Our universities must speak English

The following article was written by Associate Professor Leandro Tessler, internationalisaton adviser to the Rector of the State University of Campinas,  Brazil and member of the WUN Academic Advisory Group. It appeared in the Folha de São Paulo on 25 November 2012.

Brazilian flag

Our higher education is becoming international. It is a virtuous cycle: institutions internationalize because they qualify and qualify because they internationalize. There is a tiny stream of European undergraduate students who spend several years of their training at our best universities in double degree programs. At the graduate level, Brazil is an important destination for students from neighbouring countries. Brazil is extremely attractive for them: it has a well-developed university system; offers first class training; unlike most countries, no tuition fees are charged to any student, whether Brazilian or foreign; there are plenty of scholarships and funding opportunities. We speak Portuguese, a language easily accessible to Spanish speakers. But actual results are far short of what they could be. 

Brazil still has a small number of universities among the top 500 in the world. The number of foreign students in Brazil is very small. There are more American students in Argentina than in Brazil. This is due to the preference of students for a country that speaks Spanish, but also to the availability of degree programs in English. Brazilian universities should consider offering courses in English -preferably full programs- along with Portuguese. In the Middle Ages, when universities were created, the educated communicated in Latin. Thanks to Latin, a scholar from Oxford or Bologna in the 12th century could exchange ideas with someone from Salamanca or the Sorbonne. Over time, Latin has fallen into disuse and the English took over academia. Nowadays there is no important international conference that does not adopt English as lingua franca. It is fundamental to the advancement of knowledge that researchers communicate and be directly understood. 

We Brazilians have historically resisted introducing English as the language of instruction in our universities. Some say that teaching English would threaten national sovereignty, as if our nationality was strictly associated to speaking Portuguese. There is no evidence of any non-English speaking country in which there is higher education in English (such as Portugal, the birthplace of the Portuguese language) that has renounced its nationality. Another recurrent opinion is that of the applicant's effort: someone really interested in studying in Brazil should dedicate effort to learn the language before. In theory, this is correct. In practice, students prefer to go to countries where classes are taught in English. They feel much safer with the assurance that the language will not be an obstacle to learning during their stay. In fact, if we taught regular courses in English we would be doing much more for the dissemination and expansion of Brazilian culture and the Portuguese language.  

A final objection is that teaching in English would turn the already elite Brazilian universities even more elite. That might be correct if we gave up teaching in Portuguese. However, the coexistence of courses in English and Portuguese would offer to Brazilian students opportunities to socialize with foreigners and improve their proficiency in English. It was recently announced that the Science Without Borders program awarded more scholarships to Portugal and Spain than to the UK, the U.S. and Australia, where the best universities in the world are located. This can only be explained by a deficiency in the training of students in English. We must change this urgently.  

The first steps for an effective internationalization of our higher education have already been taken. We still need to be more attractive to students from around the world, as we are now for Latin-American students. We still need to publish more research findings in English. Academic publications in English reach a much larger audience and have a bigger impact on the scientific and cultural development of mankind. Brazil has everything to become a major world center of higher education. We must be prepared to seize the historic opportunity.