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Education will be one of Mexico’s core issues as the country continues to develop. There have been several key recent developments on every level—primary, secondary, and post-secondary—as everyone involved attempts to modernize a massive system and work toward the goal of producing a high-quality education for millions of citizens. It has not always gone smoothly; discussions have at times been acrimonious as different parties try to realize their visions for what should be. Despite this, there have been promising gains over the past several years in basic education access and quality. A look at the sector shows that even within the conflict, progress continues to be made, providing hope for the future of Mexico’s educational system.

Mexico’s primary and secondary education system is based on a free secular public education model. Six years of primary and three years of secondary education are compulsory. After this basic level of education, students can continue with three more years of upper-secondary education followed by higher education in a number of different forms. The system has made strides in recent decades, with virtually all 5-14 year-olds receiving a formal education. According to OECD data, around 92% of primary school students, 81% of lower secondary students, and 83% of upper secondary students were enrolled in public schools, above OECD averages in every category. Both boys and girls average 13 years of formal schooling, and literacy rates are correspondingly high, with 96% of men and 94% of women able to read and write. Standardized test performance, while still below the level of Mexico’s Latin American neighbors, has risen throughout the years. Mexico’s score of 413 on the 2012 PISA mathematics assessment was below international average but still represented a rise of 28 points over the country’s 2003 results.

These figures have been made possible through robust government investment. Mexico’s education spending rose in the early 2000s and has remained mostly steady in recent years. Throughout much of the past decade, education expenditures were around 6% of GDP, a value around OECD average but lower than similar Latin American countries. There is a significant amount of public financial support for students, with 4.9% of total public expenditure devoted to this category, well above the OECD average of 3.5%. Despite these numbers, Mexico’s expenditure per student levels are lower than other OECD countries at 19% of per capita GDP, compared to the OECD average of 27% per capita. Much of the government budget for primary and secondary education is devoted to labor costs; an OECD report estimates that teacher salaries and staff compensation account for more than 92% of the government budget, the highest proportion of any OECD country.
A further look at education statistics for adolescents and young adults shows where the Mexican education system lags behind developed economies. “Mexico,” the OECD reports, “is the sole OECD country where 15-29 year-olds are expected to spend more time in employment than in education.” School enrollment rates drop sharply in upper secondary and post-secondary education; only 53% of all 15-19 year olds are enrolled in schools, well below the OECD average of 84% and neighboring Latin American countries such as Argentina (73%) and Chile (73%). This is linked with Mexico’s high unemployment rates for high-educated adults. As the OECD writes, “In Mexico, higher educational attainment does not necessarily translate into better labor market outcomes.” Unemployment rates for adults with post-secondary degrees are actually higher than for adults without secondary education, and recent data suggest that this split is even more defined for younger Mexicans.

The implications of this are jeopardizing Mexico’s hopes for developing a mature economy full of highly skilled workers. The country’s economy has developed rapidly over the past few decades, with the majority of this growth coming from the manufacturing sector. Mexico’s proximity to the US and large worker base has made it an ideal site for several industries and led to massive countrywide improvements. The next step, many feel, is to further develop the country’s human capital to create more high-skilled workers and entrepreneurs better able to adapt to new needs and quickly and ably fill niche gaps in the global economy. To do so, quality post-secondary education is necessary.

Historically, Mexico’s post-secondary education market has been dominated by a network of public universities. The largest and most prestigious of these schools, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), is the largest university in Latin America and one of the Spanish-speaking world’s leading research institutions. These schools have been the linchpin of Mexico’s traditional post-secondary system; in 1970, over 80% of students graduated from public universities. With the emergence of a new Mexican middle class, a new subset of private universities is rising to offer new options for students seeking post-secondary education. Many of these schools have been innovators in using virtual platforms and offering nontraditional programs in an effort to prepare their students for a changing Mexico. Quality is a concern as many of these schools expand rapidly into regions that have previously not had access to quality post-secondary institutions; however, the growing popularity of these schools makes it clear that they are welcome.


Any discussion of the current state of Mexico’s education sector has to take a careful look at the state of the education reform movement. Mexico is no stranger to the idea of education reform. Attempts to decentralize the country’s education system date back to the 1950s but had previously been defeated by the National Educational Workers Union (SNTE), the largest union in Latin America. With a membership of over 1.4 million, the historically corporatist SNTE wields immense power in its ability to act as a unified bloc. To pass previous reform efforts, the government has had to work closely with SNTE to craft compromise agreements. In 1992, reforms were passed that decentralized the education system, giving states more administrative oversight over educational budgets. Despite the stated goal, curriculum and funding remained in the hands of the central educational authority in Mexico City, ensuring that the union would continue to exert influence on education policy. Additional reform agreements in 1998 and 2002 sought to increase school access and teacher quality, but inconsistent implementation led to mixed results.

After his election in 2012, President Enrique Peña Nieto sought to enact new education reforms, which he framed as essential to the future of the country. These educational policies are part of a larger package of structural changes that include reforms to the energy and financial sectors and collectively seek to ensure the country has the mature and efficient institutions needed to be effective in the global economy. President Nieto’s reforms have many elements, including a restructuring of the curriculum, a census of education workers, a new centralized teacher hiring process, and evaluation methods that include regular teacher examinations and emphasize accountability and transparency. “The purpose of the Education Reform,” Peña Nieto told TBY, “is to[provide] each child and young Mexican with the necessary tools to write their own success story, and from this to contribute to the greatness of the country.” The end goal is to raise quality standards in every level of the education system, reducing waste and sending resources where they matter most. As mentioned before, a massive amount of Mexico’s education budget goes toward paying teachers and staff. By taking control of this and other elements of the education system, Peña Nieto hopes to open new avenues for investment in education infrastructure.

Opposition to the reforms has come on several fronts. Many of the reforms’ elements target the SNTE—the census, for example, is an attempt to deal with the widely-acknowledged fact that there are thousands of SNTE workers on payroll who are not active in the education system. The reforms would also mean the loss of the union’s control over teacher appointments. The government has also had to deal with the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), an organization formed in the 1970s by teachers unhappy with SNTE’s hegemonic nature. Strongly against the idea of teacher examinations, CNTE has been using direct action to push back against the reforms. Its members have staged several highly-publicized strikes and protests over the past year, some of which have flared and become violent. An additional complication for the future of the reform movement is that CNTE is most influential in the poorer southern states, where the reforms are intended to help the most. These incidents have only further deepened the rift between the government and the teachers it needs to carry out the daily work of educating its populace.


It seems for now, only the future will tell how the educational sector will develop. “My government is aware that we do not only work for the Mexicans of today, but for those of tomorrow,” said Peña Nieto. The president is committed to his reforms, and there is general recognition that changes are needed, but conflict competing interests has at times overshadowed the positives. The growth of Mexico’s education sector over the past few decades has shown that positive changes can be made. An emphasis on everyone’s shared goal of a better Mexican education system will be essential as the sector moves forward into an increasingly globalized world.

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