President-elect plans to grow university enrolment by 50%

Mexico’s incoming president has an ambitious goal: to increase university enrolment by 50%. Responding to figures showing that his country suffers one of the lowest university participation rates in the region, the 46-year-old former governor hopes to create 1.5 million additional seats by the time he leaves office in 2018.

The challenge comes at a cost for president-elect Enrique Pena Nieto, who captured the 1 July election by a slim 6% margin (some are contesting the results).

With a country climbing out of economic recession, his educational goals are competing with promises to cut the homicide rate by 50% and help 15 million Mexicans climb out of poverty.

Today, the Mexican government allocates a mere 0.65% of GDP to higher education – well below the country’s legal mandate of 1%. Through improving tax collection and eliminating wasteful spending, Nieto hopes to redirect more money to universities, calling the additional funds “an investment, not an expense”.

“I am convinced that the best asset the country has is its people and, by way of education, each Mexican can and should have more opportunities to write their own success story,” Nieto said on the campaign trail.

With only 2.5 million students enrolled in Mexico’s universities, the country’s participation rate of 30% falls far behind several of its Latin American cohorts, including Argentina (68%), Uruguay (65%) and Chile (55%).

According to the office of Mexico’s public education secretary, seven out of 10 young people don’t receive any university education at all; that means that 7.5 million Mexicans between the ages of 19 and 23 are either already working or unemployed.

Historical neglect

But the low enrolment rates do not stem from Mexico’s economic shortcomings, according to higher education analyst F Humberto Sotelo. He said the situation is more the result of historic neglect on the part of political leaders.

“The backwardness of our country in the area of enrolments is an unambiguous expression of a state policy that fails to perceive the strategic importance of the role of higher education today,” he said.

Current President Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s first head of state to work towards the expansion of enrolments, created 92 additional higher education institutions and maximised existing resources. During his six years in office, enrolment climbed from 24% to 30%.

Yet the country is still far from where it aims to be.

“Today, one in three young people lacks the ability to attend preparatory school, and two in three young people who want to study at a university are powerless to do so,” said Nieto, who ran on the centre-left Institutional Revolutionary Party ticket.

“That’s where our greatest challenge lies.”

A new focus on online learning

Nieto, who will assume office on 1 December, said he would focus his efforts on the creation of a National Digital University and online learning. Under his plan, students will be able to access 13 majors through powerful technology platforms available in 135 access centres across the country.

He has chosen to focus primarily on digital learning because it will take time to develop the infrastructure necessary to expand the number of physical seats, he said. “Many years will pass before we will be able to reach this goal.”

He also said a focus on technology as a medium will “allow Mexico to intelligently and competitively assert itself in the international context”.

But Luis Cesar Torres, an expert in distance education at Universidad Pedagógica Nacional, warned that expanding distance learning might not be as simple as Nieto posits.

“[Distance learning] is not the cure-all,” he said, pointing to infrastructure expenses, training of professors and designing a curriculum. “It’s one more option in expanding university education.”

He said online learning could work if it were effectively regulated and managed for quality, and added that if quality is sacrificed for simple numbers, there’s a risk that students will receive “empty and meaningless degrees. We must work to prevent this.”

Among Nieto’s other proposals for higher learning are the establishment of multi-annual budgets to help universities better plan and meet funding priorities. He also wants to expand athletic and post-school opportunities to contribute to the overall mental and physical development of the nation’s youth.