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Crisis in human resource development

Lower numbers of master's and PhD graduates in 2020 due to the pandemic and lower demand for advanced degrees sparks debate about the system that provides future researchers and high-level professionals in Brazil

Danilo Zamboni

The Brazilian postgraduate education system suffered a shock during the Covid-19 pandemic, one unprecedented in its history. The network of 4,600 master’s and PhD programs, responsible for conducting a significant part of the nation’s research and training its highly qualified professionals, was partially compromised due to the suspension of in-person activities at universities during the health emergency. In 2020, doctorates were awarded to 20,000 students in Brazil, which was 18% less than the 24,400 who graduated in 2019, according to data from the Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES). The number of new master’s graduates dropped by almost 15%—from 54,000 in 2019 to 46,000 in 2020.

Students who relied on field experiments and the use of labs to conduct their research were more affected than those who were able to work remotely. While biological science courses saw a drop of 29% in graduates, in the applied social sciences the decrease was only 10%. This sudden loss of momentum interrupted a virtuous cycle of growth that had lasted a quarter of a century; in 1998, the country graduated only 3,900 PhDs and 12,000 master’s students.

Preliminary data point to a further reduction in 2021. Some kind of rebound is expected this year, but there is no consensus on its intensity or the feasibility of resuming the previous growth rate. “The trend is for a slow recovery, since the effects of the pandemic associated with recent policies that retract support for science could have negative repercussions for some time,” says Renato Pedrosa, a researcher at the Department of Science and Technology Policy at the University of Campinas (DPCT-UNICAMP).

Agronomist Marcio de Castro Silva Filho, Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of São Paulo (USP), sees the drop-off as a predictable phenomenon. “The determining factor for the reduction in the number of graduates was the extension of the deadline for completing courses by up to two years, since many of our students had difficulties conducting their research with closed laboratories,” he says. According to Castro, about half of postgraduate students requested the postponement. In 2019, USP graduated 3,876 master’s and doctoral candidates. He saw this contingent drop to 2,900 in 2020 and 2,878 in 2021, but he expects to see many of those who extended the deadline receive their degrees in 2022. “We didn’t see an increase in the dropout rate,” the dean explains.

Alexandre Affonso

The prospect that the decline will end is supported by two indicators. Doctoral grants awarded by CAPES, which support a third of those enrolled in the country, increased in number during the pandemic. They were at around 44,500 in 2018, dropped to 43,000 in 2019, but reached their highest level in 2020, with 46,000 students receiving grants. The overall number of doctoral students also grew, hitting 146,600 in 2020. In both cases, performance is influenced by deadline extensions and student retention.

Other universities are gathering evidence that the crisis may have structural causes that go beyond the disruption caused by Covid-19. Since 2014, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) has trained around 1,500 master’s and 1,000 PhDs per year, however, in 2020 and 2021 these numbers dropped by around 35%. But that was not the only negative indicator. Chemist Denise Guimarães Freire, Dean of Postgraduate Studies and Research at UFRJ, draws attention to what seems to be reduced interest in this type of education. This is because the number of new students entering master’s courses at UFRJ also decreased, from 4000 in 2018 to 3500 in 2021.

Freire attributes the change to a set of factors. One of the principal reasons could be the inflationary erosion in amounts given for grants awarded by the federal agencies CAPES and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). Currently, a master’s scholarship recipient receives R$1,500 per month and a doctoral student receives R$2,200. The scholarship amounts were last readjusted in 2013, while the accumulated inflation since then—as measured by the IGP-M (Brazilian market price index)—has reached 117%. “In the past, many young people finished their undergraduate studies and chose to do a postgraduate course and enter the market later, under more favorable conditions. With the grants from federal agencies so depreciated, that strategy became unfeasible,” she explains.

She also sees a reversal of expectations regarding teaching careers in universities, which is the main destination for PhD graduates. According to data from the Center for Management and Strategic Studies (CGEE), two out of three PhDs employed in 2017 worked in the higher education sector. “There is a growing perception that being a researcher is no longer worth it, as opportunities have become scarce and funding is lacking. This certainly contributed to scaring off demand from highly qualified candidates,” she says. “This is dramatic, because 80% of the science produced in Brazil is done with participation from graduate students. Research is largely supported by this workforce, which earns its qualifications while working on projects related to science, technology, and innovation at universities and scientific institutions.”

Alexandre Affonso

At the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE), the total number of students enrolled in the master’s and PhD programs grew from 4,400 in the first half of 2020 to 6,600 in the second half of 2021. This was actually a consequence of the drop in dissertations and theses defenses: from 1,759 in 2020 to 1,112 in 2021. According to the Dean of Postgraduate Studies at UFPE, Carol Leandro, these data mask a reduction in demand, especially in engineering and health sciences. “There is a lack of motivation. Several programs had to carry out two selection processes a year so as not to leave unfilled vacancies, including some that received grades 6 and 7 in the CAPES assessment, which are the highest,” says Leandro, who is a researcher at the Department of Nutrition at UFPE.

“Something serious is happening,” sums up political scientist Rachel Meneguello, Dean of Graduate Studies at UNICAMP. Her institution also saw declining numbers of master’s and doctoral degrees earned, from 2,155 in 2019 to 1,847 in 2021, in part due to the extension of deadlines granted during the pandemic. Now, in 2022, it also counts 30% less enrollment in its master’s degree programs. Selection processes saw limited demand, possibly indicating reluctance in professionals to enter graduate programs. “In my program—political science—we used to have an average of 80 candidates every year and this time we had about 40.” Although there is a slight increase in the total number of doctoral students enrolled at the university, Meneguello fears that this is only a result of the backlog of students caused by the pandemic. “The grants aren’t big enough to sustain dedicating several years to research in a city that’s as expensive to live in as Campinas is.” She believes it will be difficult to reverse the current trend. “Even if the production of knowledge regains its value, it’s unlikely there will be enough resources to correct the large gap created in recent years between the production of necessary human resources and the funding applied to teaching and research.”

Higher education systems in other countries also suffered from the disruption caused by Covid-19. An annual survey by the National Science Foundation, the primary agency supporting basic science in the United States, showed that the total number of doctoral degrees awarded in the country fell from 55,614 in 2019 to 55,283 in 2020. While it seems like a small drop, this contingent had been growing at an average rate of 3.1% per year since 1957 when the survey began, particularly in the areas of science and engineering, which accounted for 77% of titles granted in 2020, compared to 58% in 1979.

In Brazil’s case, some signs of crisis were becoming apparent before the pandemic health emergency. A report prepared last year by the former president of CAPES, Abílio Baeta Neves, with Concepta McManus, from the University of Brasília (UnB), analyzed different aspects of the performance of Brazilian graduate studies programs between 2009 and 2020. They showed that even in a scenario of growth in the number of graduates, between 2016 and 2019 there was a reduction in enrollments in programs with the highest grade-point cutoffs—those with greater international integration—and an increase in dropout and termination rates, especially in engineering, agricultural science, and other exact sciences. The average dropout rates, 12.4% in the master’s and 11.6% for PhDs, were more significant in private institutions and in courses with lower grade cutoffs during that same period. “The reasons for the dropouts aren’t clear and need further study,” says Baeta Neves. “I would look closely at the situational factors, such as the cooling economy, and structural factors, such as the grant amounts and the mismatch with student expectations.”

Alexandre Affonso

Although it highlights the system’s successful growth over the last decade and its expansion into every region of Brazil, the report also presents other worrying indicators. One of them is a marked degree of underfunding. “There are many postgraduate research projects that are conducted without any type of funding or grants,” says Baeta Neves. In 2020, more than half of postgraduate research projects overall did not have any type of support. The situation is more critical in the areas of letters, linguistics, and the arts (almost 70%), and applied social sciences (60%). “It would appear that we’re getting blood from a stone,” says Baeta Neves. The funding model adopted in Brazil over recent decades focuses on supporting projects through agencies such as CNPq and state foundations, and offering grants to students working on these projects, with an emphasis on CAPES programs. Pedrosa, from UNICAMP, points out that this situation may vary by region, depending on each state’s capacity to invest in science. “In São Paulo, there was an increase in state tax collection and, consequently, in FAPESP’s budget. Unless the international situation complicates things, this should preserve funding for a robust set of projects in the state in the near future.”

The Brazilian postgraduate system was built over the last six decades and has become one of the most productive in the world. In 1965, a decision from Brazil’s Federal Education Council organized the system along the lines still in effect today, with two modalities: stricto sensu degree programs, aimed at academic careers, and lato sensu programs, shorter specialization courses for those who work in business and other activities. The council also established the academic categories for master’s and doctoral degrees. In the mid-1970s, CAPES created a model for evaluating courses, which gives grades and guides the distribution of funds for the programs. This gave the assessments an organizing, multiplier effect on the system, particularly in public universities.

The recent drop in demand has raised another type of question: why is it necessary to continue increasing the number of master’s and PhD graduates year after year? “Our system was created mainly to train professors, but today universities are hiring fewer and fewer,” explains Pedrosa. “Private higher education is still growing, but there’s no pressure on them to hire PhDs.” On the other hand, there has been an increase in interest in executive master’s degrees—MBAs, short-term, lato sensu courses that offer distance-learning options, which saw enrollment increase by 72% between 2016 and 2019, according to the SEMESP Institute. Professional master’s programs monitored by CAPES also experienced larger demand, with more than 62,000 enrollments in 2019, according to the National Institute of Educational Studies and Research (INEP), an agency of the Ministry of Education.

International comparisons indicate that Brazil trains fewer high-level human resources than developed countries. With 10.4 doctorates awarded per 100,000 inhabitants, Brazil performs better than Mexico (7.6), Turkey (7.6), or Chile (3.8), but is far behind the United States (21.9), Germany (34.4), and the United Kingdom (42.7). There is potential for growth at newer universities and those still in consolidation. “In some disciplines the ratio of students to professors in the programs is low, so availability could be increased,” says Baeta Neves. “There may, however, be a limit in some regions given the number of people that manage to achieve higher education.” The pandemic is another factor aggravating this problem, because of its effect on the number of graduates. In 2020, there was a 21% drop in graduates from federal universities overall and 20% from state universities, compared to 2019, according to data from the INEP Higher Education Census. In the private university system, there was a rise of 7.5%.

Political scientist Elizabeth Balbachevsky, a professor at the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences at USP, affirms that Brazil will continue to need a workforce with advanced qualifications and specific training for research activities, although this demand varies from sector to sector. “There are very competitive areas where this type of professional is needed, such as computing, information technology, and artificial intelligence. State-of-the-art agribusiness also has a demand,” she explains. She notes, however, that many Brazilian companies still maintain a strategy of reproducing mature technologies. “For a significant part of the business sector, what makes sense is imitation, in which at most what’s necessary is competence in reverse engineering. There’s no need to hire a researcher. A good engineer is sufficient.”

The most recent data on the postgraduate job market in Brazil predates the pandemic and pointed to a much more favorable employment situation than the average for the rest of the population. The last issue of the “Master’s and Doctorates” series, produced by the Center for Management and Strategic Studies (CGEE), was published three years ago. It showed that 72.3% of the 230,000 PhDs and 62.2% of the 570,000 Brazilians with master’s degrees were formally employed in 2017—these rates, however, were about 5 percentage points lower than in 2012, when the economy was growing. In 2016, the year in which the growth rates of Gross Domestic Product and employment in Brazil saw significant reductions (-3.3% and -4.2%, respectively), the growth rates of formal employment for master’s graduates were positive, (+6%) and (+8.6%) for PhDs, according to the study.

Alexandre Affonso

One of the explanations for this performance is the fact that a significant portion of these professionals work in government administration, where employment is stable. In 2017, most PhDs worked at universities and state agencies: 47.9% at the federal level and 20% at the state level, while only 9.6% worked at private companies. Among the master’s graduates, there was greater employment in the private arena: 22.7% worked in the federal administration, 19.8% for state governments, and 22.2% at private companies. In 2017, the average remuneration was R$16,000 per month for PhDs and R$10,800 for master’s degrees, with the highest salaries documented in the areas of applied social sciences and engineering. “The market assimilation of postgraduates isn’t limited to formal employment,” explains Sofia Daher, the technical advisor at the CGEE who coordinates the publications. “In one ongoing study, we observed that 16.8% of PhDs declared themselves to be partner-owners of companies, a sign that a portion of them are attracted to entrepreneurship.”

Sociologist Simon Schwartzman, from the Institute for Economic Policy Studies in Rio de Janeiro, draws attention to one aspect of Brazil’s postgraduate system that he considers to be a drawback: the system of maintaining master’s degrees as a prerequisite—in practice—for obtaining a doctorate, resulting in inordinately long stays at universities for students. In a study recently published on his website, Schwartzman showed that, in the United States, 44.7% of PhDs graduated before the age of 30, compared to only 10.5% in Brazil (see table).

Alexandre Affonso

“In other countries, brilliant young people go straight into doctoral programs and after publishing two or three significant papers, they are considered trained researchers,” he says. Brazilian universities only very rarely admit students directly into PhD programs. In European Union countries the problem was confronted by condensing the training time: an undergraduate degree takes from three to four years, the master’s from one-and-a-half to two years, and a doctorate takes from two to four years. According to Schwartzman, later education is seen as detrimental in certain areas of knowledge. “In mathematics, for example, it’s been established that if researchers don’t make a significant contribution by the age of 30, they won’t make a significant contribution later. This logic doesn’t hold for the social sciences.”

“The design of the graduate studies system in Brazil is wrong at an institutional level,” asserts Balbachevsky. “A model that keeps young talent inside the university for so many years earning a minimum wage is not sustainable.” She brings up another example from the US model: only a minority of students receive financial support to dedicate themselves exclusively to research. “Most of the grants are for research assistants, in which the student is involved with the university’s core activities, teaching courses, and helping to design research and extension projects. They receive a rich education and are well prepared to enter the market.” Balbachevsky advocates maintaining master’s programs, but not as a prerequisite for a doctorate. “The master’s degree is a mark of quality that the research university provides the job market,” she says.

The drop in demand and in the number of graduates reflects the current turbulent moment in Brazilian graduate studies. Last year, the four-year assessment of graduate programs, led by CAPES since the 1970s, met with an unprecedented challenge in the courts. The publication of the programs’ assessed performances, which receive grades from 3 to 7, has been suspended (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 309). Also delayed by the pandemic, discussions on the National Postgraduate Plan (PNPG) for the decade 2021–2030 have not yet been conducted and it is still unknown what goals will have to be achieved in the coming years.

The report by Baeta Neves and McManus was produced when the former president of CAPES took over the Paschoal Senise Chair, created by the Dean of Graduate Studies at USP, with the specific objective of bringing forward ideas and proposing innovations for the next PNPG. One fundamental question raised in the document is if the courses have become detached from the demands of Brazilian society. Baeta Neves observes that even the teacher’s role has been undergoing a transformation. “The teacher isn’t just that person who’s busy teaching classes, maintains expertise in a certain field of knowledge, and is dedicated to academic research. They’re also expected to transform knowledge into social and economic value and produce innovation. Does it look like we’re succeeding in adapting the graduate programs to this reality?” she asks.

Among its recommendations, the report points to a need to invest more in the quality of postgraduate programs than in expanding them, integrating professors and researchers from various regions, institutions, and disciplines, and opting for more flexible formats of shorter duration, as evidenced by the demand for MBA courses. The document also considers recent experience with remote work as important to increasing international cooperation. “The pandemic has precipitated a new environment for internationalizing academic and research activities, focusing on ‘internationalization at home,’ as well as the creation of national and international networks,” the report states.

Alexandre Affonso

The concerns with increasing quality and expanding the system’s interface with the productive sector are shared by academic leaders. Maria Valnice Boldrin, Dean of Postgraduate Studies at the Paulista State University (UNESP), argues that discussions in the new PNPG should seek to bring postgraduate education closer to the needs of business. “We need to overcome the productivist model, which focuses on indicators such as the number of scientific articles, and seek ways to increase our impact, with a mind towards integration with the productive sector,” she says.

Castro Silva, from USP, believes the system is saturated in some regions and should develop new formats. “We are overly attached to a compartmentalization of knowledge. It would be more productive to create a network of programs, bringing together skills from various disciplines and institutions to face complex problems,” he proposes. Meneguello, from UNICAMP, agrees that there have been difficulties in keeping up with important changes in society. “We need to reflect on what happened during the pandemic, rethink curricula, offer less time-consuming degree programs, and adapt to demands. But without forgetting that one of the purposes of graduate studies is the maintenance of basic science, which takes time,” she says.

More openings, shrinking funds
Unadjusted federal grants impacted the graduate education system’s growth, says president of ANPG

The president of the National Association of Graduate Students (ANPG), Flávia Calé da Silva, 37, says that the crisis in the funding of master’s and doctoral grants was generated by a failure of the last National Graduate Plan (PNPG), which was in effect from 2011 to 2020. “The plan induced an increase in the number of openings for graduate programs and attracted a large number of students to the system but didn’t bother to establish mechanisms to adequately fund them. So much so that federal agency grants haven’t been readjusted for nine years,” she says.

The pandemic amplified the array of problems. “Students were at home trying to complete their research, but many were unable to do so. The increased amount of domestic work caused a general drop in productivity,” says the president of the ANPG, citing a survey by the Parent in Science movement, according to which only 9.9% of black women graduate students with children managed to continue making progress on their theses and dissertations during the social isolation period. Among white mothers, the rate was slightly better, at 11.6%.

Da Silva experienced these difficulties firsthand during the pandemic. She completed her master’s degree in economic history at USP in 2021, with a CNPq grant, then competed in a selection process for a doctoral grant in the same program and was approved. During her education, she had two children, a girl who is now almost three years old, and a boy, now one. “I delayed completing my master’s degree for a year and a half, because I took maternity leave, and then the pandemic happened. Last year, I was in the maternity ward when I finished writing my doctoral project,” she says.