Despite the offer of a scholarship in Spain worth twice as much as one from Ireland, when it came to deciding where to do her doctoral research, Brazilian Sheila Castilho M de Sousa had no doubts about where to go.
“Ireland. It was an easy decision. Sometimes money isn’t everything,” says the computational linguist, who is now happily ensconced in Dublin City University.
She is part of an unprecedented wave of young Brazilians coming to Ireland in recent years as part of their third-level education. They are drawn by instruction in English, Ireland’s membership of Europe and the fact that Irish universities outperform their Brazilian peers in international surveys, despite recent slippage in their performance rankings.
As well as providing a Latin flavour to campus life across the country, the influx has been a financial boon for the host institutions, and the Irish Government hopes it will help deepen ties with Latin America’s biggest economy.
The sudden spike in interest in studying in Ireland among Brazilians is partly due to more Irish Government scholarships, and there has also been an increased focus on selling the country as a research hub in Brazil.
Last week, 80 Brazilian scientists were at a conference in Dublin Castle organised by Research Brazil Ireland, a consortium of Irish third-level institutions and research centres that promotes Ireland’s scientific reputation in Brazil.
The game changer, however, has been the Brazilian government programme Science Without Borders. This was launched in 2011 to provide scholarships to study abroad for 101,000 graduate and postgraduate students. It was a response to criticism from Brazilian industry that the country’s universities were not producing the quality of graduate it required.
Ireland first entered the programme in 2013, when 537 Brazilians applied to study in Irish institutions, although colleges eventually took in an extra 646 because Portugal was so heavily oversubscribed.
There are 26 Irish third-level institutions enrolled in Science Without Borders; the top three destinations are University of Limerick, Waterford Institute of Technology and NUI Galway. The main areas of study are science, engineering, technology and maths. Although the number of Brazilian students in Ireland still lags behind those from fellow Bric countries China and India, it is growing at a faster rate.
The positive feedback from this first intake meant applications almost doubled to 973 in 2014 and this year 1,084 Brazilians have applied for the academic year starting in September.
"Clearly those who have been here are sending a positive message back to Brazil," says Gerry O'Sullivan, head of international education at the Higher Education Authority, which co-ordinates Ireland's participation in Science Without Borders with Brazil's authorities. "We can track this on social media. Their experience is the biggest driving force in sending new students to us."
The HEA has already transferred €50 million from Brazil to Irish institutions to cover tuition, accommodation and English courses, with Science Without Borders students estimated to have spent an additional €20 million while in Ireland from other scholarships and private funds.
A lovely surprise
It is not only Irish authorities who are happy with the return. “Ireland has been a lovely surprise for us,” says Denise de Menezes Neddermeyer, director of international relations at Capes, the Brazilian government agency that runs Science Without Borders.
She says various factors are behind Ireland’s popularity within the programme; at the top of that list she places instruction in English and Ireland’s location in Europe.
Neddermeyer is also full of praise for the work by the Irish authorities to meet the Brazilian side’s needs. “The proactive action by the Irish Government has been a fundamental factor,” she says, describing the role played by the Government and educational bodies in co-ordinating with their Brazilian peers as “fantastic”.
Last year Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff extended Science Without Borders through to 2018. The HEA acknowledges that if it were to stop tomorrow, there would be a sudden drop in Brazilians heading to Ireland. "But thanks to Science Without Borders, we are now in a stronger position than ever to build partnerships with Brazil and promote full degrees and research opportunities in Ireland," says O'Sullivan.
Another crucial factor in Ireland’s recent success in attracting Brazilian students is the close connections between its third-level institutions and industry, especially the constellation of multinationals in the high-tech sector with operations in Ireland.
De Sousa says this is why she opted for Ireland. “I decided to come here because I knew of the links with industry. Academia in Brazil is very closed. Co-operation with industry in my field of computational linguistics is almost non-existent. The few universities in the area struggle to get funding; here we have so many industry partners.”
As well as aiding research, students are aware that these links boost their future job prospects. "In Ireland, it is much easier to take an idea out of the lab and into the market – not so much in Brazil – and they are very thirsty to learn how to do that," says Brazilian academic Mauro Ferreira, an associate professor at the school of physics in Trinity.
“Surveys show Irish graduates are very employable because of our link-ups with industry at third level,” says Sarah O’Sullivan, Education in Ireland’s representative in Brazil. “Brazilian academia lacks that and it is something we are strong in and something Brazilian students are very interested in.”
As well as an immediate intellectual, cultural and financial boost for Irish third-level institutions, the Government sees developing education links with Brazil as part of a broader strategy to develop ties with a country that has the world’s seventh-largest economy but few traditional bonds with Ireland.
"Our success in the education sector is opening doors across Brazil and creating a new reverse diaspora of industry leaders of the future who are extremely well disposed to Ireland," says Brian Glynn, Ireland's Ambassador in Brasília.
‘Irish at heart’
A member of this new diaspora is Institute of Technology Sligo graduate Luiz Fernando Zago, who, after a year studying in the northwest on a
n Irish government scholarship, now enthusiastically describes himself as “Irish at heart”.
Although he has not yet completed his business degree at his Brazilian alma mater since returning to Brazil, he has already helped set up a Brazil-Ireland Innovation Consortium in partnership with the business innovation centre at IT Sligo.
“We try to introduce companies here in Brazil to Irish companies, increasing business opportunities for both countries,” he says. “So, if a company in Sligo wants to enter the Brazil market, they can come to us and get information, and we also help them with starting their operations here. My link with Ireland has not finished.”
The Embassy in Brasília, a new Irish consulate in Brazil’s business capital of São Paulo and various State agencies are now focusing on ways to strengthen these ties.
Last November, Education in Ireland hosted its inaugural alumni event in São Paulo as part of its strategy to ensure relationships forged in Ireland are maintained after students return to Brazil, with Enterprise Ireland hoping links from student days can be leveraged into business ties once graduates enter the workforce.
“Education is the main bridge between Brazil and Ireland,” says Glynn.
POINTS OF VIEW: BRAZILIANS ON WHY THEY OPTED FOR IRELAND
Sheila Castilho M de Sousa (30)
PhD candidate in computational linguistics at DCU
“Before I came, all I knew about Ireland is that it used to be part of the UK, because I lived in England for some time, and that I had to buy euros to come here. And that you like Guinness.
“Now I love Dublin. I think it is a wonderful place to be. Irish people are really friendly. It is different to when I lived in England. There I had one English friend and here more than half of my friends are Irish. People here are more open; they make you feel very welcome.
“I got accommodation in the university, which was very handy, and opening a bank account was very smooth because there is a branch on campus.
“One thing I don’t like is that the visa is very expensive for Brazilian students. It is €300 to renew each year. I think they should issue it for the length of your course. I am going to be here for three years, so it is too much money renewing it every year. It would make student life way easier if that changed.
“I also don’t like the lack of sunshine, but I don’t think you guys can do anything about that.”
Luiz Fernando Zago (24)
From Santa Catarina
Business undergraduate at IT Sligo, 2013-14
“We don’t hear much about Ireland in Brazil, and we have this image of pubs, Guinness and lots of countryside, but when I got there I realised it is a very different country to what I expected. It is much more developed. I didn’t know that the European headquarters of Google, Microsoft and Facebook were all there. Although some of the locals disagree with me, I found living standards really high in Ireland. Compared to Brazil, things are way easier.
“Irish professors are concerned that you are actually learning what they are teaching and not just that you are receiving the course content. They made sure I was doing extracurricular activities, and that is not so common in Brazil.
“I went back to Ireland last October for my graduation, and I took my parents. It was a really good experience. It was their first trip abroad. I also took them to London, Rome and Paris, but they say the place they most enjoyed was Sligo. I don’t know what it is about Ireland but I think the environment is perfect for Brazilians. Everyone I know who went loved it there.”