Funding concerns as Mexico moves closer to free higher education

Academics say universities are in the dark over their future funding levels, and ‘compulsory’ higher education policy creates overly high expectations for students

March 29, 2021
A staff member oversees students taking their UNAM admission exam while following the measures to avoid Covid-19 at Olimpico Universitario Stadium on August 19, 2020 in Mexico City,
Source: Getty

Mexico is pushing ahead with plans to introduce free and universal access to higher education, but questions remain over how the policy will be funded and implemented.

The General Law on Higher Education would mean that students would no longer have to pay fees to attend public universities and the state would be required to guarantee access to higher education to everyone who seeks it.

A previous version of the bill was set to make university study mandatory for students, with a clause stating that parents “must be responsible for their children receiving compulsory education”, but this was removed.

Public universities in Mexico currently charge low fees for tuition and other costs, with the highest prices reported as being about $250 (£182) per term, but many students still cannot afford to attend university and the amount of financial aid available tends to be low.

The bill, which also includes new policies aimed at tackling gender discrimination and violence, was approved by the Lower Chamber this month, having been rubber-stamped by the Senate in December. It now needs to be agreed by at least 17 of the 32 states and ratified by the president to become federal law.

Santiago Castiello-Gutiérrez, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, said the “new law represents a win for almost all stakeholders”, given that there has been a lack of legislation on the higher education sector and that it “has the approval of most political parties”.

However, he said, there was still “ambiguity on how exactly this law will allow for higher education to be ‘free’ for everyone”.

“The mechanisms described so far seem to be incumbent upon each year’s budget established by the Ministry of Finance. Therefore, fears that reforming the constitution to establish higher education as free and compulsory is just populist rhetoric are not completely gone,” Dr Castiello-Gutiérrez said.

“In one of the most unequal countries, free and mandatory higher education is a step in the right direction – but that alone will not create universal access.”

Alma Maldonado, a higher education researcher at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies at Mexico’s National Polytechnic Institute, agreed that the “main problem” was around the financing of the policy.

“We don’t have the money to guarantee that higher education will be free,” she said.

“Fees are very useful and important for the finances of universities because they don’t receive enough public funding…The law doesn’t include any mandatory budget [for institutions].”

Dr Maldonado added that the move to require the state to provide university places for all interested students – which is still being termed compulsory higher education – was “problematic” because it “creates high expectations for students”.

“It’s not that the students want just to continue to higher education, but they want to enter into a particular institution. That is not going to be guaranteed at all,” she said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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