REFORM, REFORM, REFORM

Mexico 2014 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: EDUCATION

Mexican education is in crisis. Teachers' strikes have become a daily ritual in many cities, as the government has introduced sweeping reforms that limit the power of the mighty education unions.

The Mexican education system has greatly improved over the past few decades, yet major issues remain. The 1960 national census found that 43.7% of Mexicans over the age of 5 had not completed one year of school, while 50.7% had not attended more than six years of school.

Following the introduction of compulsory schooling for primary and lower-secondary education (up to grade 9), the literacy rate for all Mexicans above the age of 15 reached 93% in 2010. In the age group from 15 to 24 it even amounted to 98%. The average level of schooling improved, too.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in its 2013 Education at a Glance survey found that the number of Mexicans with at least lower-secondary education amounted to 64%, compared to an OECD average of 26%. However, in terms of higher secondary and tertiary education Mexico scored significantly lower than the OECD average, as only 12% of the country's over 20 year-olds attended university.

Mexico has four types of schooling: primary (grade 1- 6), lower-secondary (grade 7 - 9), higher-secondary (grade 10-12), and tertiary, or higher education. In addition, vocational education at the country's technical institutions is offered to anyone who completed lower-secondary school.

For decades, primary schools, lower-secondary schools, as well as teacher education fell under the direct control of the Secretariat of Public Education, yet since 1992 most administrative duties have been transferred to local authorities. Admission and exit examinations at all levels have been standardized, as well as the institutional evaluation and accreditation systems.

Mexico has witnessed a rapid increase in the number of private universities, which in 2012 accounted for almost 32% of all tertiary enrollments. While some have an excellent reputation, most only offer courses in the fields of business administration and not even have proper accreditation. Mexico's most famous academic institution remains the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).

Founded in 1910 as a liberal institution, UNAM today has today over 300,000 students, as well as some 35,000 staff spread over 26 faculties, which makes it one of the largest universities in the world. UNAM also possesses a series of well-noted research facilities.

SCALING THE PROBLEM

Many of Mexico's educational problems are related to size. In 2012, the country had no less than 34 million pupils and students attending over 100,000 primary schools, 150,000 secondary schools, 61 technical universities, 404 public universities, and nearly 2,000 private universities. In 2010, some 26,000 students studied abroad, mostly in the US.

Such vast numbers not only make education a costly affair, but also in many ways have negatively affected the quality of education. Mexico in 2012 spent some 6.2% of GDP on education, of which 20% stemmed from private sources. That is more than, for example, a country like Spain spends on schooling, yet Mexico has many more mouths to feed.

According to the OECD, the average expenditure per student is 20% of Mexico's average annual income per capita, which is less than the OECD average of 28%. In addition, Mexico has an average of 29 students per teacher at the compulsory level, which is about twice the OECD average.

GHOST IN THE MACHINE

It is rather ironic to learn that most of Mexico's education budget is spent on the salaries of staff and teachers, when knowing that a national survey in April 2014 found that 13% of school employees did not show up for work. Out of a total of 2.25 million employees, 978,000 worked as teachers, and 971,000 as other staff, while 30,000 were on legitimate leave. Another 39,000 people appeared not to exist, while 113,000 had moved on to another job, and 115,000 had quit, retired, or died.

The results caused a moral outcry and Education Secretary Emilio Chauyffet promised to stop paying the “ghosts" on the payroll. According to the OECD, the average teacher's salary in Mexico amounts to $1,377 per month, while two-thirds of the country's population earns less than the national average of $458.

Seeing all of the above, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Mexican students score relatively low in the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests basic reading, writing, math, and science skills. While Mexico has managed to significantly boost average literacy and attendance rates, the country ranked only 53rd out of 65 countries in terms of basic mathematical understanding.

HIRING & FIRING

One of the main novelties is a merit-based system of hiring and firing teachers, which will be executed by local authorities rather than by the unions. In addition, the call for parent organizations to donate money to schools is seen by many as a first step toward privatization and an American-style education system.

The hiring, firing and promoting of teachers for decades had been a prerogative of Mexico's teachers' unions. And here too many anomalies exist. Gradually, the system has given way to nepotism and corruption.

For example, it is common practice in Mexico for a teaching job to be inherited. If no family member is interested in taking up a father's or uncle's teaching position, the job would be sold to the highest bidder. The union would also decide upon the allocation of government subsidies for housing, health, and scholarships.

"The inheritance and sale of jobs has ended," Chauyffet tweeted when the Senate passed the education bill with 102–22." Merit is the ideal means of access to, and progress in, a teaching career."

ELBA ESTHER GORDILLO

Many Mexicans were surprised to learn that the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE) supported the government reforms. With an estimated 1.4 million members, the SNTE is the largest workers' union in South America. In the past it almost singlehandedly managed to block any attempt to reform the country's schooling system.

No doubt, the SNTE's sudden support is related to the arrest of its president, Elba Esther Gordillo, in February 2013. The 68-year-old stands accused of embezzling some $150 million to support her, reportedly, lavish lifestyle. Gordillo had been the SNTE's president since 1989 and, due to the SNTE's clout, was known as one of the “king makers" of Mexican politics.

Mexico's other major union is the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE), which did not support the reforms. It was formed in 1979 as a counterweight to the SNTE, which it deemed too close to the powers that be in Mexico City. The CNTE has some 250,000 members, mainly in the south of the country, which have taken to the streets for almost a year, at times supported by disenchanted SNTE members.

However, the teachers' strikes by and large failed to generate popular support. Polls showed that 55% of Mexicans defined educational reform as a top priority for the country, while 59% of the residents of Mexico City supported the police in using force to break up strikes.

Seeing the numerous scandals that plagued education, most Mexicans believe that something needs to be done, even though not everyone agrees that the current reforms and, ultimately, privatization are the ultimate solution. Critics warn that the government initiative lacks detail. Evaluating teachers alone is no guarantee of better education. It should be part of a comprehensive scheme to improve education in all facets.

In addition, the government founded the National Institute of Education Evaluation to create a unified teaching evaluation system. Eventually, however, the hiring and firing of teachers will be done by the local authorities. There is a danger that old habits will live on, albeit in other hands.

One thing is certain, for the Peña Nieto government, there is much more at stake than just education. If these reforms work out well, the authorities will have a lot less trouble convincing the Mexican people of the blessings of privatization in a core of other sectors.