Latin American Countries Push More Students to Study Abroad
by Andrew Downie
The Brazilian government announced this year that it plans to give 75,000 scholarships for local students to study abroad by 2014.
But when officials tell students how and where they might apply, some can't quite get their heads around it.
"I can feel that they are thinking, This can't be for me, it has to be for someone else, maybe for those with Ph.D.'s or more advanced degrees," said Thais Pires, head of Alumni Advising-Education USA. "They want to know more, but lots of them can't believe it."
The disbelief is perhaps understandable given the unprecedented scope of the program, Science Without Borders. But the vast new effort is indicative of a broad trend up and down the region.
More Latin American students are going abroad, largely to the United States, to study (although their numbers still lag way behind students from Asia), and governments across the continent are using some of their newfound wealth to increase the numbers further through generous scholarship programs.
In addition to Brazil, nations as diverse as Chile and El Salvador have offered or are planning to offer new incentives to get their students into foreign programs.
"They are all trying to increase dramatically the number of students they send abroad," said Samir Zaveri, international operations director for BMI, a company that organizes education fairs in Latin America. "The idea is that they come back with more skills and help the economy and help with its growth, especially in areas where there are shortages."
That is especially clear in Brazil, the biggest country in South America and the world's seventh largest economy. Brazil is growing fast, but it struggles to find the researchers, engineers, and highly skilled workers to maintain that growth.
The 75,000 scholarships offered by the government of President Dilma Rousseff, as well as an additional 25,000 slated to come from the private sector, are exclusive to fields of national interest such as science, technology, and engineering.
They will come from the federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (Capes) and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq).
"Capes will manage 40,000 scholarships, and CNPq will manage 35,000 scholarships," said Denise Neddermeyer, director of international affairs for Capes. The other 25,000 scholarships "will cover areas with an important technological impact, such as engineering, hard science, mathematics, energy, sustainable development, environment, biotechnology, and health."
That focus is shared by governments across the region, large and small. El Salvador, for example, created a vice ministry of science and technology in 2009.
The Central American nation provides 35 scholarships a year for students to study abroad, but it is planning to add another 150 to that number over the next three years, said José Marroquin, the engineer in charge of Becas Fantel, the government's main scholarship program. The additional places are for students pursuing subjects important to the country, such as environment and health.
Ecuador this month announced its most ambitious scholarship program yet, with the aim of sending more than 1,000 students abroad, while Colombia will send more people overseas in 2011 than in the 18 previous years put together.
And Chile plans to offer 30,000 scholarships by 2018 through a program called Becas Chile. The $6-billion scheme was started by former President Michelle Bachelet in 2008 and replaced the smaller President of the Republic scholarships.
Like in many other national scholarship programs, those who win Becas Chile scholarships sign a contract agreeing to return home after completing their studies and work for "the good of the country." Its sheer size has proved a particular boon to less-well-off students.
"One new student who just came here is from the south of Chile, and five or six years ago that would have been impossible," said Cristian Castro, a Chilean student earning a doctorate in history at the University of California at Davis. "The best thing that Michelle Bachelet did was to democratize it. People who never imagined leaving the country can now do so."
One key factor in making this all possible is that Latin American governments have huge reserves of foreign currency thanks to the worldwide thirst for commodities like copper, iron ore, soy beans, and sugar.
Grants given to Latin American students on Fulbright programs tripled to $21-million in 2010, from $7.5-million in 2000, said Jenny Verdaguer, branch chief for Fulbright Western Hemisphere programs.
The leading contributors today are Chile and Brazil, two of the fastest growing countries in the hemisphere. They replace Mexico and Argentina, two nations that underwent harsh economic times during the last decade.
Not coincidentally, new programs are being discussed with Panama, Paraguay, and Peru, economies that grew 7.5 percent, 15.3 percent, and 8.8 percent respectively in 2010.
"I think that the willingness of governments to send students abroad is predicated on their economic resources, and if they have that they can dream large," Ms. Verdaguer said in a telephone interview from Washington.
The increased investment in Fulbright programs "is very much a function of improved economic conditions in the region," she added.
While continued economic growth would thus appear to be a prerequisite for longer-term continuance of the scholarships schemes, there are other obstacles, not least of which is the commitment of Latin governments to actually carry out such grandiose plans.
Other issues include how readily their foreign degrees will be accepted at home—Brazilians getting doctorates abroad must go through a lengthy process to validate their qualification—as well as ensuring that students come back and share their knowledge, as stipulated in their contracts.
"It is hard to oblige people to pay it back if they don't want to," said Ian Whitman, author of an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report on the Becas Chile program. "They want them to come home but come home to what? Research institutes without a test tube or a microscope? In the case of Chile, we recommended that they use some of their money to improve the infrastructure of their research sector."
Another issue is foreign-language proficiency. More than half of those winning the first scholarships from the Becas Chile program needed to take language lessons before going abroad. And Ms. Neddermeyer acknowledged that Brazil must invest in tuition because not enough students are fluent in languages other than Portuguese.
"It is clear this could be a difficulty in longer term," she said. "I think we have a group ready right now, but when we extend ourselves, I think we will need to have extensive courses. That can also be negotiated with the foreign universities. Some will offer that as part of their deal."
For now, the main challenge is spreading the word and ramping up interest with universities and students. It's not hard once that initial skepticism wears off, said Ms. Pires. Especially with such unprecedented numbers at hand.