Brazil’s brain drain


Britain’s efforts to attract international students may be draining the brain power of many developing countries. Barbara Axt looks at Brazil’s story

By EducationGuardian.co.uk


Luiz Lima is typical of the high-flying overseas students Britain is so keen to attract. He came to do an MBA at the London Business School in 2004.

“After a few months I started to like the idea of spending a few years working in the UK. I found out I was eligible for a highly skilled [migrant] visa and felt I shouldn’t miss this opportunity,” he says.

This summer the British government made it easier for overseas students to work in the UK after graduating, after seeing what an incentive this has proved to be when it comes to attracting students in competitor countries like Australia and the United States.

The International Graduates Scheme (IGS), announced by the Home Office for non-European students who finished a graduate or postgraduate course in the UK after May 2007, allows the student to live and work in the UK legally for one year after graduation.

While it sounds like a great opportunity for the students, it seems more likely that it will create a brain drain that developing countries like Brazil can ill afford. The Brazilian government denies there is a problem – but that’s not what students themselves say.

“I plan to go back to Brazil after finishing my PhD, but I know many cases of people who don’t return. This is the more usual option, I think,” says Filipe Lage de Souza, PhD student in the department of geography and environment at the London School of Economics.

Today, 9,400 Brazilian students are living in the UK, 1,170 of them in higher education. Since many Brazilians have dual nationality with other European countries, the real figures may be even larger.

José Carlos Parreira has just finished a Master’s degree at the University of Westminster, and plans to apply for the IGS in order to stay in London and gain some valuable work experience. “There are more opportunities here than in my home city in Brazil,” he says. José Carlos does not want to use his real name because he is still negotiating with the institution which granted his scholarship and is demanding that he goes back to Brazil.

According to the Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, government agencies are trying to recover an estimated £13m in scholarships from PhD students for various irregularities, most of it from those who finished their studies abroad and did not return to the country.

Brazilians usually mention the better quality of life as a reason to postpone (sometimes indefinitely) their return. “Here we don’t have some luxuries like a maid to clean your house and cook every day, but there are plenty of opportunities. Also, the city is not nearly as violent as Rio and the transport is better,” says Lima.

But changes in student funding are playing a part. Maria Figueiredo-Cowen, Brazilian regional coordinator for South American countries at the University of London, notes that the Brazilian government no longer funds entire PhD programmes (it now funds only a few months abroad) and there is almost no funding for Masters’ degrees. “So, the students find other ways to fund themselves and, having no obligation to go back, they stay in the UK,” she explains.

“When I ask them what’s so special about the UK, they usually mention the multicultural society and being less violent. They think that if they stay here they will find better opportunities than in Brazil,” she adds.

Rozanne Zachetti, the project manager of the Sao Paulo office of the British Council Brazil, says that most people with Chevening scholarships granted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office return to Brazil. “They usually receive promotions or better work offers when they go back. But in some cases they decide, after a few years, to leave the country again to pursue a PhD.”

In an effort to retain talent, the Brazilian government is this month launching a national programme for postdoctorates that will offer grants to support research in strategic areas. “This will be an important tool to avoid the possible loss of our young talent, a phenomenon that, although not yet worrying in Brazil, brings uncountable negative consequences to developing countries,” said Fernando Haddad, the minister of education.

According to a study published by the economist Marcio Pochmann in 2006, every year 140,000 to 160,000 Brazilians with degrees leave the country looking for professional opportunities in other countries.

The study shows that although the number of jobs in Brazil has remained stable for the last years, qualified jobs are being replaced by vacancies demanding lower levels of specialisation, encouraging highly educated workers to move abroad.

Even among those who return to Brazil, like biochemist Renato de Paulo, the idea of an international career sounds attractive. He has spent 18 months at Imperial College London and returned last week to Brazil to finish his PhD research. He describes the difficulties faced by Brazilian scientists.

“The basic conditions for research are missing, and even when funding is available, the logistics are a problem. You can buy a reagent [material used to start a chemical reaction] in London and have it delivered in your lab the next day. In Brazil the same product would cost twice as much and take months to arrive. It is tiring and unfair to compete in these terms”, he says.

“After my PhD I plan to live in other country and return to Brazil later, with more experience and publications. Going back is my duty with the taxpayers who funded my studies for so many years,” he adds.

But he knows it will not be easy. “There are few positions for PhDs in state universities, so most PhDs have to teach in private universities, which unfortunately produce no research. The export of Brazilian brains to the great centres is a fact.”

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