Johanna Kivimäki: Reconstruction, strengthening and growth with equality: An overview of the current higher education and research landscape in Brazil


Johanna Kivimäki: Reconstruction, strengthening and growth with equality: An overview of the current higher education and research landscape in Brazil

Brazil is among the world's ten largest net investors in science and innovation, and the country produces 3.2% of the scientific results in the world and more than half in Latin America. Brazil's RDI investments are approx. 1.14% of GDP (in 2020) and in 2023 Brazil rose to 49th place in the Global Innovation Index (GII) to the top of the LAC region. After tragic budget cuts by previous governments, the current government has been reconstructing the national funding for education, science and innovation with historically large additional budgets.

Higher education and research environment in Brazil

The Brazilian higher education market is the largest in Latin America and the fifth largest in the world. With a population of over 203 million, Brazil is the seventh largest country in the world, with 20% of the population holding a bachelor's degree and less than 1% a master's degree. Currently, there are more than 2,600 higher education institutions in Brazil, of which 302 are public and the rest are private. A total of more than 9 million students study in universities, of which 75% study in private higher education institutions and the majority are at bachelor's level (97%).

In international comparisons, several Brazilian public universities reach the same or higher ranking positions with Finnish universities, and 95% of the country's scientific results are produced in public universities. On the other hand, the spectrum and level of higher education institutions, and especially private institutions, vary greatly. Brazil also has a comprehensive network of national and private science and technology institutes and laboratories in various fields, many of which are of a very high international standard. For example, the Brazilian Center for Research in Energy and Materials (CNPEM) in Campinas is home to Brazil's largest and most sophisticated research infrastructure, the synchrotron light source SIRIUS, the likes of which can only be found in Sweden and France.

Brazil's global position in science and innovation

Brazil is among the world's ten largest net investors in science and innovation. The country produces 3.2% of the world's and more than half of Latin America's scientific results, ranking 13th, ahead of Russia, Iran, the Netherlands and Turkey, for instance. Brazil's RDI investments are approx. 1.14% of GDP (in 2020), of which approx. half is public funding and half is private. In 2023, Brazil rose to 49th place in the Global Innovation Index (GII), passing Chile to the top of the LAC region.

In the comparison of the most cited articles, Brazil is at the top of global science especially in the fields of engineering, chemistry and agriculture. When looking at Brazil's relative contribution to global scientific production, parasitology, tropical medicine, odontology, agriculture and forestry stand out among the most important disciplines. Brazilian researchers do the most international cooperation with colleagues from the United States, England, Germany, Spain and Portugal.

National higher education and STI policy in Brazil

On the current government's agenda, social equality, equity and inclusion, as well as digitalization are priorities in all sectors, incl. in higher education and science, technology and innovation (STI) activities. The Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI) and the Ministry of Education (MEC) are also working to strengthen their cooperation to meet the needs of society. The common challenges of the ministries are the decreased interest in higher education studies, the lack of talent, e.g. emigration of researchers, and large regional differences in the level of higher education and research.

Brazil's national goal is to increase the population's higher education level and, in particular, to increase the number of PhDs and innovations. The national higher education and research policy aims to attract more young Brazilians to higher education and researchers to return to the country and stay in the country. In the international cooperation initiatives, the internationalization at home of Brazilian universities and short-term student and researcher exchanges as well as joint degrees are particularly emphasized. The financing of the completion of entire degrees abroad will probably be reduced to carefully defined strategically important fields, such as teacher training. On the other hand, Brazil offers grants especially to students coming from other countries in Latin America and the Global South, either for a short-term exchange or to complete entire degrees.

In addition, Brazil aims to equalize access to higher education. In addition to the quota system already in use since 2012 to equalize access to studies, the government aims to expand the network of public higher education institutions and improve the quality of public elementary and secondary education. The aim of leveling the regional inequality will also affect the national initiatives for institutional international cooperation of higher education institutions, which aims to support especially those institutions that have not yet made sufficient progress in their internationalization. In addition, the equality of open science is promoted so that all Brazilian researchers have access to international quality publications.

Brazil's ten-year national education plan (Plano Nacional de Educação) is coming to an end in the summer of 2024. According to some estimates, only three of the plan's 20 goals will be realized, all of which are related to higher education, including raising the education level of university teachers, increasing master's and doctoral study places, and increasing the level of higher education of elementary school teachers. A proposal for a new national plan for the years 2024-2034 is also currently under discussion.

MCTI is also developing a new national science, technology and innovation strategy, which is expected to be completed in 2024. The agenda includes the revitalization, expansion and strengthening of the national STI system, support for business innovation, strategic national projects and social development. The discussions have emphasized e.g. strengthening national scientific capacity and production, technological self-sufficiency, researchers staying in Brazil, developing open science and regionally equal social development. The national debate will be brought together at the National Science, Technology and Innovation Conference in Brazil at the end of July 2024.

Brazilian Funding for Higher Education and Research

At the very beginning of his new term in January 2023, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva met with the rectors of federal universities, showing the importance of higher education and research on the government's agenda. In 2023, the government granted historically large additional budgets for Brazilian research, higher education and innovation activities. Previous governments cut Brazil's national funding for education and research significantly. In the years 2014-2022, e.g. research funding and the budgets of the country's leading science and technology funders were reduced by approx. 60%. Despite the additional funding, the financial situation of federally funded higher education institutions in particular has remained weak.

The employees of several federal universities and institutes have been on strike since mid-April 2024, demanding e.g. adjusting salaries and budgets, repealing regulations approved by previous governments and redefining careers in a more equal way. The government has had a constructive attitude towards the negotiations, trying to find solutions. In May, the government promised teachers of federal universities and institutes significant salary increases for the years 2025 and 2026. In June (June 10, 2024), the government announced an additional budget to cover the running costs of 2024. In addition, the government published an education growth program (Programa de Aceleraçao do Crecimento, PAC), with a total of approx. 1.7 billion euros to be granted by 2026 to federal universities and institutes to strengthen the existing infrastructure, to establish 10 new university campuses and 100 new federal institute units, and to strengthen university hospitals, incl. building eight new hospitals. In addition, negotiations regarding the renewal of careers are still ongoing.

If you are interested in digging deeper in the Brazilian higher education and science landscape and policies, you can check out the wider Katsaus Brasilian korkeakoulu- ja tutkimusympäristöön report in Finnish on the website of the Consulate of Finland in São Paulo, here: katsaus-brasilian-korkeakoulu-ja-tutkimusymparistoon

Johanna Kivimäki, TFK-expert in the Finnish Consulate in Sao Paulo

More information and sources
•    Brazilian Presidencial Office. (10.6.2024): 
•    Centro de Gestão e Estudos Estratégicos (CGEE). (2023). Boletim anual OCTI, v. 3, jun. 2023.
•    MEC. (16.5.2024):
•    MCTI. (17.2.2024):
•    MCTI. (2023). Indicadores Nacionais de Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação 2022. Viitattu 11.4.2024. 
•    Nature. (8.5.2023). The future of Brazilian science
•    Pires de Carvalho, Denise. (23.4.2024). President of CAPES’ speech in the FAUBAI Conference, São Paulo
•    UNESCO Institute for Statistics. (2020). Factsheet No. 59. Global Investments in R&D. Viitattu 16.1.2023

Text and photo Johanna Kivimäki: The Brazilian landscape of Iguazu falls in Parana state, south of Brazil. As they say: “It is from small streams that big rivers rise”. Even though nothing is really small in Brazil, this is applicable also to Brazilian public research funding system, which consists of national and state level funding agencies.