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Planning

The USP of the future

University discusses strategies to maintain excellence in its 100th anniversary, 25 years from now

MIGUEL BOYAYANA document with a diagnosis of the challenges that the university will face in the next 25 years is scheduled to be presented in January 2009, during the celebrations of the University of São Paulo/USP’s 75th anniversary. The document will include thoughts and proposals on how to deal with these challenges. Suggestions for the document were discussed at an open workshop held in early September. The discussions will be completed at a new event of this kind, scheduled for mid-October. At the first workshop, one of the main discussions revolved around the strategies to maintain USP as a world-class learning institution. “The conditions that allowed the university to achieve this position are changing. USP will need to deal with several challenges to avoid the risk of losing its importance”, says Glaucius Oliva, director of the Physics Institute of São Carlos/IFSC and coordinator of USP’s Planning Committee, the entity responsible for reflecting on the institution’s next 25 years. “Our goal is to rank among the best 50 universities in the world in 2034”, he states. At present, international rankings rank USP among the world’s best 100 universities.

In Glaucius Oliva’s opinion, USP’s plans in the forthcoming years must take into account the role of the institution in the higher education system of the State of São Paulo and of Brazil. In addition, it has to respond to society’s demands, even though one issue is not always compatible with another. “There has been more and more pressure to expand the number of students, but the characteristic of USP as a research university and a center of learning excellence imposes limits on this,” says Oliva. The professor points out that USP offers an international-level academic education and is involved in intense research activities on the frontiers of knowledge.  However, he adds that the university must become more engaged in economic development, be more attuned to the needs of industry, and support public policies, all of which will help society realize the fundamental role it is able to play. “USP cannot look inwards and reflect on the future in an isolated way. It is part of a complex gear system that congregates more than 2 thousand of the country’s institutions of higher learning, and its actions reverberate in various parts of the system. It needs to communicate better with society to ensure support and maintain its excellence,” Oliva adds.

The preliminary diagnosis resulting from the first workshop identified the institution’s Achilles’ heel, namely, it`s restricted international insertion. “The world’s best universities are quite integrated internationally. They battle to bring in students and resources from abroad to reinforce their competitiveness. USP has to enter this battle,” says Oliva. He mentions the example of the student exchange program of Paris’ Polytechnic School. “Seven Brazilians have already gone to France to study, and no French student has come here. This happens because we still hesitate to expose ourselves abroad, unlike most institutions,” says the professor.

The committee chaired by Glaucius Oliva was forecast in the university’s charter, in effect since 1988.However, the committee only materialized during the current administration. Short and medium-term planning is ensured by each unit’s achievement plan and by the permanent evaluation committee. However, it was necessary to set up a group to reflect on USP’s future. “The 75th anniversary proved to be a good opportunity to reflect on what USP plans to be on its one hundredth anniversary,” says dean Suely Vilela. She emphasizes that the document to be prepared by the committee will seek to provide subsidies that will help the people who will head the university in the future. But her proposal is to at least begin to deal with one of USP’s major challenges:  the fact that all the bureaucracy is concentrated in the dean’s office. “I defend various aspects of USP’s current model. In my opinion, the institution should continue as a world-class university, with cutting-edge research, and the academic model should be divided into sub-categories, in which each school is headed by a director – I believe this is the most appropriate model,” says the dean. “We have six campuses in the state. Any construction work carried out at any of them has to first be approved by the dean’s office. The same holds true for legal advisory services, strongly concentrated in the city of São Paulo. Any problem that results in a lawsuit has to be dealt with in São Paulo. The solution is to define rules to guide the actions of the directors and delegate problem-solving tasks to them,” she states.

Legal restraints
The Planning Committee is not refusing to discuss any problem, even though common knowledge has it that some problems are difficult to solve. For example, there are legal restraints in relation to reducing bureaucratic barriers or to offering variable compensation packages to professors. “The first step would be to increase the transparency in relation to expenses,” says Oliva. “If I need to buy a reagent without having to go through a public bid so that I don’t have to interrupt a research project, I should be able to do so and announce this fact publicly, because this is the proper thing to do. If we are firm and transparent, we will have the support to propose changes in the rules that hamper research,” says Oliva.  In the opinion of Carlos Antônio Luque, a professor at the School of Economics, Administration and Accounting and a member of the Planning Committee, USP should take the initiative of proposing a law to regulate the university’s autonomy, which is provided for in the Constitution, but has never been contemplated in common legislation. “Even though autonomy is ensured, we have to adapt to the government employees regime and to the Fiscal Responsibility Law. The fact that there is no legislation in this respect leads the Public Prosecution Office and the Public Finance Court to constantly question us formally,” states Luque.

E-learning is another issue that needs to be addressed. USP’s academic community has resisted the idea of incorporating e-learning, because the professors feel it would be difficult to maintain the same teaching quality as that in the classroom. However, the committee is discussing the opportunity of investing in e-learning to a certain extent, to at least ensure the development of expertise in this respect at the university, as this expertise might be useful in the future. The search for new sources of funding is another controversial issue, although the committee has reached a consensus on the need to look for private funding sources. “The university’s autonomy has guaranteed that we get public funding which is indispensable to maintaining the university’s excellence,” says dean Suely Vilela. “All world-class universities depend strongly on government funding, but they also rely on private sources.” According to the dean, interaction with the private sector is necessary to deal with one of the university’s challenges, which is to transfer knowledge to society. “The stagnation of indicators linked to technological transfer is out of step with the increase in scientific production,” says the dean.

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