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Scholar Ana Costa Freitas: Lifelong Learning Promotes Prosperity and Peace

Lifelong learning offers hope in a world threatened by conflict, the Portuguese scholar Ana Costa Freitas says.

“Focusing on profit is not sustainable and actually causes all the wars we have in the world,” she told Al-Fanar Media. “Sharing our knowledge is essential. We are no longer part of a country or a continent, so we have to go global.”

A former advisor to the European Commission, Costa Freitas has been rector of the University of Evora in southern Portugal since 2014.

In the interview, she talked about the importance of research, the impact of Covid-19 on higher education, the need to revert from online to face-to-face teaching, and refugees, among other matters.

With a bachelor’s degree in agronomy and a Ph.D. in biotechnology, Costa Freitas taught chemistry for 18 years at Nova University Lisbon and then at her alma mater, the University of Evora. In 2006, she became the university’s vice-rector, but in 2010 she joined the outreach team of the Bureau of European Policy Advisers, in Brussels.

“As a vice-rector, I did some research and finished my papers in Brussels,” she said. “However, being a rector in Portugal is very demanding and does affect one’s ability to conduct research. In a small regional university, a rector must be involved in all its issues. This affects one’s mind-set and hinders your focus on research.”

Small, Internationally-Connected University

The University of Evora focuses on four main areas: agricultural sustainability and biodiversity; heritage and art; aerospace and digital transformation; and health and well-being.

Costa Freitas said it was “a comprehensive university with 36 bachelors’ courses, 60 master’s and a lot of Ph.D. courses,” and between 8,000 and 9,000 students.

She was speaking from the African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, where the university has a branch. Its first Ph.D. student was defending his thesis in science education.

“A strong man is one with a personality, while such a woman is called stubborn. This is how society views the issue. Things are changing. In our university many of the rectoral members and heads of departments and units are women.”

Ana Costa Freitas  

“We also have 18 accredited research units,” Costa Freitas added. “We are a regional yet internationally-connected university.”

The university is a partner of the Rome-based Mediterranean Universities Union (UniMed) and the PRIMA Foundation in Barcelona, which funds projects on the sustainable use of natural resources, economic growth, and stability.

“If we want peace in the world, we have to achieve development that helps people to live quietly in their countries,” she said.

Besides agriculture and the environment, Costa Freitas thinks the work with UniMed on capacity building has an impact. “We need to exchange professors and students to make people globally aware,” she said. “We have some cooperation with Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.”

Through the late Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio’s Global Platform for Syrian Students, the university received about 15 Syrian students. “Now, this platform has been enlarged to host Ukrainian students as well,” she said. “My son, who is a father of three kids, just hosted two Ukrainian dentists at his home.”

Covid-19 Educational and Psychological Impact

Costa Freitas thinks Covid-19 was the most difficult time for universities, yet it has revealed the importance of research. “Without research, we would not have had the vaccine yet,” she said.

The sudden shift from face-to-face to online education was brutal. “We shifted the theoretical courses into online and left the practical ones to be given altogether in two weeks in May,” she said. “We had to adapt ourselves with new video courses, prepare teachers on online teaching and exams, and sometimes provide students with computers and Internet.”

The negative impact of lockdowns was terrible. “We used to have a psychologist before the pandemic,” she said. “Now we have three with a one-month waiting list. This is our responsibility as some teachers might be happy to teach from home.”

“We used to have a psychologist before the pandemic. Now we have three with a one-month waiting list.”

Ana Costa Freitas  

“This generation suffered a massive shock of isolation and being detached from society. They need to go back to the university,” she added. “We need to gradually shift back to face-to-face education.”

Moreover, Costa Freitas thinks societies, health authorities, and governments were too demanding on young people. “They blame them for being irresponsible and that they were the ones going to parties and causing the death of elder people,” she added.

She calls to rethink online education. “Blended education might be the best option, but we should prepare teachers as online education is not like just talking to the camera. Having someone talking to you in a small box can be boring. It is a whole new world,” she said.

Combating Climate Change 

In her research, Costa Freitas applied chromatographic methods to understand the composition of wines, olive oils, and other foods. However, she thinks the lack of water is the biggest challenge.

“This year, 90% of Portugal faced a severe drought. We had no rain for three months,” she said. “South Mediterranean countries have long lived with this before us. We need to understand and adopt. Everyone talks about drought, yet once it rains, they forgot about it. This needs to be tackled every year, even when it rains.”

Evora is the chief city in the Alentejo region of southern Portugal, which also has one of the largest hydroelectric dams in Western Europe on Lake Alqueva.

Noting the impact of big dams on biodiversity and people’s culture, Costa Freitas said: “Politicians and scientists need to understand each other as they focus on two different areas: environment and economy. We need a kind of scientific diplomacy to fill the gap.”

Female University Leadership 

Costa Freitas thinks there are still challenges facing women in higher education, although they depend on the country, culture, and level of education. “One of the challenges is that a man would not be asked such a question,” she said. “They always ask me how to be a woman rector and I say I do not know, as I have never been a male rector.”

“We do not know how jobs will be within three or four years. This makes students come back to take extra courses. They should know that learning is a lifelong task.

Ana Costa Freitas  

Women can achieve whatever they want, but they need to be more decisive than men, she said. “A strong man is one with a personality, while such a woman is called stubborn. This is how society views the issue. Things are changing. In our university many of the rectoral members and heads of departments and units are women.”

Lifelong Student-Focused Education 

Costa Freitas said undergraduates should get involved in research earlier and education should be more student-focused.

With an immense amount of information and fake news from the internet and elsewhere, she thinks universities have to prepare students, not for the core of their studies but for the world they live in.

She also thinks that universities are not preparing graduates for the rapidly changing job market. “We do not know how jobs will be within three or four years,” she said. “This makes students come back to take extra courses. They should know that learning is a lifelong task.”

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She cited the financial problems that hinder recruiting new teachers. “Our teaching staff is mostly old,” she said. “This is a problem as they cannot change their teaching methods.”

For her, knowledge can change the world in a fruitful and sustainable way. “Without knowledge, you will not have a position, or a word to say,” she concluded. “Dictatorship, for instance, is based on people who do not have enough information; as knowledge enables you to have your own position, opinions, and ways of life.”

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