By Andres Oppenheimer

Brazil's announcement that it will send 100,000 science and engineering students to get advanced degrees abroad went almost unnoticed amid last week's world panic over a possible U.S. default, but it's worth paying attention to -- it's the kind of thing that will determine which countries will get ahead in the knowledge-based 21st century.

Brazil's science and technology minister, Aloizio Mercadante, said that under the new Science Without Frontiers program, the government will pay for 75,000 scholarships, and the private sector for the remaining 25,000. The students will be placed in the world's best universities, he said.

Mercadante said that Brazil needs to get up to speed with world trends in science, engineering and technology, because it lags far behind in innovation. While the number of Brazil's graduates in humanities grew by 66 percent over the past decade, its engineering graduates grew by only 1 percent, he was quoted as saying by the daily O Estado de Sao Paulo.

Many Brazilians reacted with skepticism, according to readers' comments in Brazil's major newspapers. The new program is "a fairy tale that will never materialize," said one reader. "A marketing coup," said another. "There will be a lot of politicians' children studying abroad," said a third one.

The most common criticism was that those leaving will never come back, because they won't find jobs at home. "And if they return, will they have to revalidate their doctorates here?" one reader asked scornfully on the Folha de Sao Paulo website.

But Brazil's move is part of a growing trend toward the internationalization of higher education.

China, India and South Korea have led the world in sending students to U.S. universities, which according to the two best-known world university rankings -- Britain's Times Higher Education Supplement and China's Shanghai Jiai Tong University index -- remain the best in the world.

Judging from what I saw in trips to China, India and other Asian countries in recent years, most of their key industries, such as India's information technology sector, have been created by students who pursued graduate degrees in U.S. universities, and later returned home or invested in their native countries while staying abroad.

China had a total of 441,000 university students pursuing degrees abroad last year, India 170,000 and South Korea 113,000. By comparison, the United States had 51,000 university students abroad, Mexico 26,000, Brazil 23,000, Spain 22,000, Argentina 9,000 and Chile 7,000, according to the UNESCO "Global Education Digest 2010" report.

As a percentage of their student population, about 3.5 percent of South Korea's university students and 1.7 percent of China's are studying abroad, compared with 1 percent of Mexico's, 0.4 of Brazil and Argentina's, and 0.3 percent of the U.S. student population.

President Barack Obama, citing the need for Americans to gain greater understanding of China, announced in 2009 a "100,000 Strong Initiative" to dramatically increase the number of U.S. students in China, mostly with private funding. Earlier this year, Obama launched a similar plan to increase to 100,000 the number of U.S. college students in Latin America.

Chile had launched an ambitious plan in 2008 to send up to 6,000 graduates a year to pursue advanced degrees abroad, but the plan has been reduced in half because of financial constraints following the 2010 earthquake.

My opinion: Brazil, like Chile before it, is on the right track. They have realized -- several decades later than Asian countries -- that what some earlier regarded as a "Brain drain" has turned out to be a "Brain gain" for countries that send their students to key knowledge areas abroad.

Sure, some of the Brazilian scientists and engineers will not come back. But even they will help speed up their home country's development, either as foreign investors, entrepreneurs or visiting professors, if they are given the opportunity to do so.

A growing brain circulation of students, researchers and professors would greatly help Latin America, among other things by allowing its graduates to keep up with their peers worldwide. And it's a trend that can benefit the United States as well, by allowing it to get a better sense of countries that are increasingly vital to its economy.

It's a win-win for all countries involved, and a road to stagnation for those that opt for academic isolation.


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