Education woes seen as Achilles' heel of Brazil

AP News
Posted: May 15, 2013 1:05 PM
Education woes seen as Achilles' heel of Brazil

SEROPEDICA, Brazil (AP) — There's a storage room just off a university lab that gives students more experience than many can handle: Skinned pigs and cats, disembodied cow livers, intestines, brains and the other unidentifiable detritus of years' worth of dissections fill a dozen wading pool-sized vats to the brim.

With the veterinary department's incinerator long on the fritz, the stomach-turning, formaldehyde-drenched mass of animal carcasses and organs grows by the day.

Similar scenes of neglect and decay play out across the sprawling, once-stately campus. Laboratories routinely flood when it rains, lecture halls reach oven-like temperatures because the burned-out air conditioning units were never replaced, the Internet works only intermittently and students hardly dare venture out after dark for fear of being mugged.

The situation at the Rural Federal University in this distant suburb of Rio de Janeiro is not an anomaly. As a new middle class rises in Brazil with aspirations for better education, it is finding lamentable conditions and low standards of education at many colleges and universities across Brazil. That has experts warning that the country's strained education system could stymie development, even as Brazil emerges as an economic powerhouse.

Thanks largely to a decade-long boom in commodities, Brazil last year outstripped Britain to become world's sixth largest economy. To maintain its spot, the country needs well-trained professionals, especially engineers to help tap the vast deep-sea oil deposits off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state that officials here are counting on to fuel Brazil's development.

Experts are warning that colleges and universities are simply not up to the task.

"Without qualified professionals coming out of our universities in the numbers we need in the next 10 or so years, Brazil is running a great risk of losing its new position as the world's sixth economy and with it the pretensions of playing a bigger role on the world stage," said Antonio Frets, a veteran member of the Brazilian Academy of Education. "If there's not a real and meaningful education reform, Brazil could be left in the dust."

The statistics are alarming.

Just over 17 percent of Brazilians aged 18-24 were enrolled in a university or had already obtained a diploma in 2011, according to a study by the Education Ministry. While that number is way up from 7 percent in 1997, it still lags far behind the average in developed countries and even that in many of Brazil's Latin American neighbors A study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said around 40 percent of U.S. citizens aged 25-34 had obtained a bachelor's degree; in Chile, that number stood at slightly under 40 percent.

The average Brazilian has completed an average of just 7.3 years of schooling, according to census data. Under half of the country's workforce has finished high school and just around 12 percent of workers have a college degree. Nearly 13 million people, or 8.6 percent of the population, are illiterate.

The OECD's 2009 PISA educational survey, which measures 15-year-olds' literacy and math skills, ranked Brazil 53rd out of 65 countries, behind nations such as Bulgaria, Mexico, Turkey, Trinidad and Tobago, and Romania. Only one Brazilian college, the University of Sao Paulo, made it into the 2012 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, at No. 178 out of 200 institutions.

All that could prove a major stumbling block to development for Brazil. The past decade of booming growth has seen the number of unskilled jobs shrink, replaced by semiskilled and high-skilled posts which observers say the country is already hard-pressed to fill. And as the economy continues to develop, so will the need for skilled labor.

The paucity of such jobs is already having repercussions on businesses here. Brazil ranked 48th out of 144 countries on the World Economic Forum's 2012-213 global competitiveness report due to infrastructure problems as well as a lack of skills.

Money isn't the problem. Brazil invests 5 percent of its gross domestic product on education, about the same level of expenditure as Spain, Germany or Japan, and just under the OECD average of 6.2 percent, according to the organization's 2012 "Education at a Glance" study. The federal government says it has poured $4.2 billion into its university expansion program over the past decade.

The issue, observers say, lies largely in the way money's managed — or, often, mismanaged.

Case in point is Rio's Rural Federal University, where the school's budget multiplied more than 20-fold in recent years, rising from $7.4 million in 2005 to $173.5 million in 2012. Yet earlier this year, students invaded administrative offices to protest what they contend are dangerous conditions on campus.

Protesting students and faculty say they are hard-pressed to see where the money's gone, and some have speculated about graft, embezzlement and other forms of corruption.

Rainwater pours through holes in the technology department's roof, filling the laboratory knee-deep when it rains. The university's Olympic-sized pools are so green with algae that physical education instructors are said to lie atop a desk and flail their arms and legs in the air to teach different swimming stokes. The construction company hired to build an archive for the geology department handed over an unusable shell of a building, with no flooring, windows or doors. The molding, puddle-filled structure is now occupied only by the homeless.

"Here we've got professors who aren't teaching classes because there aren't adequate facilities. Repairs are started but never finished and buildings are getting ruined," said Gustavo Perreira, 22, a fourth-year law student who's a coordinator of the student movement that led the occupation. "The university is falling apart but it's not a problem of a lack of resources. It's that those resources aren't being applied as they should."

The university has experienced a recent boom in enrollment, jumping from around 7,000 students to 11,000 in the past three years.

Long the domain of the country's tiny ruling elite, Brazil's universities have become more inclusive in recent years thanks in large part to affirmative action programs aimed at boosting enrollment of poor and nonwhite students.

Enrollment at the country's public and private colleges increased from just over 1 million students in 1980 to nearly 11 million in 2011, according to an Education Ministry study. From 2012-2011 alone, enrollment in Brazil's 59 federally funded universities increased by 10 percent, and observers say the sudden boom has strained resources across the board.

"The public university system had to be expanded, but the way it was gone about worries me," said Fabio Garcia dos Reis, director of a branch of the private, Sao Paulo-based UniSal college. "With the increased number of students, they don't have enough qualified professors, nor enough labs nor classrooms."

Still, Garcia acknowledged the situation at the private institutions is even worse.

Around three-fourths of college students here study at the country's private institutions, many of which sprang up during the 1990s or later and are widely regarded as little more than diploma mills. Generally small, with enrollments of around 1,500, these colleges have a hard time recruiting qualified faculty and holding on to students, Garcia said. They also tend to have short shelf lives, with many folding after just five or so years and others being snapped up by large conglomerates.

"We have to take a hard look at what we doing and make urgent reforms," Garcia said. "Otherwise I don't have a shadow of a doubt that there will be a crisis in a few years."