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I spent most of this week in Rio de Janeiro at the Congress of the Americas, a biennial event for higher education specialists from across the Western Hemisphere.

Here’s my piece summing up the main themes of conversation over the three days.

It’s been an eye opener for many reasons.

First, to make so many good contacts with those in the know, which will be very helpful when writing future stories. And second to see how Rio goes about greeting so many – there were 600 people registered – foreign guests.

The debates were well managed and there was a huge number of experts from as far apart as Canada, the West Indies and Argentina.

But the organisation was predictably awful. Queues were so long for registration that they were abandoned. The main session started a full hour late. The hotel has almost no electricity sockets. Most unforgivably for a conference that seeks to be modern was the lack of wi-fi.

The worst thing about the three days of debate is Latin America’s endless and pompous formality.

Before every debate, each participant is introduced as ‘illustrious’ or ‘honoured.’ Every speaker has to suck up to every other speaker before they’ve even said a word. The moderator even spent five minutes one day thanking every single one of the sponsors.

It’s not just false and hypocritical and boring, it’s time-consuming. Get to the point!

My Haiti story came out last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education and although it’s only available to subscribers, I’m uploading the front page of the paper so that anyone interested can get a sneak preview.

Click here to see the front page.

Anyone who truly wants to know more about higher education in the world and is willing to invest in a subscription can learn more here.

For me, it’s now back to Brazil. The two stories of the moment are Mulheres Ricas, the sensational reality show on (see a great piece on it here in The Guardian) and the inexplicable success of Michael Teló’s song ‘Ai Se Eu Te Pego.’

The former offers an insight into the lives of Brazil’s shallow and clueless super rich madams and is (unintentionally) hilarious. The latter is just inexplicable, even though this guy does a valiant job of trying.

Decide for yourself in this youtube clip.


I’ve written a lot about education recently and especially about the debacle surrounding the Enem, the country’s unified university entrance exam.

Close to 10,000 students affected by the screw up during the Nov. 6 exam got a chance to retake the test today.

I wrote about the mess here for the Financial Times blog and will also have a piece up on the Christian Science Monitor web site later.

My longer piece about the government’s desire to create a unified test that will replace the vestibulares, the individual entrance exams held by each university, can be found here at the Chronicle of Higher Education site. It’s a pay site.



Brazil’s much vaunted attempt at creating a nationwide university entrance exam is in disarray today after the test was beset by problems for the second straight year.

A judge last night ruled the exam results be annulled after 2,000 or so of the 3.7 million papers were printed with mistakes.

The erroneous multiple choice papers had Human Sciences questions numbered 1-45 and Natural Sciences numbered from 46-90 but the results paper had the categories inverted. Exacerbating the confusion, adjudicators gave students different orders about how to fill in the answers.

The error came a year after the test had to be rewritten when questions were leaked. Earlier this year a computer glitch made the personal data of millions of students available online.

The Enem, as it is known, was revamped two years ago as I explained in this blog and in this longer piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education. The new test was supposed to make it easier and cheaper for both students and universities as well as bring Brazil more into line with a national entrance system like that used in the US and most European countries.

More than 4.6 million Brazilians will sit their university entrance exam tomorrow and for many universities and students it will be their first experience of the Enem, the new standardized test that is being held nationwide to replace the vestibular.

The vestibular tests were set by each individual university, meaning that each student had to actually go to the university he wanted to attend and take the test there.

That was impossible for many students living far from their preferred venue and expensive for others. It also meant that many students spent several consecutive weekends sitting entrance exams at different universities.

As I write in my latest Chronicle of Higher Education piece here:

“The government’s goal is to reduce costs for universities and students and expand access to the country’s publicly financed, and best, universities.”

Last year the government revamped the Enem and many universities adopted it. This year even more publicly financed institutions are using the new test.

The new Enem is standardized and based on the national high school curriculum. Simpler than the vestibulares, it comprises 180 multiple choice questions grouped into four subjects: languages; the human sciences; the natural sciences; and mathematics. It is followed by a short written comprehension test.

The new Enem has had its troubles. Personal data on applicants leaked from the Education Ministry’s computers earlier this year and last year the test had to be completely rewritten at the last minute after thieves stole it and tried to sell it.

But it is touted as being beneficial to both students and universities as well as bringing Brazil more into line with a national entrance system like that used in the US and most European countries.

“(This) is a system that is national, progressive, a test that gives all Brazil’s high school students chance,” said Clélio Campolina, the rector of the Federal University of Minas Gerais.  “All the developed countries have a national assessment system and not this conventional vestibular system that we still use.”

The latest list of university rankings came out and Latin American universities were poorly placed as usual.

The validity of these lists and the criteria used to compile them are always controversial, as Francisco Marmolejo points out in this post on the Chronicle of Higher Education site.

But love them or hate them lists are always good for journalists, and for anyone who likes a good debate.

I wrote this piece for the Christian Science Monitor on Brazil, which had more universities placed than any other Latin American nation. Brazil did not do too well. It has a lot of work ahead.

The good news is that it understands what needs to be done and is starting to take steps to remedy the situation.

My new story on the internationalisation of Brazil’s universities went online at the Chronicle of Higher Education web site earlier this week. The Chronicle has a pay wall but the start of the piece can be seen here.

The story is about how Brazil’s universities are seeking to end decades of insularity by hiring more foreign students and teachers, as well as send more of their own students abroad on exchange programs.

All Brazil’s main universities – and I spoke to the rectors or vice rectors of the three biggest public universities in São Paulo, as well as the director of international affairs at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro – are signing deals with foreign partners.

And all of them have set ambitious targets to double or triple the number of foreigners at their universities over the next few years.

It’s all part of a more general trend of Brazil opening up and becoming more engaged with the world.

Recognising that, diplomat Carlos Henrique Cardim told me: “When you have more professors and students from overseas it helps foment debate. It opens up issues. There’s no doubt that the presence of international students and academics in Brazil will help us better understand the larger international issues that are going on in the world. You understand more about Bolivia or Iran speaking with Bolivians and Iranians than you do reading books about them.”

Bringing in foreigners is a tough task, and not just because few top professors or young students speak Portuguese. Security, reams of red tape, and a lack of housing are just some of the major obstacles it needs to dismantle if more foreign students and teachers are to come south of the equator.

There is much work to be done. But the will is there. And where there’s a will, there’s a way

I’ve been posting less frequently than usual over the last few weeks because my filing routine has undergone a major change.

That’s largely down to my new employer, The Chronicle of Higher Education. They recently hired me as a freelancer to write about Brazilian academic life and the work involves writing longer and more detailed pieces than I had become accustomed to.

For several years now, newspapers and magazines have been asking for ever briefer stories and I did more of them to make ends meet. The Chronicle want in-depth stories that can take weeks to report. As I’ve spent most of my time working on those longer pieces, I’ve filed fewer shorter pieces and so had less subjects to blog on and pieces to link to.

The Chronicle is described here on Wikipedia as ” a newspaper that presents news, information, and jobs for college and university faculty members and administrators.” It is called ” the major news service in the United States academic world.” What I know from a couple of months there is that it is a serious publication, in a world with fewer and fewer serious publications.

The reason I am spending so much time on the Chronicle’s stories is not only because it demands detailed reporting. It is also that reporting about university education is a completely new topic for me.

I’ve been in Brazil more than 10 years now and I have half the reporting for most stories I do already in my head. I have the basic background information there and if I don’ t then I certainly know who to call to get it.

With education, just as when I write on economics and business, I am starting from scratch. That means stories take a lot longer.

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