For decades, Mexican policy makers put a low priority on expanding access to higher education. Rodolfo Tuirán, Mexico's under secretary for higher education, wants to be part of an effort to reverse that.
Universities have long been "the domain of the elites rather than characterized by a level of massification that embraced the aspirations of the majority," he says.
Since 2000, the government has embarked on an ambitious campaign to increase the number of universities and technical colleges nationwide. The goal is to more than double the gross enrollment, a measure used by Unesco that divides the number of college students by the number of college-age people in a country, from 29 percent today to 65 percent by 2030.
The long-term strategy is a novelty in a country where most government programs are designed to last just six years—the length of a presidential term. Mr. Tuirán argues that Mexico must significantly increase access to higher education if it hopes to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty, low-skilled labor, and illegal migration to the United States.
He sat down with The Chronicle this month to discuss some of the biggest challenges facing Mexico's higher-education system. Mr. Tuirán, who holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Texas at Austin, also spoke about one of his favorite topics: efforts to increase student mobility within the Americas similar to the European Union's Erasmus program.
Q. Mexico is one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America, but the level of enrollment in higher education is among the lowest. How do you explain this apparent contradiction?
A. It's a historical problem. Over the last 10 years, we've done what hadn't been done before. It's an important effort, but it's not enough, because the central problem is what happened in the two previous decades. In 1950, Mexico had 30,000 students enrolled in higher education and had some 50 institutions of higher education, many of them very small. Today, it has almost 3,000 institutions of higher education and enrollment of more than 3 million students, or 3.1 million, if we take into account graduate students. So we're talking about 100 times the enrollment rate of 60 years ago. But, I repeat, it's not enough.
If you ask why Mexico is so behind other countries, well, those other countries probably had the wisdom to invest in higher education despite their economic difficulties. This didn't happen in Mexico. Investment stood still.
Q. What are the biggest challenges confronting higher education in Mexico?
A. The first is that Mexico, unlike many other countries, still lacks an integrated system of higher education. We have subsystems that are still not clearly integrated, even internally. That causes very complicated organizational problems that affect people's daily lives. Someone who studied at the Tijuana Institute of Technology and comes to Mexico City and wants to enter in National Polytechnic Institute would confront the same [bureaucratic] barriers as if he or she came from a different country.
So what are we doing and what do we need to do? Do what the European Union did—create a common space. If the E.U. is advancing rapidly and hopes to meet the original goals of the 2005 Bologna Accord, why can't we do the same in Mexico?
The second problem is that the higher-education system is very rigid, with few options for intermediate degrees. We all want to be licenciados [college graduates]. But if along the way we have to drop out, we don't have any option other than to become deserters. In contrast, in systems that are more integrated and flexible, there are lots of options for completing your studies.
The third problem is financing. It's a complicated issue in a country like ours, with so many economic problems and ups and downs. If you don't sustain an investment, you lose the chance to gain momentum. The country has to make a real commitment to higher education.
But there's a hitch. If we don't have enough high-school graduates who are demanding higher education, then we won't achieve this goal. ... We have to improve the quality of primary and secondary education in order to instill the idea that higher education is, in fact, a vehicle for social mobility. It's an idea that has gotten lost or diluted over the previous decades.
You don't get quality for free. You have to invest major resources and understand that much of the improvement depends on the teachers. Just 10 years ago, only 44 percent of professors at public universities in the states had graduate degrees. Today 85 percent of full-time professors at those universities have graduate degrees.
But Mexico won't be able to achieve significant advances if it doesn't focus on equal access. Among the richest 10 percent of the population, nearly 70 percent of young people go to college. In contrast, among the poorest 10 percent, not even one in 10 attend college. It's not just about expanding coverage. It's about expanding coverage and equality.
Q. You've been a major advocate of creating a common higher-education space within North America. However, many university officials in the United States and Mexico complain that the Mexican government isn't doing enough to support that goal.
A. It doesn't depend so much on the government as it does on the universities and their capacity to multiply their networks, agreements, and interactions in the region. If the researchers are waiting for the government to resolve things for them, they're going to have to keep waiting.
It also depends on the regional vision getting stronger. I've observed that since September 11, the United States has been more concerned with its internal security than with regional integration.
However, things are starting to happen within Ibero-America. Universia [a student-mobility program sponsored by the Spanish bank Santander] is proof of that. In May we hosted more than 1,000 rectors from Spain and Latin America, and a few weeks ago, we met with the officials responsible for higher education in the region.
Universia has proposed a kind of Erasmus for Ibero-America. That would involve 2.5 percent of students, professors, and researchers participating in exchange programs throughout Ibero-America, with between 600,000 and 800,000 students moving around the region by 2015. Imagine what that would mean in terms of resources.
Q. Europe appears to be more interested in creating exchange programs with Latin America. The European Union, for example, is investing millions of dollars in promoting such programs. How do you explain the contrast with the United States?
A. The American university system, if you compare it with Europe and other systems, is still very powerful. ... Of all the transnational students, the United States attracts one-fourth. So it's evident that their attention is on the whole world, not on regional integration.
We want Mexicans to participate more in the U.S. system, among others, because that will help us multiply and consolidate our own quality education system. Right now there are only between 13,000 and 15,000 Mexican students enrolled in U.S. universities, most of them in undergraduate programs. That's not counting the 135,000 Mexican students who already reside there.