Federal Institutes were officially created in late 2008, growing out of society’s needs for skilled workers and built upon previously existing organizations, entitled CEFETs (Centros Federais de Educação Tecnológica, or Federal Centers of Technological Education), which themselves replaced earlier schools with similar missions dating back to 1909. What is most important about this history is the ongoing commitment to reform education to serve the people, a principle that is captured in the Brazilian constitution. Indeed, education is free to all students attending public institutions, many of which (at the tertiary level) are considered the best schools in the country.
At the time when IFs were being envisioned and created, Brazil was facing a significant scarcity in skilled labor: only 18.3% of all those who were looking for work in Brazil in 2007 had the qualifications to immediately assume positions that were then open [IPEA, cited in Pacheco, 2011]. Similarly, there was a particularly acute shortage of qualified teachers, which only threatened to extend the cycle of poorly educated citizens.
Enter the Federal Institute, whose central mission is to combat inequality and remove barriers to social inclusion of those who had been historically distant from Brazil’s development and modernization, through education and training at all levels from secondary school through graduate levels. Indeed, this verticality is one of the key principles of the IFs.
As a way to more richly describe the IF, I will focus on one with which I am particularly familiar, which I will call the IFEX. Each of Brazil’s 26 states (and its Federal District) has an IF, which is accountable to the inhabitants of that state, and each IF typically has multiple campuses spread out throughout the state. In addition, there are a few remaining CEFETs and similar institutions, which together with the IFs make up the Federal Network of Professional, Scientific and Technological Education (in Portuguese, Rede Federal de Educação Profissional, Científica e Tecnológica); these institutions currently contain 459 units and 1,000,000 students.
The IFEX serves one of Brazil’s smaller states with approximately 20 campuses, including three in its capital city. In its Political Pedagogical Project, a collaborative document typical of Brazilian educational institutions, it expresses its social function as:
To offer professional and technological education . . . committed to holistic human development, to the exercise of citizenship and the production and application of knowledge, envisioning, above all, the transformation of reality with respect to equality and social justice. [PPP, p. 21].
This commitment plays itself out in multiple ways: in a vertically integrated system of education that extends from secondary school through graduate studies; in an interdisciplinary curriculum that covers over 100 degree programs from Administration to Zootechnics (Husbandry) plus another similar number of courses for “professional qualifications”; in a policy of reserving 50% of its places for students from the public schools of the state; and in a collaborative approach to learning.
Levels of Education. Courses are offered at several levels:
- A full secondary program (“técnico integrado”) in 26 vocational areas;
- A parallel secondary program for older students (“técnico integrado EJA”) in twelve areas;
- Supplemental secondary programs for students who have completed their secondary studies elsewhere, but want additional technical or vocational studies (“técnico subsequente”) in 31 areas;
- A 3-year undergraduate college degree in 14 technical areas;
- A 4-year undergraduate college degree program to develop teachers (“licenciatura”) in nine areas; and
- Graduate “lato sensu” (specialization, non-diploma) courses in eleven areas.
While most students attend classes in a face-to-face modality. IFEX has a rapidly growing program of distance learning (ensino à distância) that includes programs running from secondary through graduate levels. 3,700 students are enrolled in these courses, which are operated in conjunction with the Open University of Brazil (UAB) and the Network of Technical Schools. It should be noted that this is a very rapidly growing area, growing on a national level from just over 300,000 students in 2004 to almost 6,000,000 in 2012.
Disciplines of Study. As noted above, the IF is committed to interdisciplinary study, believing that the barriers between disciplines does not serve vocational or technological development, where the challenges cross these arbitrary borders. Having said that, students can specialize in such areas as:
- Agriculture (and related fields such as Beekeeping, Animal Husbandry, Fisheries Resources, and Agro-ecology);
- Business and Management (and related fields such as specialized management programs in sports and environment, and Workplace Security);
- Engineering (and related fields such as Biofuels, Building Construction, Petroleum and Gas, Mining, Mechatronics, and HVAC);
- IT (and related fields, such as Computer Networking, Systems, and MIS),
- Renewable energy (and other environmentally-focused fields);
- Teacher Education in various fields (Spanish, Biology, Physics, IT, Chemistry, Math); and
- Tourism Guiding
Looking at this list, one can easily see the relevance to today’s economy, as they reflect new and developing fields.
Internationalization at IFEX. The internationalization of education in Brazil is developing quickly, more so in some institutions that others. While relative participation in internationalization varies widely at Brazilian HEIs, with barely ten percent of all institutions participating in the annual FAUBAI (international education) conference, IFs have great potential in this regard.
Underpinning the social mission of IFEX, for example, are key principles such as interdisciplinary; a commitment to preparing workers to meet society’s changing demands, including the ability to function in an increasing global context; and respect for diverse cultures and exchange across and between cultures. Add to these values Brazil’s national commitment to study abroad in the STEM fields (“Science without Borders”), an area which neatly fits the IF’s focus, and one can see great opportunities. In addition, IFEX is at the cutting edge of many “hot” fields and could profitably offer short courses during the northern summer for students from Europe and North America.
While most attention has been paid to mobility programs in the past, there is great hunger for an internationalized curriculum among the faculty teaching in the institution; in a recent survey, 96% of all respondents (teachers at IFEX) said they would attend training on how to integrate internationalized perspectives in their courses.
In conclusion. Brazil’s Federal Institutes have grown out of a particular context, for which they are responsive and responsible change agents. They offer hope and vision in a developing society undergoing rapid transitions, and they suggest ways in which other countries can respond to social needs. Internationalized, interdisciplinary curricula that span secondary and tertiary education, and which are grounded in local needs may indeed change the world.