Academic link with Brazil a boon for Ireland
OPINION: Some 1,500 PhD students from Brazil will stimulate our research activity
The student population in Ireland has changed significantly over the past 10 years and the economic crisis is bringing greater demands on the system, especially in the context of lifelong learning.
In 2000 there was a perceived demographic deficit, with the number of school leavers predicted to drop from 70,000 that year to 50,000 by 2010. Times have changed and so has the demographic mix of university entrants at all levels.
In recent years we have seen a strong growth in the number of international students in the universities and institutes of technology. There are currently more than 32,000 international students in Ireland.
Of these, over 66 per cent are in the universities, 19 per cent in the Institutes of Technology and 14 per cent in the private sector. The number of PhD students increased significantly, from 2,248 in 2011 to 3,054 in 2012.
A whole new aspect of international students in Ireland is found in the Science without Borders scheme run by the Brazilian government. This is a large-scale nationwide scholarship programme mainly funded by the Brazilian federal government. The programme aims to strengthen and expand the initiatives of science and technology, innovation and competitiveness through international mobility of undergraduate and graduate students and researchers. The most talented students and researchers will undertake research in the best and most relevant universities around the world and then return to Brazil.
Science in Brazil has demonstrated a significant growth in recent years. However, the country has identified major challenges ahead, increasing the number of PhDs, strengthening the interaction between academia and the private and public employment sectors; promoting international scientific collaboration; and increasing the rate of national and international patents.
In the same way that Ireland has identified areas through research prioritisation, the Brazilians are targeting specific areas for funding. There are 18 in total, ranging from aerospace technology to sustainable agricultural production.
In addition, they fund the broader areas of engineering, physical sciences, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and geosciences.
The Brazilian strategy is to increase the presence of students in international institutions of excellence. The students are fully funded in a partnership between the Brazilian government and private sector. In total, they plan to send out 101,000 students worldwide, 75,000 being funded by government and 26,000 by private enterprise.
From an Irish perspective this will bring fully funded and highly talented students into our universities and institutes of technology. They will contribute to the national research effort and bring extra funding in a time when national sources are decreasing.
In the long term, they will act as a catalyst for international collaboration between Irish and Brazilian universities.
Following a number of education and trade missions to Brazil, it has been agreed that Ireland will host 1,500 PhD students over the next four years and a further 1,000 undergraduates every year.
The Euraxess Ireland office is helping Brazilian students locate to Ireland. The PhD scheme is being promoted to Brazilian students through a dedicated section on the Euraxess Ireland portal ( euraxess.ie).
Universities and institutes of technology are currently advertising more than 1,000 projects in the Brazilian thematic areas to attract students.
Changes in the PhD system in Ireland over the past six years, with the traditional apprentice model being replaced by a more structured approach, have made the system here more attractive to Brazilian students. This can give them the opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary research and get experience in relevant employment sectors.
Alongside the economic and research benefits of increasing student numbers in Ireland, there are other benefits for international students.
These include increasing awareness and understanding of other countries and their customs, an increase in inbound tourism, and transfer or sharing of knowledge.
* Conor O’Carroll is research director in the Irish Universities Association. iua.ie