Interview with Marilza Rudge, rector of UNESP

Interview with Marilza Rudge, rector of UNESP

Professor Marilza Vieira Cunha Rudge has been a professor at the Sao Paulo State University (UNESP) since 1971. A key figure in the assessment and evaluation of higher education in Brazil, she acts both as advisor and board member to a host of state and federal committees concerned with charting the future path of university teaching and ensuring that, as well as broadening the social and economic demographic of students, they can offer international opportunities and exposure to the best teaching the world has to offer

The Report Company: What is your opinion on the current state of the education system in Brazil?

Marilza Rudge: There has been great improvement, but there is still a long way to go. Personally, I am much more connected to higher education, and in that sector there have been significant gains, but there are also problems left to solve. For example, there has been a great expansion in the number of places available for higher education recently, but most are at private universities, and in that sector are concentrated over 75 percent of all places today. Conversely, public universities are responsible for training the majority of post-graduate students.

I believe that if we really want to change the country, we have to give public school students greater access to public universities. In 2012, our university required 15 percent of student admissions to be from public schools. Usually in medicine, from the 90 or so new students we receive a year, one or two are from public schools. In 2014 we had 15 percent, and 35 percent of those were from ethnic minorities.

This is the sort of thing that will change this country. Of course, only the best students in public schools will get in, and we were concerned that problems might follow with students that were less prepared, but there has been no negative impact in that sense. The lowest test grade for medical admissions was 90, whereas it was 83 for this public quota. That isn’t a huge gap. For 2015 that public quota will be 25 percent and in 2018 we want to have 50 percent or more students entering from the public system.

There are challenges. Those from poorer backgrounds can have difficulty paying the fees and have higher dropout rates as a result of their social environment, but we are investing in order to support them with scholarships and resources. I think it is our responsibility to welcome young people from all socio-economic backgrounds into the university. Public universities are maintained with taxes that the whole population pay, so it is our duty to give something back to the people. I believe this can really make a difference and change the country.

TRC: What are the greatest challenges in improving the capacity and quality of federal universities?

MR: We have to invest in distance learning. Technology allows a much greater number of students to ‘fit’ into one classroom. People have been resisting these tools, but having more people coming from public high schools is one step, increasing the number of places is another. In order to do that, we are going to need to use technology. Our university currently allows for 20 percent of our courses to be delivered via distance education, but we haven't been using the tool as much as we should. All we have to do is implement it, to train teachers. I didn’t have the internet when I finished school, but these kids today were born with it, so with distance education we can further improve access to the university.

TRC: What is your perspective on the Science without Borders programme?

MR: I think it was a great advance for the country and it helped put our youth out into the world. I always tell students they need to seize their opportunities, and this was a good route into studying abroad, but there could be improvements. Language has always been a barrier for us, and only now is the importance of learning English truly apparent. We have several partnerships, such as with the British Council, and some post-grad courses are taught in English. We understand that the exchange between our students and foreign students is important but that they will learn much more in their leisure time than in formal classes.

Internationalisation is a cross-cutting motto for us. Jobs have become increasingly global and students cannot be trained solely within the university.
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TRC: What is UNESP’s main vocation, and what are your goals for this administration?

MR: UNESP is a multi-campus university with 34 centres in 24 cities across the state of Sao Paulo. This is both a strength and a weakness, because it is quite hard to convince people that we are a single entity, but that is one of the challenges of my administration: to make this huge expanse in the state of Sao Paulo think of itself as a single university.

Nowadays, technology is on our side and we can bring all those centres together via videoconferencing, so heads of departments can meet each other and understand that they are one. Through technology we also can intensify the participation of researchers overseas within our university with as little cost as possible, and this is a key tool. They can be in their lab and lecture students in our auditoriums, bring their experience to us at very little expense.

TRC: What is UNESP’s approach to internationalisation?

MR: Internationalisation is important for undergraduates and post-graduates, for management and professors. Our score and the level of resources we receive from CAPES (Coordination of Improvement of Higher Education Personnel) depend on it and it has improved significantly in recent evaluations, which means that this process has already had an impact. We have been carrying out a similar process in our research areas, sending researchers abroad and bringing others over here. We have been putting a laboratory together with Université Laval in Canada, for example, and this sort of thing greatly strengthens the internationalisation of the university.

With this structure in place, researchers start coming and going much more easily, and unlike some universities, we haven’t limited ourselves to certain countries or regions.

For instance, we currently have a mission of eight researchers in Australia visiting the universities there. We’ve already had missions in Canada, in the USA and in the UK. UNESP has a unit of the Confucius Institute, considered the best in the world in 2010, and now almost all of our units have Chinese classes through the institute. We also have a project with the British Council to bring masters students here to work as English teachers.

Internationalisation is a cross-cutting motto for us. Jobs have become increasingly global and students cannot be trained solely within the university.

TRC: In the past, it was more common to see Brazilians study here and go to work overseas, but now the trend is for them to stay in Brazil, and more foreigners are arriving too. Is the competition creating a stronger workforce?

MR: I think this is another responsibility of universities, to evaluate the country's needs for specific professionals. We recently opened 11 courses in engineering, and, in four to five years, we will have trained between 600 and 700 engineers per year, on top of the previous numbers, so we are responding to the country's needs.

TRC: The private sector has been strengthening bonds with universities, as Shell and Lenovo invest in UNICAMP, and EMC has opened a laboratory at the Technology Park at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro for the oil and gas industry. Is this something you have been aiming at?

MR: We have an innovation agency, yes, but we are not yet at the level of UNICAMP, which holds the most patents in the country. They incubate many industries that are growing around the university and have more than 250 technology companies around it. We are not as robust, but we do have the agency, which is already also at the Technology Park of Sorocaba. We ought to strengthen our relations with the private sector more proactively.

Universities have to create knowledge and train human resources; their role is not to make the patents.
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TRC: How do you see R&D in Brazil?

MR: Industry needs to take a better look at students leaving the university and hire them to do R&D. Brazilian industries still purchase technology from abroad and they need to change this around and invest more in Brazil. UNESP, for instance, is training the workforce for that. Universities have to create knowledge and train human resources; their role is not to make the patents.

TRC: How do you see the partnership between the UK and Brazil in education?

MR: I recently attended a Going Global meeting in Miami with the British Council and it was clear that the United Kingdom looks at Brazil as an important partner and it would be very interesting to increase our partnership with the UK.

Besides that, there are projects between the FAPs (research protection agencies) and the UK, especially in the state of Sao Paulo, because FAPESP is very strong. I think that when that and Going Global unite, the number of projects carried out in partnership between the two countries will increase. This could be boosted even further with the teaching of the English language. Unfortunately, English is not a language in our university. Students and professors need to learn the language, but our staff at the technical and managerial levels also need it. These people need an environment where English is recognisably natural.

This is a key moment for Brazil with many opportunities to grasp. There have been many protests from teachers and professors highlighting the need to invest more in education, investing in the training of teachers and school directors, providing more resources for schools. I believe we are going through a process of awareness that education is the solution and that, therefore, a larger sum of resources will be allocated in that direction.

This is a key moment for Brazil with many opportunities to grasp.
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This article was published 18 May 2015
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