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Mexico is the United States’ third-largest trading partner, but its ninth-largest source of international students -- and the 15th most popular destination for Americans studying abroad.

As for research collaboration, National Science Foundation statistics show that just 1.6 percent of all scientific articles coauthored by U.S. and foreign researchers involve a scientist from Mexico, which places the country about on par with Poland and Finland on this measure and compares to much higher proportions of papers coauthored with colleagues from Britain (14.1 percent), China (13.7 percent), Germany (13.3 percent) and Canada (11.8 percent). 

Observers of academic relations between the U.S. and Mexico think engagement between the two countries is low, but not entirely absent. “You can find people who have studied in the U.S. and vice versa, Mexican scientists working with their counterparts in the U.S. and vice versa, but we feel that we can do more or should do more,” said Guillermo Hernández-Duque, the director of strategic partnerships at Mexico’s National Association of Universities and Higher Education Institutions, which is known by its Spanish acronym, ANUIES. The association is bringing a delegation of 50 Mexican rectors to the American Council on Education’s annual meeting in Washington next month.

“Trade and commerce between the U.S. and Mexico is huge but the numbers in higher education, science and innovation are low,” Hernández-Duque said. “Even though we are neighbors, our numbers are low.”

Three overlapping governmental initiatives are underway to try to stimulate an increase in academic mobility and scientific collaboration between the two neighbors. The U.S.-Mexico Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation and Research, known as FOBESII, officially launched last May with the goal of promoting greater academic cooperation.

FOBESII exists alongside President Obama’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative, which aims to dramatically expand student mobility between the U.S. and Latin America as a whole, and the Mexican government’s Proyecta 100,000, which promotes U.S.-Mexico two-way exchange. The Mexican government awarded 7,500 Proyecta 100,000 scholarships for short-term intensive English study in the U.S. last year.

“The idea [for FOBESII] was that we were going to start working as governments together to put educational exchange at the top of our priorities for the first time,” said Stephanie Syptak-Ramnath, the public affairs officer for the U.S. embassy in Mexico.

“This is not an effort for governments alone,” Syptak-Ramnath continued. “In fact, we’re the bit players. This is the work of academia, the private sector, civil society and university associations on both sides.”

A joint year-end statement on FOBESII’s progress in 2014 highlights achievements, including a reported near doubling in the number of Mexican students coming to the U.S. -- attributable in large part to the Proyecta 100,000 scholarships -- and the expansion of relationships between the National Science Foundation and its Mexican counterpart, the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT). 

Visits on the part of American university presidents and governors to Mexico in 2014 resulted in an estimated two dozen new academic partnerships. Arkansas State University plans to build a new branch campus in the Mexican state of Querétaro (construction of which is currently delayed due to problems in providing sufficient water and power infrastructure on the original site), while Colorado State University is developing a research and teaching center in Baja California Sur.

The University of California -- which has long awarded cofinanced fellowships to doctoral and postdoctoral students from Mexico through a partnership with CONACYT -- has launched a systemwide initiative to increase engagement with Mexico, with a focus on student mobility and scholarly collaborations in the areas of energy, education, environment, health and arts and culture.

“We’ve had multiple activities across many campuses. Some of them are multicampus efforts, some of them are individual faculty efforts and everything in between,” said Cynthia R. Giorgio, the lead for the UC-Mexico Initiative and the associate chancellor at the Riverside campus. “What we have done is try to capture that activity under an umbrella of sorts.”

What the University of California is trying on a system level is what the U.S. and Mexican governments are attempting to do on a grander scale: consolidate existing activity and catalyze new collaboration. In 2014, the Mexican and U.S. governments held 6 workshops under the FOBESII umbrella and have devised a 72-point action plan focused on 4 main areas: academic mobility, language acquisition, workforce development and joint research and innovation. “The bottom line for all of this is our desire to work with the government of Mexico to create the most competitive regional workforce,” said Syptak-Ramnath.

Language barriers are one challenge to increasing collaboration. English proficiency levels are relatively low throughout much of Latin America and newly released data from the Modern Language Association show declines in the numbers of Americans studying Spanish -- and foreign languages in general -- at the university level.

Safety concerns pose another challenge. The number of Americans studying in Mexico dropped precipitously in 2010-11 due to concerns about drug-related violence, and the numbers have continued to decline, albeit at a much slower rate. According to Open Doors data, there were 3,730 Americans studying abroad in Mexico in 2012-13, which is down from a peak of about 10,000 back in 2005-6.

Many universities use U.S. State Department travel warnings as their main barometer for determining whether or not to send students to study in a particular country: some universities issue blanket bans for university travel to countries included on the State Department warning list, while others have processes in place whereby students can petition to go to those countries despite the warnings. There is a State Department travel warning for Mexico, but it is unique in that it includes a state-by-state assessment of conditions: “It states explicitly that there is no travel warning for Puebla, there is no travel warning for Querétaro, there is no travel warning for Mérida,” said Syptak-Ramnath. “This was the State Department’s effort to make very clear that issues happening in one state don’t impact issues in another state at all.”

Many leaders of Mexican universities say that the State Department advisory, even with the nuance about where it applies, has hurt their efforts to build ties in the U.S. 

Ali Janicek, the field director for the South Central U.S. for the Institute for Study Abroad, Butler University, recently surveyed institutions about their policies governing study abroad to Mexico. She said she collected information from more than 70 institutions, about half of which were public and half private, and found that the majority -- about 70 percent -- permit study abroad in Mexico but only in areas where no State Department travel advisory is in effect. Another 5 percent of institutions are more permissive, indicating that they are willing to consider petitions from students seeking to travel anywhere in Mexico. Twenty-five percent of universities said they do not allow study abroad in Mexico at all because of the State Department warning.

Janicek described herself as a “big proponent” of study abroad to Mexico. “I think there are so many reasons for study abroad in Mexico when you think about its proximity to us and when you think about affordability, even. Having programs in areas where flights costs less and where the cost of living is relatively low, that’s going to appeal to students who think they can’t study abroad. Beyond that, we’re so close to them in terms of trade.”

A common theme echoed in interviews was the need to better prepare students to work in an integrated North American economy. “We need to consolidate our North American community,” said Hernández-Duque, “and higher education can be one of the strongest propellers."

“If our economies are well integrated, how are we going to prepare students for that economy,” asked Joaquín Guerra Achem, the associate vice rector for international affairs at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, a university that stands out in the Mexican context for its internationalization efforts. The private university has offices all over the world, including four in the U.S., and boasts a 50 percent study abroad participation rate. Achem said the university, which hosted about 4,900 international students in 2014, has expanded the number of courses it offers in English. It requires its own students to obtain a minimum score of 520 on the paper version of the Test of English as a Foreign Language as a graduation requirement.

"If you’re in New Mexico or Arizona, people are very much interested in working with Mexico, but I think the emphasis should be stronger because we are living in the same region and we hoped 20 years ago when NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] was signed to have a stronger academic community,” said Jocelyne Gacel-Ávila, the vice dean of social sciences and humanities at the University of Guadalajara and president of the Mexican Association for International Education (known as AMPEI). She said that European collaboration with Mexican universities is much more robust than U.S.-Mexico engagement.

“Of course, Mexico has its own responsibility,” Gacel-Ávila said, noting that Mexico needs to further develop its own higher education sector and research infrastructure. “There is a lot of disparity between Mexico and the States in terms of higher education, so that doesn’t help, but the good thing is I think it’s improving. It’s a pity that the problem of security has probably made things harder to happen. If we didn’t have this factor, I think cooperation would probably be much higher now.”

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