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Earlier posts in this column have discussed the outlook for higher education in Latin America and last week, Rodriguez Gomez and Maldonado-Maldonado reviewed Mexico’s proposed policies,where last month federal and state legislatures passed Constitutional reforms with major implications for the educational system. Among the many changes proposed, higher education will not only become the right of every individual but compulsory. What does this mean in a country like Mexico? While I applaud the aspiration to universal higher education there are some important consequences of that decision to consider. In this blog, I want to share thoughts on some of the implications of choosing this path in my country.

Seeking Universal Access to Higher Education

In his influential essay 40 years ago, Martin Trow theorized the evolution of educational systems of higher education from elite, to mass, to universal defined by their coverage. He also defined attitudes towards access as privilege, right or obligation. However, Trow was basing his framework on patterns of student enrollment, not university or government policy. So, when the Mexican state (a system of mass enrollment) makes higher education compulsory, confusion arises. To the best of my knowledge, there is no other country that mandates that its citizens pursue tertiary studies. However, by guaranteeing access rather that requiring attendance, the Nordic countries and Germany—countries that also happen to offer higher education free to its citizens—are getting closer to universal coverage. Those systems work because the conditions surrounding higher education are favorable: public investment in education, high tax revenues, access to and high attainment in lower educational levels, employment outlook after graduation, among others. The context in Mexico is however, quite different.

Issues affecting higher education in Mexico

Access to higher education in Mexico is among the lowest for other OECD countries with only a third of the college-age population enrolling. Even. though access to all levels of education has grown exponentially in the last decades, the attainment rate remains a big problem. Experts estimate that out of 100 children who begin elementary school, only 21 will graduate from college. 

Social inequality. Mexico ranks third to last among OECD countries in terms of economic equality. Over 46% of the population in Mexico lives below the national poverty line and the per capita income for the top and bottom 20% of the population is USD $34,624 and $2,534 respectively. Under this circumstances, higher education is a luxury that many cannot afford, both in terms of the direct costs and the opportunity cost that results when an individual cannot work full-time. Social stratification is also high among those who enter higher education: 45% of the population with middle to high income of the age cohort enroll vs 11% of the poorest in urban areas and 3% of the rural youth. 

Cost of education.The Mexican Constitution establishes that education should be “secular, free and compulsory.” Public higher education, while not entirely free, has a very low “sticker price” for tuition and fees. The top-ranked public universities charge students tuition and mandatory fees that range between USD $1 and $250 per term. Still, many students from lower SES cannot afford to move to a large city and pay for living expenses to enroll in a university. And since universities are not generating enough revenue from tuition to offer generous scholarships, the available aid for students tends to be low. 

With the new Constitutional reform, the state will need to guarantee access to everyone who seeks it, regardless of their ability to pay. But free education will actually cost a lot. Experts estimate that the government will have to invest an additional USD 300 to 600 million annually on top on the current budget allocated to higher education. 

Quality of higher education. Between 1990 and 2015, the number of public higher education institutions in Mexico grew 114% while the number of private institutions grew by 450%. Such rapid growth raises concerns about quality. The most recent data shows that only approximately 3,000 of the more than 20,000 programs registered at the Education Ministry and that collectively enroll close to 40% of all higher education students are accredited. So, not only is two-thirds of the age group not enrolled in higher education, but more than half of those who are, are in a non-accredited program. Even if the government says that available space is not (or will not be) the issue, the perception remains that the number of “quality spaces” is very limited.

Employment. Mexico ranks high among countries in terms of the percentage of the employed population with less than upper secondary education (64% in Mexico vs the 55% average for the OECD) and ranks low on the percentage of the population with tertiary education who are employed (74% in Mexico vs 80% average OECD). 

Approximately one fourth of the college-age cohort are neither employed nor studying or training (the so-called “nini’s” –ni estudian, ni trabajan). Gender is significant here—10% of the nini’s are men and 30% are women. Given that most nini´s dropped out of secondary or tertiary education, their successful completion of higher education is very unlikely.

Moving Forward with Compulsory Higher Education

Despite the good intentions of legislating that every young person in Mexico should be given the right to pursue higher education, the government needs to consider issues mentioned above and their implications. A comprehensive plan to address issues affecting access and success is needed. So far, the federal government’s plan to boost access relies only on opening 100 new universities and providing students with different forms of grants. These measures, while popular among some segments of the population, have been questioned by many experts who fear they might be motivated by electoral payoffs. The proposed policies lack a comprehensive vision—there is no mention of improving secondary education as the essential pipeline to higher education. There is serious lack of policies to focus on success indicators such as development of competencies, learning outcomes, and increased graduation rates that would reflect the quality of what tertiary institutions are accomplishing.


An extended version of this essay will be published in a future issue by the Journal of Comparative and International Higher Education (JCIHE). Given the importance of time in discussing this topic, the author wishes to thank JCIHE’s editor for allowing publishing highlights from the article in this blog.

Santiago Castiello-Gutiérrez is a PhD candidate and research assistant at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona. 



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