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Excellence in the humanities

Brazilian courses distinguish themselves on the international scene

BEL FALLEIROSAt the beginning of July, QS (Quacquarelli Symonds), which every year since 2004 has evaluated and classified universities worldwide, published the first global ranking separated by areas of knowledge (available at Brazilian courses are relatively well placed among the first 200, above all in the general groups of “social sciences” and “arts and humanities.” The lists indicate the positions from 1 to 50 and then place the institutions in three groups alphabetically between 51-100, 101-150 and 151-200. In the overall situation of the human sciences, six Brazilian institutions appear: two state universities (USP and Unicamp), two federal universities (UFRJ and UFMG), the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV) and the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio (PUC-Rio). There are two universities from other Latin American countries (Universidad Nacional Autônoma do México and PUC-Chile).

From USP, philosophy and sociology were classified in the 51-100 group and geography and international relations in the 151-200 group. Unicamp is in the 101 – 150 group in philosophy and in the 151 – 200 group in statistics and operational research. For UFRJ, the positions of these same two courses were reversed. FGV and UFMG appear between 151 and 200 with international relations and philosophy, respectively. By way of comparison, in the exact and biomedical sciences areas, only three universities are represented: USP (agronomy between 51 and 100 and civil engineering between 151 and 200), Unicamp (electrical and electronic engineering between 151 and 200) and PUC-RJ (civil engineering between 151 and 200).

“The criteria that guide these rankings cannot be considered unique or infallible, but it would be absurd to ignore their usefulness and the visibility they afford,” says Modesto Florenzano, deputy dean of the School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences (FFLCH) at USP, which houses three of the departments mentioned in the ranking (Philosophy, Sociology and Geography).

“The main purpose of these lists – and it is on this they are economically based – is to offer people who intend entering these institutions a panorama of the universities. That is why carrying out research by discipline is very useful,” explains Rogério Meneghini, a specialist in scientometrics, the study of the quantitative aspects of science and scientific production. “The rankings weren’t produced to give a broad view of the quality of the universities, but they ended up serving as such.”

QS, whose headquarters are in the United Kingdom and which has offices in various countries, prepares its rankings to be used as guides by students who want to study outside their own cities or, in particular, their native countries. That is why special attention is paid to the degree of internationalization of the institutions evaluated. The recent ranking was based on three major criteria: academic reputation (professors are invited to evaluate courses and universities other than their own), reputation among employers (the quality of the professionals graduating from the institutions) and the number of citations in academic publications.

The inclusion of the item “employability” is considered by QS to be the great differential of its rankings, although it gives rise to criticism because it is an index that is not necessarily related to the quality of the intellectual production of the universities. “For our target audience it would be disproportional if we were to lay more emphasis on academic research than we already do,” says Ben Sowter, head of the information unit of QS. “Furthermore, the other rankings already provide this emphasis, in part because of the type of data internationally available and in part due to the history of how they first appeared. The first international classification was created by the Chinese government [via the University of Shangai] to highlight the performance of scientific research in their own universities in comparison with that of the West.”

The QS ranking, however, is also not free from bias. One has only to take a quick glance down the lists to see the very significant and predominant presence of universities from English-speaking countries (not only the United States and the United Kingdom, but also Canada and Australia) for this to become obvious. In the philosophy ranking, for example, what is noticeable is the small and weak representation of institutions from the countries that historically (and to this day) have contributed the most to this field of knowledge: France and Germany. “How can the University of Frankfurt, which has Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, be low down on the list?,” asks Ricardo Ribeiro Terra, a professor from the Department of Philosophy at FFLCH-USP and coordinator of the human and social sciences area at FAPESP (philosophy).

Terra also observes the small or non-existent number of articles in international publications of some Brazilian courses, even those that are well-evaluated, like sociology. “This raises doubts as to the journals chosen and makes one suppose that they are limited to analytical philosophy of the type that predominates in the United States,” he says.

On the other hand, the English language as an international parameter is a fact that is impossible to ignore. “There is a noticeable interest from foreign students to study in Brazil, largely because of the possibility of obtaining funding for research at a very early stage in their academic career. Even the scholarship seems attractive, but most of them don’t come because Portuguese is seen as a barrier,” says Meneghini.

Because of this the weight conferred by QS on internationalization in its evaluations is seen as correct – and there is also agreement on the fact that there are still few foreign students in Brazilian universities. “The main universities have always been meeting points for the best minds in the world,” says Sowter. “A large part of the drive for internationalization is conducted not only by institutions individually, but by government policies. Recently, universities have become centers for economic policy, because governments have realized that research and innovation play key roles in stimulating growth.”

However, it is not easy to weigh the quality of courses by the numerical criteria of internationalization. “In the social sciences area the majority of the studies refer to Brazilian issues and they are naturally not published in foreign publications,” says Terra. “Criteria should be considered that also evaluate domestic impact.” At the same time, regional characteristics may be at the origin of the prestige of some Brazilian research. “The highly complex territorial and social characteristics of Brazil demand the creation of a sophisticated theory,” says Antonio Carlos Robert de Moraes, from the Department of Geography at FFLCH-USP and coordinator of the human and social sciences area at FAPESP (geography).

Observers of international rankings are unanimous in stating that, given their recent creation, the criteria still need to be much improved. QS itself agrees with this and the decision to create a ranking by area was a way of making the classifications more specific and useful.

“The most delicate question has to do with the possibility of producing criteria that are compatible with the different ways of producing knowledge in the various disciplines,” says Paula Montero, a professor from the Department of Anthropology at FFLCH-USP and assistant coordinator of the Scientific Department at FAPESP . She believes that peer review (academic reputation) criterion to be the most important: “When an area of knowledge is sufficiently developed and diversified this type of external evaluation works very well.”

Despite being the most widely established, the criterion of citations in academic publications is also the target of restrictions. “I’ve never seen a measure that tries to evaluate the quality of research,” says Meneghini. Furthermore, the data in this item are chosen in gross numbers, which means that huge universities like USP start out with a competitive advantage.

Even so, the good position of the courses of FFLCH-USP is not surprising. “Modesty apart, USP’s Department of Geography educates the rest of the country and sets the tone for the discipline in Latin America,” says Robert de Moraes. “Our presence abroad is very significant and we play host to a fair number of international meetings,” Terra continues. This is partly due to the origin of FFLCH, which formed the core for the creation of USP in the 1930’s, when foreign professors came here, above all French ones. “We began our existence in an international way and we come from a strong humanist tradition,” says Florenzano.

“The social sciences in Brazil have always been of a relatively good standard for historical reasons,” says Paula Montero. “However, the decline in the quality of public schools, the growth of higher education, the lack of performance assessment in universities and the relative isolation of human sciences with regard to international debate were factors that acted against the expansion and consolidation of this quality.”

Tradition is even reflected in a recent course that is not part of the FFLCH, like the one from the Institute of International Relations (IRI). “I’m going to be very sincere with you. I think that in this ranking we hitched a ride from the Department of Political Science, which is a lot older and better known than the IRI, which was created in 2004 and only has two years of graduate studies,” says Maria Hermínia Brandão Tavares Almeida, director of the institute. However , obviously, the quality of the course is somehow reflected in the ranking.

For all these reasons, the presence in lists, like those of QS, is at the same time important and relative. “Only universities that are not very consistent allow themselves to be directed by demands for this type of survey, but they can be an element to be taken into account in academic guidelines,” says Marcelo Ridenti, who graduated in sociology at USP and is a professor at Unicamp and the coordinator of human and social sciences at FAPESP (sociology). “The assessment procedure has to start with the university itself, like the surveys that USP has undertaken periodically,” says Meneghini, who participated in university assessment committees, with the presence of foreign specialists. Florenzano agrees: “We mainly need to diagnose the quality of graduate courses and this is the most important starting point.”