Quality concerns over burgeoning private universities

A rapidly growing number of students in Mexico are attending private universities, but there are increasing concerns about the quality of many of the new institutions.

While the majority of Mexican students still attend public universities, which have around two million students – 70% of enrolment – restrictions on places at public universities have opened up significant opportunities for private institutions.

According to the Mexican Association of Universities and Higher Education Institutions, ANUIES, demand is growing in particular among students from relatively poor backgrounds, and they have been pushing for places at private universities, whose fees are often low.

The number of students attending these institutions has increased dramatically from 400,000 in 2006 to around one million this year, while the number of private universities in the country has jumped from 995 in 2006 to approximately 1,500.

Some private institutions such as Laureate’s University of the Valley of Mexico (Universidad del Valle de México), the country’s largest private institution, have become leading universities.

However, there are concerns that some private universities are charging too little to provide quality education. These are often described as ‘budget’ or ‘demand-absorbing’ and, according to ANUIES, provide undergraduate and masters degrees at exceptionally low fees, such as MXN1,500 (US$116) per month.

“There are some private universities that are very good,” said Ivonne Cárdenas Guzmán, evaluation and planning director at ANUIES, which lobbies and works with the government on a range of issues across the public and private university sectors.

“They carry a lot of prestige and charge high fees. But the problem is that with the huge demand, it's now very easy to open a new private university,” said Cárdenas, whose group has been calling for more regulation.

“We need to make it more difficult for new private universities to open, in order to ensure they are providing valuable courses.”

In response to demands for more regulation, the Ministry of Education is this year planning to introduce new measures aimed at improving standards in the private tertiary sector. The vast majority of institutions undergo no assessment or quality assurance at present.

The incoming system would see government-approved inspectors assessing private providers' services and defining their strengths and potential. If problems are highlighted, institutions will be required to take action to improve courses, signing a commitment to the education authorities.

The inspections and assessments will be carried out by national assessment bodies contracted by the education ministry.

Cárdenas said the new institutions must also continue to be transparent once they have been assessed. “It should be clear how they are performing, what their financial results are, and what kind of professors they are recruiting,” she said.

“Students also need to have much more information about their rights and privileges, and the universities’ obligations.”

While looking to assess the new private universities more rigorously, the government is also keen to continue to boost Mexico’s tertiary education overall enrolment, which remains relatively weak.

According to UNESCO statistics, Mexico's higher education enrolment rate was just 28% in 2009, against an average 37% for all of Latin America and Argentina’s 71% and Chile’s 59% rates.

A new student loan system for private university students called the Financing Programme for College Education was launched in January and is intended to provide MXN2.5 billion (US$194 million) to 23,000 students.

This was followed in February by the announcement that an additional 400,000 grants are to be made available through Mexico's National Programme of Scholarships for Higher Education, PRONABES, which provides free access to public university education to students from poor backgrounds.

According to the government, two million students have received university scholarships since PRONABES was launched in 2001.

However, Cárdenas warned that many students would still opt for cheaper courses at some of the new private universities, as more students need financial assistance if they are to have the option to attend public universities.

“PRONABES is a good programme but because demand is so huge now, there still aren't enough grants,” she says. “This is especially the case with courses such as medicine and engineering, which require more resources and are more expensive.”