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The Club of excellence

International Rankings provide evidence on the performance of the four best Brazilian universities

The University of São Paulo (USP), according to a series of parameters, is the most important public tertiary education teaching institute in Brazil. It has 75,962 students, offers 221 post-graduate programs and, on its own, is responsible for one quarter of the nation’s scientific production. It is not so simple to place USP, or any other major Brazilian university, among the best in the world. Last year the British newspaper The Times published for the first time a ranking of the best 200 universities on the planet – and there was no Brazilian representative. The survey’s methodology has changed and, in the second edition of this ranking, published in November, the University of São Paulo, at last, appears. It was in 196th place. And it was the only South American institution to figure in the survey – and is the second in Latin America, having come behind the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), which was in 96th position.

The change in methodology helps in understanding USP’s ascension. In 2004 the opinion of 2,375 academics interviewed from all the ends of the earth had a preponderant weight in The Times’ listing. “Rankings are important instruments for a university to evaluate its performance and to establish challenges for the future. But we’d looked upon this British survey as more of a prestige indicator than as an objective tool of evaluation”, says USP’s pro-rector of research, Luiz Nunes de Oliveira.

The University of Sao Paulo’s scientific productivity is growing – the number of articles published in scientific magazines is advancing at a speed of 10% per year -, but this was obscured by the prestige of the institutions with lots of tradition in the developed countries, and who had not had the same performance. In the 2005 edition, the academics’ opinions lost ground (from 50% down to 40% of the final weight) and, as well as the data concerning research citations in scientific magazines, the regime of the professors’ dedication, the number of teaching staff and students and the presence of foreigners within the institution were inserted as new criteria, such as the consultation of major companies about the quality of the tertiary educational formation of their professionals. “The idea’s to avoid distortions that privilege major and traditional universities in detriment to smaller and lesser known institutions, but equally as productive”, explains Martin Ince, the coordination of The Times’ ranking survey. With the change, Germany, for example, which had had 17 universities in the 2004 ranking, only managed to place nine institutions in 2005.

Comparing the data for 2004 and 2005, the first places hardly changed. The lead belongs to Harvard University and in second place appears the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both in the United States. The British universities of Cambridge and Oxford respectively occupy third and fourth places, followed by an American squadron made up of Stanford, California-Berkeley, Yale, California Institute of Technology and Princeton. In the first team, the most significant alteration lay in the ascension of the École Polytechnique of Paris from 27th to 10th place – and the fall of the Federal Institute of Technology of Zurich, relegated to 21st place for being over specialistic within the newly adopted ranking standards.

Brazilian universities have been paying much more attention to another international ranking, which published since 2003 by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, of China, which maps out the best 500 universities on the planet. There are four Brazilian universities on this list: USP, The State University of Campinas (Unicamp), the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and the São Paulo State University (Unesp). In this survey performance is measured by very concrete indicators. The quantity of articles published in the magazines Science and Nature, for example, has 20% weighting in the evaluation of each institution. A further 20% is allocated for citations of the institution’s articles in other scientific publications, a traditional measure of academic production impact. The institution’s size is worth a 10% weighting. The major Brazilian universities came out well in these indicators – the number of Brazilian scientific papers published has grown by almost 50% over the last four years. But in other parameters they simply did not score a point: the existence of professors or ex-students who had gained major scientific awards, such as the Nobel Prize, was equivalent to almost 30% of the final marks.

An analysis of the 2004 and 2005 data from the Shanghai University ranking reveals an ascending performance by the Brazilian universities. USP was ranked 190th in 2004 and moved to 146th place in 2005. Unicamp jumped some 114 places: from 367th in 2004 to 253rd in 2005. The UFRJ, which was in 368th place in 2004, moved to 364th in 2005. And finally, Unesp, 465th place in 2004, ended up 461st this year. This advance is balanced by an increase in productivity – but, in some cases, not just by that. The existence of a ranking league made the institutions concern themselves with valuing their strong points and correcting their weaker points. The Unicamp example is emblematic. The jump in its ranking is due, to a certain measure, to its effort of making its productivity more visible. ”

We took up various initiatives such as the standardization of our very name and the university’s address used in the researchers scientific papers. Before, one would put Unicamp, others the State University, others the State University of Campinas, which made the task of those doing the ranking by measuring production somewhat difficult”, stated Daniel Pereira, Unicamp’s research pro-rector. “To show visibility is fundamental. For this reason as well we’ve begun to send information and comments to the Shanghai University and we’ve placed on the Pro-Rectory page graphs and information about Unicamp’s academic production, which few universities have done”, affirmed pro-rector Pereira. In these graphs, Unicamp suggests that it is proportionally more productive than USP, since it stays ahead when the quantity of articles published is divided by the number of research staff. Although it accounts for 11% of the Brazilian production published in the Thomson-ISI data base (USP is responsible for 26%), Unicamp divides this production among its 1,800 staff. Whereas, USP has 4,868 professors. One of the effects due to this ranking, as can be seen, is the stimulation of healthy competition between universities.

USP is also monitoring its situation within international rankings, but its concerns are of another nature. “We’ve begun to carry out work with the objective of encouraging our researchers to investigate more problems at their root cause. In general, our best research is, in truth, consequences or follow ups on research that began abroad”, advised pro-rector Luiz Nunes de Oliveira. “Original scientific papers have a greater chance of producing articles of impact and, eventually, even going on to originate a Nobel Prize.” Pro-rector Nunes cites some examples: “The São Paulo traffic offers research material that could be made use of by different disciplines, from sociology to mathematics. But there’s little investigation on this issue. As well, we could deepen our research into tropical diseases. They may appear to be regional themes, but there’s a lot of this type of research published in Nature and Science”. Another of USP’s concerns is the internationalization of the university, a question valued within the rankings. “All of us agree in theory, but we have as yet to define what this means in practice. Some think that it means to participate more in congresses, others consider it to mean more foreign students within our student body”, says Nunes.

It is not by chance that the four Brazilian universities recognized among the 500 best are those that had consolidated themselves over the last few decades. In the case of the three São Paulo institutions there had been financial autonomy and the regular flow of resources, guaranteed by legislation. “Thanks to this it was possible to invest in an appropriate manner in teaching, research and extension work, which are the three pillars of a major university”, said Marcos Macari, Unesp’s rector. The vice-president of FAPESP, rector Macari emphasizes the importance of the Foundation. “There’s no point in us having highly competent staff without them having the resources to carry out research. FAPESP recognizes the qualifications of our researchers”, he says. In the case of the UFRJ, its performance is due to a tradition of excellence and to the resources destined by companies such as Petrobras to the Alberto Luiz Coimbra Institute of Post-Graduation and Engineering Research (Coppe), in spite of the financial difficulties that the federal universities have suffered over the last few decades.

In an article published in the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, the economist Rogerio Werneck, a professor at PUC university of Rio, underlined the importance of USP emerging into the ranking of The Times, but considered Brazil’s situation to be unfavorable. “The UNAM and USP are the only two Latin American universities. But the list contains 21 institutions of Asiatic developing countries”, wrote economist Werneck. “From China, there are no less than ten universities, four of them in Hong Kong. Among the three Indian institutions, there’s the Indian Institute of Technology, classified at the enviable position of 50th place. There are three South Korean universities and two from Singapore. The other three are located in Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand. Even taking into account the distortions that the ranking most certainly has, there is no doubt that Brazil looks bad in the final photo.”

The comparison between Brazil and the Asian countries is pertinent because they pertain to a rare group of nations that, going against the grain of the developing world, have managed to consolidate major universities and to widen their academic productivity. “China instituted a strong system of merit that can transform a recently contracted person into an incumbent professor if he/she manages to have an article published in a major magazine, such as Nature”, says Nunes, USP’s research pro-rector. “South Korea’s performance is due to structural investments in education and, in the case of Brazil, it is the result of the post-graduation system created some three decades ago that, in spite of all of the difficulties, has fed upon itself”, he says. USP assumed the leadership of this system, but it has spread to other institutions. “Some ten years ago half of the doctoral theses in Brazil came out of USP. Today this share is some 25%. This is excellent as it shows the expansion into other institutions”, says Nunes.