Brazilian universities the best in Latin America. But a crisis is looming

unicamp brazilian universities best Unicamp: #1 among L.American universities

As Latin America’s largest economy, Brazil still dominates the list of the best universities in the region, according to British magazine Times Higher Education. The latest THE ranking, which is based on 13 performance indicators, has six Brazilian institutions among the top 10 (including the two best ones), and 43 among the best 101 Latin American universities.

The region’s two best universities are the University of Campinas (Unicamp) and the University of São Paulo (USP). In common, these institutions have partnerships with the private sector to produce knowledge and patents. Marcelo Knobel, Unicamp’s rector, credits the success to a high share of postgraduate students and a recent focus on innovation.

</p> <p>Unicamp researchers, for instance, have recently patented the extract of jabuticaba (a native Brazilian fruit) skin, which is used to help fight obesity and even to treat two types of cancer: leukemia and prostate tumors. The university also aims at investing in the incubation of startups, and in June launched a crowdfunding <a href="">campaign</a> to expand its science park.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image alignnone wp-image-6131 size-full"><img loading="lazy" width="785" height="893" src="" alt="the times higher education ranking" class="wp-image-6131" srcset=" 785w, 264w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 785px) 100vw, 785px" /><figcaption>LA&#8217;s best universities. Source: THE</figcaption></figure> <p>But the favorable positions in such rankings should not be used to paint a rosy picture of education in Brazil. As <em>THE</em> points out itself, &#8220;while Unicamp is number one in the region, and while four other Brazilian universities make the top 10, the country’s institutions are in a precarious situation.&#8221;</p> <p>The science and technology sectors have been brutally hit by Brazil&#8217;s worst recession on record, as <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> exposed in the February piece <a href=""><em>&#8220;As science stalls in Brazil, the economy shows signs of the strain.&#8221;</em></a></p> <h2>Shrinking funds in universities</h2> <p>In July 2017, a group of rectors from federal universities announced that the budget available for the year would only pay the bills until September. And that was after hundreds of workers had been laid off, scholarships had been gutted, and projects had been paralyzed. Funding had been cut by almost 7 percent.</p> <p>Then, in December 2017, the budget for federal universities announced by the government had a twist: for the first time, only half of the money to be used for investments (in areas such as machinery and infrastructure) would be immediately available. The rest is now controlled by the Ministry of Education, which will decide where to invest.</p> <p>Rectors criticized the method, saying that it could hamper the universities&#8217; autonomy, as the government could be more inclined to privilege institutions which are more ideologically aligned to the administration.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="683" src="" alt="science scholarships brazil research" class="wp-image-15389" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1200w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /></figure> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>Since 2009, Brazil&#8217;s spending per university student has decreased. While the total budget rose by 40 percent, the number of students increased by 44 percent. Unifesp, the Federal University of São Paulo (which also figures among Latin America&#8217;s top 10), is the one which spends the most: BRL 81,161 per student every year &#8211; which is less than USD 21,000. In fact, 86 percent of universities&#8217; budgets are used to pay for personnel.</p> <p>Besides budget cuts caused by austerity policies, in 2016 the government decided to shut down the Science Without Borders program, which sent Brazilian students abroad in order to enhance knowledge exchange and language learning. It was certainly a flawed program, which ended up sending a lot of people to Portugal (which defeats the purpose of language learning), but still opened up horizons for Brazilian students. Between 2011 and 2016, the program had sent almost 100,000 students to foreign institutions.</p> <p>Between 2016 and 2017, Brazil had the largest reduction among all countries sending students to American universities, according to a report from the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The reduction reached 32 percent comparing to 2015-2016, and the report “stresses the scaling back of large government scholarship programs as a significant factor.”</p> <h2>Brain drain</h2> <p>But just because Brazil is not helping students and researchers go abroad, it doesn&#8217;t mean that they are not leaving the country. As a matter of fact, for a few years now, Latin America&#8217;s biggest economy has been suffering from a serious case of brain drain.</p> <p>According to Mr. Knobel, part of the blame is on state rules that limit salaries for researchers. In the state of São Paulo, to which Unicamp is attached, the ceiling for researchers&#8217; salaries is BRL 21,000, &#8220;which is a serious risk to our capacity to attract top-notch talent.&#8221;</p> <p>The science and technology budget in 2018 has dropped 25 percent compared to last year and has hit its lowest point in History &#8211; roughly USD 1.17 billion. Since President Michel Temer took over from Dilma Rousseff in 2016, the sector has faced a progressive funding reduction that has alarmed Brazilian scientists.</p> <p>“Any institution that comes to mind is scrapped and has no sign of improvement in the short or mid-term. Structural changes demand government collaboration. But Brazil&#8217;s latest elections have only reduced my hopes that it might happen soon,” says Irio Musskopf, a data scientist and MIT Technology Review’s Innovators nominee. He has recently left for Berlin to join some of his relatives and has no intention to come back any time soon.</p> <p>In 2016, Brazil also lost one of its most lauded researchers, neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel. From 2004 to 2012, the finances of the public university lab where she was doing her researches on neuroanatomy were flourishing. “But in 2012, while my international acknowledgment was in the ascendancy, I was still working in a 24 square meters lab,” she wrote in Brazilian magazine <a href=""><em>Piauí</em></a>.</p> <p>Three years later, as fundings shrank, Ms. Herculano-Houzel had to use her own money to continue her investigations. “Ironically, during that harsh period, my collaborator and I published a 100 percent Brazilian piece on <em>Science</em> magazine answering a very old question for neuroscience: what makes brain cortex fold,” she remembers. Ms. Herculano’s prestige got her an opportunity at Vanderbilt University, in Tennessee, where she became an associate professor.</p> <p>“Brazilian science is in agony,” sums up the neuroscientist.

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Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

Maria Martha Bruno

Maria Martha is a journalist with 14 years of experience in politics, arts, and breaking news. She has already collaborated with Al Jazeera, NBC, and CNN, among others. She has also worked as an international correspondent in Buenos Aires.

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