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The Science Without Borders student exchange program, which spent R$13.2 billion, mostly on scholarships to send undergraduate students abroad, has ended

In April 2017, the Ministry of Education (MEC) announced the end of the Science Without Borders (CsF) program that, from 2011 to 2016, provided almost 104,000 scholarships, 78,900 of them for undergraduate students to participate in an exchange program at a foreign university. The Ministry will continue to fund scholarships for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to spend time at foreign universities and research institutions through the Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes). Data compiled by Capes show that, from 2011 to 2017, Science Without Borders invested R$13.2 billion, a sum that is expected to reach R$15 billion by 2020 when the current scholarships expire. To get an idea of the magnitude, R$13.2 billion is more than 15 times greater than the 2016 annual budget of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq).

Presented by the federal government as a strategy for internationalizing Brazilian science, CsF was originally well-received by the scientific community due to the promise that there would be extra money to fund it. However, these additional resources did not materialize. In practice, the program ended up exhausting an important portion of the federal budget for education, science, technology and innovation. In 2015, 50% of Capes’ budget was spent on CsF, including 75% of the funds earmarked for the Graduate Support Program (PROAP) and the Academic Excellence Program (PROEX). “The time when the number of students studying abroad was the highest coincided with the worst exchange rate of the decade, which was as high as 4 Brazilian reais per U.S. dollar. We had to find money in order to pay student expenses,” says Concepta McManus Pimentel, Capes Director of International Relations.

Beginning in 2013, CsF began to receive funding not only from MEC, MCTIC, Capes and CNPq, but also from resources from the National Science and Technology Development Fund (FNDCT), MCTIC’s principal research funding mechanism. “This was wrong, as the mission of the FNDCT does not include funding undergraduate studies,” says physicist Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC). In 2013, CsF received R$309 million of its R$3 billion in funding through FNDCT. Then, in 2014, this number skyrocketed: the program absorbed R$1 billion of FNDCT’s R$2.8 billion budget. In 2015, the proportion was the same: R$751 million for CsF from a total FNDCT budget of R$1.8 billion. In 2016, the transfer of funds to CsF stalled. “CsF channeled resources sorely needed by the science and technology system to undergraduate student education,” says Hernan Chaimovich, CNPq President from 2015 to 2016.

According to data from Capes, which coordinated the program together with CNPq, the scholarships consumed R$6.3 billion, with another R$5.8 billion paid to foreign universities that hosted Brazilian students from 2012 to 2016. “We paid astronomical sums in dollars to foreign universities without performing an assessment of the impact of this investment,” says Helena Nader, president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC). “Internationalizing science requires an elaborate, long-term strategy, and no country bases it just on sending undergraduate students abroad.”

One controversial aspect of the program was the candidates’ lack of foreign-language proficiency, which led CsF to spend R$976 million on language courses for the students, provided shortly before and during their exchange programs. In 2013, the government even vetoed scholarships for undergraduate students to attend universities in Portugal, which were much sought after since they did not require mastery of a second language. In March 2014, 80 exchange students in Canada and 30 in Australia were forced to return to Brazil and lost their scholarships due to poor English proficiency. The countries that hosted the greatest number of Brazilian students were the United States (27,800), the United Kingdom (10,700), Canada (7,300), France (7,200) and Australia (7,000). According to Luiz Davidovich, the program was too extensive. “Because of the 100,000-scholarships goal, the program even ended up sending students to universities abroad that were not as good as those at which they studied in Brazil,” he stated.

Students who participated in CsF defend its legacy and its continuity. “I know of many positive experiences among students who studied abroad and I am sure that, in the long run, the impact of the program will become clear,” says Guilherme Rosso, co-founder of the network of current and past Science Without Borders exchange students, called Rede CsF. Then an undergraduate student at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, he participated in the first year of the program and spent time at Clark University and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), both in Massachusetts. “Investing in undergraduate student exchange programs is important for Brazilian science. The program deserved to be improved and could have even been smaller, but it should have continued sending undergraduate students abroad, which helps form connections between Brazilian science and foreign institutions,” he says. Rosso recognizes that the program’s growth was poorly planned. “During the first year, when I participated, the selected students met all of the qualifications then required, which included having been undergraduate research assistants, foreign-language proficiency, no Fs in any courses, and good recommendation letters. The goal for these exchange students was to improve their academic and professional training. But, after the second year, the requirements slackened to include a larger group of students, and these students were interested in having an international experience and becoming proficient in a foreign language,” he explains.

An article published in May 2017 in the Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências showed preliminary results from CsF—and one of the positive outcomes is related to the first wave of students in the program, which included Rosso. In this group, the only one for which full data is already available, more than 20% later went on to pursue master’s and Ph.D degrees, compared to an average of 5% for other students. The study, developed by Capes Director Concepta McManus Pimentel and former President Carlos Nobre, disputed the idea that the program benefited only elite students: 52% of scholarship recipients responding to a Capes survey were from families with a total income of up to six times the minimum wage.

In 2011, physicist Marcelo Knobel, now president of Unicamp, wrote an article in the journal International Higher Education, published by Boston College, in which he stressed the difficulty in selecting a group of students qualified both academically and in terms of language proficiency to take advantage of the experience of studying in a world-class foreign university. He also criticized the government’s lack of interest in building long-term partnerships with foreign universities and in encouraging them to send students to Brazil. “Unfortunately, most of these predictions were proven to be correct,” says Knobel. “It’s important that undergraduates be enabled to attend foreign universities, but the excessive size of the program and its organizational problems seem to have made it unfeasible. And, since there was no evaluation of the results, we do not know to what extent it yielded benefits.”

Capes is preparing to launch the program that will replace Science Without Borders in the second half of 2017. The idea is that each university will identify its principal areas of competence and the possibility of improving them through collaborations with foreign institutions. The agency will support the development of cooperation networks, funding graduate activities and scholarships abroad for researchers and students linked to the objectives of each institution. “We are proposing that the focus become the internationalization of universities, and not the payment of foreign institutions for services. Scholarships for undergraduate students will be only part of this strategy,” says Concepta McManus Pimentel, of Capes.

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