UK and Mexico get closer

It is normal practice in advance of state visits that a series of agreements and 'deliverables' are assembled, promoting each country's strength and commitment to collaboration and liaison.

The state visit of the President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, to the UK in March was no exception in this respect but, importantly, the visit offered commitment around a set of educational opportunities that present a broad and deep vision of sustainable transformational change in the educational engagement between the UK and Mexico.

The market for postgraduate recruitment will be significantly extended as a result of a Mutual Accreditation and Recognition of Awards agreement signed during the visit.

When finally completed in October 2015 this agreement will allow up to 150,000 Mexican students, currently blocked from using their existing qualifications for further academic progress, to consider study in the UK.

With current numbers of Mexican students on programmes in the UK standing at a 'rather modest' 2,000 or so, an immediate legacy increase of potential students is significant and will, of course, be continually topped up year on year.

Additionally, the same agreement seeks to open the door to extensive and new transnational education development, dual awards, in-course mobility and the opportunity for remote campus agreements and partnership delivery.

Future development of the agreement over time will include professional qualifications and structures for undergraduate entry, all aimed at delivering a 'step change' in academic collaboration and development.

An expert working group will consult closely with UK tertiary institutions to ensure that the agreement is fit for purpose.

Research initiatives

The UK-Mexico Visiting Chair initiative proposed by the Mexican government is evidence of a deeper commitment to leading-edge joint research.

Fuelled by the Newton Fund commitment to Mexico worth over £8 million per year (US$12.6 million), such research collaboration can not only be extended across innovative and penetrative research solutions, but can be strongly supported by both researcher capability training and supportive institutional links and connections.

A further commitment to new large-scale language learning (English and Spanish), combined with a set of middle school quality assurance initiatives, is aimed at releasing trapped talent in the potential 20,000 feeder schools in Mexico.

Collectively over time, these will help to provide access to bright and competent young people able and willing to take advantage of the academic opportunities that the UK can offer.

Broad-based scholarship schemes such as Science without Borders in Brazil are continually discussed, but Mexico is keen to work through niche and high-level scholars, underpinned by broad transnational and international recruitment agreements.

The commitment to triple the number of Chevening Scholars through an agreement at the state visit, is therefore welcome – but moving from 20 scholarships to 60 leaves plenty of room for further high-scale scholarship collaboration.

Whilst 'at scale' national scholarship initiatives may remain a point for discussion for the immediate future, there are nevertheless active broad-based, sector-wide opportunities for exchange, recruitment and collaboration.

The Newton Fund is recognised in this respect, not as a time-limited opportunity for collaboration on science and innovation, but as the trigger for a long term 'knitting together' of academic interests – the 'Post Newton' environment of collaboration is already in plan.

UK in Mexico

The Dual Year of ‘Mexico in the UK and UK in Mexico’ is building further opportunities for the UK in Mexico and vice versa.

As the year reaches its autumn period (between September and December) the profile of the UK across Mexico will reach a peak, with strong engagement in the Mexico Week of Science and Technology, the Guadalajara International Book Fair – academic and science strands, and joint visits or scoping trips between the UK and Mexico.

Mexico is 'federal'. Its states operate with independent drive and initiative. Agreements at national level are therefore important in setting the framework for collaboration, but individual states need individual attention.

The Mexican state of Neuvo León seeks to establish itself as the new international centre of innovation, Hidalgo is the 'Silicon valley of Mexico' and Mexico City DF sets its vision around large scale equity and social vibrancy.

Their embedded universities, Tec de Monterrey, University of Guadalajara and the National Autonomous University of Mexico or UNAM, have a clear role, reinforced by the President himself at a meeting of rectors recently – local impact through international connection, and the bringing of hope and dignity to youth.

We would do well to recognise the value of the second of these tenets and not just focus on the first.

Just as the UK would, Mexico aims to set its higher education achievement in the context of national success. It will therefore actively work with collaborating UK institutions and agencies far beyond individual student opportunity, continually seeking the connections in research, innovation and technology transfer that will underpin long-term growth, development and opportunity.

The state visit of the President of Mexico therefore marked a commitment to make the transformational change that Mexico needs and seeks to implement in partnership with the UK – they have declared themselves ready and able; it is up to the UK to respond.

John Bramwell is the British Council's director of education for the Americas. This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in the current edition of International Focus.