Is there life beyond Science without Borders?

Is there life beyond Science without Borders?

The Science without Borders (SwB) mobility programme has certainly put Brazilian higher education on the map. It was one of the main topics of debate during the FAUBAI conference recently held in Joinville, Brazil, where almost 400 people gathered to discuss policies for international education, facilitate contact between Brazilian and foreign institutions and share good practices, with the central theme ‘Brazilian Higher Education: Building Strategic Partnerships’.

As the SwB programme reaches its end (in 2015), it is only natural that all concerned should want to assess its good and bad points and try to ensure that its strengths are enhanced and its weaknesses minimised in any future editions of the programme, although to date, there is no guarantee of government financing for a second edition.

Assessing the programme

In a nutshell, we could say that its greatest strengths are its success in making it possible for thousands of Brazilian students to spend a period studying in universities all over the globe, and the impulse it has given to the internationalisation of higher education in the country. And the weaknesses? Listening to colleagues from Brazilian universities during the FAUBAI conference, their main complaints are related to language, reciprocity, fields covered and sustainable impact:

  • Language: Many pointed out that the students’ language preparation is often insufficient and some students have experienced difficulties at the host institution due to their inability to communicate adequately in the required language.
  • Reciprocity: Although the programme makes provision for Brazilian institutions to receive students and researchers from abroad, the number of incoming visitors has been minimal and there was a widely expressed opinion that this aspect of the programme should be given much greater focus.
  • Fields covered: SwB is aimed mainly at the STEM and medical science fields, and many would like to see the programme expanded to cover other fields, such as social sciences or humanities, where students are denied this opportunity.
  • Sustainable impact: There were a lot of references to the need to ensure that the programme provides opportunities for Brazilian universities to develop mutually beneficial, sustainable partnerships with the institutions that receive their students, rather than simply ‘lose’ their best students for a year.

International presence

If we look at the FAUBAI conference, it seems that some of these issues are already being dealt with. For the first time in its history (ie since 1988), as many as a third of those attending the conference were not from Brazil, demonstrating the interest that Brazilian higher education has aroused in many parts of the world. There was a strong presence from France (led by Campus France), Ireland (with the Irish Universities Association), Australia (Group of Eight) and New Zealand, among others, and the institutional matchmaking event held on the last day of the conference was proof of the shared interest in setting up partnerships with Brazilian institutions.

Developing English skills

On the issue of language, progress is being made with the English without Borders programme which has been created to accompany SwB and seeks to assist students in strengthening their English. This is helping to address the need for better language skills, as are the similar programmes for French and Spanish languages. Also, the emphasis on and interest in English as a medium of instruction (a topic addressed in several sessions at the conference) shows that attempts are being made to increase the attraction of studying in Brazil for international students who are not able to follow instruction in Portuguese, and allow opportunities to those Brazilian students who are not able to study abroad.

Science without borders is certainly not a perfect programme, but its success to date and its impact within Brazil and around the world is undeniable and, for many whose governments are cutting back on investment in education, it is seen an enviable programme.

Is there life beyond Science without Borders? Whether there is a second edition of the programme or not, it seems that it may have given a significant focus to internationalisation in Brazilian higher education. If the lessons learned from SwB are taken into account, and if the mobility it has made possible leads to sustainable partnerships with commitment (in all senses, including funding) from all sides, the programme will have a real and lasting impact.

By Laura Howard, University of Cadiz – UCA, Spain