Focus: Education

The Most Powerful Weapon

The Most Powerful Weapon

Jul. 17, 2013

Over recent decades, enrollment has skyrocketed in Mexico's education sector. Enrollment in education from primary school to high school was just 3.25 million in 1950, reaching 34.8 million in the academic year 2011-2012, just shy of 40% of the population. Enrollment is also on an upward curve in the tertiary education sector, rising from 15% in 1991 to just below 33% in 2011-2012, a figure still below the regional average of 46% in 2010.

Faced with the challenge of supporting the growing number of students, the government has dedicated more than one-fifth of the budget to education. A rise in the number of private universities has gone some way to supporting the influx, yet approximately two-thirds of students in higher education are enrolled at public institutions—in the 2011-2012 academic year, private universities accounted for under 32% of all tertiary enrollments. Private universities are, in many cases, associated with uneven educational standards and have been blamed, through their focus on business and accounting, for creating an oversupply of graduates in a limited number of areas. They are, however, supervised by a federal or state government agency or a public autonomous university. There is much to be done to improve the quality of entry-level students, however, and in this vein President Peña Nieto has led the charge to see the sector reformed with a focus on teaching quality.


Already passed by lawmakers, a separate implementing law is now expected in the coming months before sweeping changes in the education sector take effect. The changes, widely seen as a challenge to the National Education Workers' Union, will promote meritocracy, establish mandatory teacher evaluations, and tie the hiring, promotion, and pay structure of teachers to evaluation scores. It will also allow schools to fire under-performing teachers, an aspect opposed by the 1.7 million-member union. Currently, the National Education Workers' Union holds much sway over who gets hired and promoted, while unskilled applicants have been allowed to effectively buy lifelong teaching positions. The current setup has reflected on the country's international rankings, with Mexico regularly placing on the lower end of the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)—the last test, which evaluates reading, science, and mathematics in 15-year olds, was held in 2009 and Mexico ranked 51st among 65 countries. If the reforms are successful, they could go a long way to improving teaching standards and thus improve the country's long-term growth outlook.


Students in Mexico begin primary school (primaria) at six and complete six grades before moving onto grade seven in junior high school (secundaria). Following grade nine, they then move onto high school (preparatoria), which is comprised of grades 10-12. Much of the challenge lies in improving high school education due to the high dropout rate—despite gross enrollment of 89% in 2010, net enrollment was lower, at 71%. The situation may be remedied, however, with the recent expansion of mandatory education to include high school. At the post-graduate level, Mexico's system closely matches Bologna Process standards, with a Bachelor's degree of at least four years (licenciatura), a two-year Master's degree (maestría), and a three-year PhD (doctorado). While the male-female balance is almost equal in mandatory education, there is a slightly higher representation of males in higher education, with the exception of vocational, technical, and teacher education. Private universities are likely to play a larger role in the coming years in order to cope with the increasing number of applicants, thus ramping up competition. “Although there is huge competition in Mexico, it is beneficial because each school is forced to aim for the best and introduce more options, new degrees, and different ways of educating young people," said Abraham Cárdenas González, Rector at Anahuac University, a private institute with around 15,000 students. Universities are also working overtime to fill in the gaps created by the often inefficient secondary education system, with the quality in basic education criticized by Dra. Yolóxochitl Bustamante Díez, General Director of the Instituto Politécnico Nacional (IPN). “Even these days, students are simply used to memorization," she said, adding that, “when they arrive, we have to work on those other cognitive mechanisms and teach them how to use other abilities."


While Mexican students have been keen to study abroad—numbers haven't changed significantly since 2010, when a UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) report recorded 26,000 Mexican students abroad—the number of incoming students has been lacking, but is on an upward trend. According to the Asociación Nacional de Universidades e Instituciones de Educación Superior en México (ANUIES), there were 7,689 foreign students studying in the country in the 2010-2011 academic year, up from just 2,880 in 2007-2008. The main sources for incoming students requiring visas, meaning long-term study periods, are France, the US, Spain, Germany, and Colombia. While the total number of US students in the country was much higher in 2010-2011 when short-stay students are counted—over 4,000—it is a decrease of 3,000 on the previous year thanks to security concerns along the border. The most popular destination for Mexican students is the US by far, with almost half of all outgoing students heading north of the border. Spain is the second most popular destination, followed by France, Germany, and the UK.