional jet corporation, Embraer. But the region is still years, if not decades, behind Asian tigers like South Korea.

Still, the new trend is a welcome if fledgling sign that Latin American governments are giving new priority to education — to finally "advancing sustainably toward innovation, competitiveness and business leadership in strategic sectors," says Mercadante, the Brazilian Science Minister. With all that cash in hand, now is the time.