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Education woes seen as Achilles' heel of Brazil

Wednesday - 5/15/2013, 11:40pm  ET

In this March 27, 2013 photo, students occupy the administrative offices of the Rio de Janeiro Rural Federal University, UFRRJ, to protest the school's conditions in Seropedica, Brazil. Laboratories routinely flood when it rains, lecture halls reach oven-like temperatures because the burned-out AC units were never replaced, the Internet works only intermittently and students hardly dare venture out after dark for fear of being mugged. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Associated Press

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.

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