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Language limits Brazil’s Science without Borders

Tony Goncalves writes

Last April the Brazilian government told 110 students who had been granted scholarships to pursue their undergraduate and postgraduate courses in Canada and Australia to return to Brazil as they had not achieved the level of English required to be accepted at university. These Portuguese-speaking students had been doing six-month intensive English courses in these countries with the expectation of passing an international English language proficiency exam, which they failed. As reported by THE, university in Canada or Australia was the second choice for these students. Their first choice had been Portugal, which doesn’t have the high English language requirements of English-speaking Canada or Australia. Each student had already cost Brazilian taxpayers $12,000 plus air fare and health insurance.

The Brazilian government launched the Ciencia sem Fronteiras (CsF) or, in English, Sciences without Borders programme in 2011, pledging to pay for the education abroad of a total of 101,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students up to the end of academic year 2014.

At the time Marcelo Knobel, the pro-rector of the University of Campina (Unicamp), one of the most renowned universities in Brazil, warned during an interview for the country’s best-known investigative website Veja that the programme would not have enough qualified candidates to fill the vacancies. Knobel was proved right. The number of candidates applying for CsF who did not meet the language proficiency requirements and were turned down for entrance to universities in the UK was very high. Of the 4,000 scholarships offered by CsF for study in the UK, only 1,800 had been taken up as of February this year, according to Veja.

The Brazilian government took the risk of covering the costs to its CsF scholars of their English language training for six months in the UK without the guarantee they will reach the minimum level required for their entrance to university. Statements on the Capes website quoted by Veja claim that this training will enable students coming from Brazil’s public-sector schools who did not have access to English language training throughout their school education to join the programme.

Many in Brazil believe that for political reasons the government is trying to make up the numbers for the programme so that it’s considered a success. In a presidential election year, with elections due this October, the Brazilian government is certainly more concerned with the numbers of students on CsF than with how students are coping with the courses at universities and what benefits they will derive and bring back to the country once they’ve completed their studies abroad. Brazilian EFL teacher Raquel Florim tweeted to the Gazette of CsF, ‘Here in Brazil they began calling it “Tourism without Borders”.’

The difficulties with the CsF programme are a reminder that there is still a huge gap between Brazilian students and those from other countries when it comes to English language proficiency. One survey carried by Education First in October 2012 put Brazilians in thirty-eighth place in the world.

The Gazette approached both Capes and Itamaraty, Brazil’s foreign ministry, for a comment, but no response had been received by press day.