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The size of the blanket

Creation of new federal universities stirs up debate about the government's capacity for expanding a system with teaching and research

The expansion program for the federal higher education institutions has grandiose figures: the forecast is for the creation of 125 thousand new openings by 2010, by means of the construction of four new universities – in suburbs of São Paulo, Metropolitan Dourados, in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul , Recôncavo Bahiano, in the state of Bahia and Pampa, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul -, the transformation of five colleges into universities, and the creation of 36 campuses connected with already-existing institutions. The investment in the program reaches R$ 266.5 million.

But its impact on the national science and technology system is not so simple to measure. There are, for example, uncertainties about the capacity of the Ministry of Education (MEC) to sponsor the expansion without weakening the existing universities. In a speech made at the Planalto Palace on January 17, the president of the National Association of Directors of Federal Higher Education Institutions (Andifes), Oswaldo Baptista Duarte Filho, praised the initiative, but expressed concerns.

“This expansion is still happening at the cost of the situation of the already-existing human and financial resources that are now behindhand. The 4 thousand openings  for professors initially intended for reconstituting the current staff, besides still not entirely correcting the deficit, were transformed into a mere 2,200, with the other 1,800 being reserved for expansion”, said Duarte Filho, who is the rector of the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar).

He recognized that the resources for the federal universities have been growing. “In 2005, we had an increase in the budget, the first in many years, which put into effect a 24% addition for the costs and capital of the federal institutions”, he said. The money used in the construction of the new universities is certainly coming from a source aside from the overall budget for the federal universities, which went up from R$ 7.7 billion in 2004 to R$ 8.9 billion in 2005, according to figures from the MEC.

But, taking into account courses of an average of five years in duration, the 125 thousand new openings will mean 625 thousand openings after a few years. That is going to double the current number of students. Andifes is afraid lest the new institutions will be strong rivals with the already existing universities in cutting up a limited cake of budgetary funds in the next few years.

There is consensus on the need for expanding the system of federal higher education institutions, which currently account for 55% of the postgraduate programs, according to the Council for Advanced Professional Training (CAPES). No western nation has developed itself without a vigorous system of public higher education.

The United States, according to the American government’s Department of Education, has 77% of its enrollments in higher education in public institutions. In Brazil, according to the latest Higher Education census published by the National Educational Studies and Research Institute (Inep), 72% of the higher level students are students from private institutions, and only about 10% of Brazilians between 18 and 24 years old are at university.

The MEC’s option is to create universities with teaching, research and extension.

Accordingly, each new institution will have to develop courses for masters and doctors. “There is no university without research”, says Nelson Maculan, the MEC’s secretary for Higher Education. But there are great challenges to overcome. A considerable distance exists between hiring professors and producing high-quality research. The experience of the federal universities located in states distant from the South and Southeast shows that it is difficult to attract researchers of any weight and to offer conditions for doing high-quality research.

The Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC) has presented a proposal for facing up to the problem. The idea is to open up vacancies for entire research groups, and not for professors individually. “When the government authorizes the creation of vacancies for teaching staff, the university councils fragment the opportunities over many departments and do not manage to create critical mass for forming postgraduate programs in any area.

The ideal thing would be to offer various vacancies in the same area, with the chance of forming an entire research group”, explains Ennio Candotti, the president of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science. The idea, though, comes up against the universities’ management autonomy. There is also a debate over the nature of the institutions. Even rich countries like the United States or France have adopted strategies of creating non-university higher education organizations, the so-called community colleges, in which there is not necessarily research – not being obligatory for all the teaching staff to work full time – and where the cost per student goes so far as being a tenth of that of a traditional university with teaching, research and extension.

In the United States, half of the enrollments in higher education are connected with this kind of organization. In São Paulo, there are already similar institutions, the Technological Faculties (Fatecs), which offer courses of a good quality, with quicker graduation, and aimed at the demands of the labor market. The state of São Paulo is also preparing its model for developing the public higher education system, but with a wider-ranging methodology.

For example, the expansion is being discussed of a higher education system with a variety of institutions, some with a research activity, others with just teaching, but all with quality courses capable of expanding the access to higher education. A team of 150 specialists is involved in drawing up the Master Plan for Public Higher Education in São Paulo, proposed to the state government by the Council of Rectors of the São Paulo State Universities (Cruesp), which is going to establish strategies and objectives, both qualitative and quantitative, for the next 15 years.

The executive committee that is coordinating the groups is presided by the State Secretary for Science, Technology and Economic Development, João Carlos Meirelles. The work is organized in five groups aimed at specific themes. One of them is discussing way of expanding access to universities. The second is debating the geographical distribution of the expansion. The third is addressing the budgetary challenge of meeting the targets. The fourth is dealing with the question of innovation. The fifth is discussing the nature of the institutions. “The exhaustive discussion of these strategies will make it possible to establish a realizable strategic plan, essential for setting a safe course in the expansion of São Paulo public higher education”, says Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director.