So education should be more vocational? In 1995 Monterrey Tech, a private university with 80,000 students and 30 campuses peppering the map of Mexico, discovered that 40 per cent of its graduates never worked in their field of study. Ten years into their careers, only a quarter were still working at the job they had supposedly trained for.
This was no shock-horror tale of wasted learning. Graduates of the Instituto Technico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey were doing very well. At that time they accounted for 25 per cent of Mexico's top executives, and 22 per cent of the country's state governors. Though as Patricio Lopez, ITESM's vice-president for technical innovation, points out: "We have no courses in political science."
The cynical explanation would be that it is not what you know, but who you know. But the view of the administrators was that however graduates land their jobs, they should be given the best possible preparation for them.
What followed would be hard to duplicate in a European institution. In 1996, Monterrey Tech's top management went into conclave and decided that from now on the institution would have a new mission. Knowledge? Anyone can do knowledge. The new battleground would be skills, values and attitudes. Graduates would set forth ready to create jobs, increase competitiveness, promote democracy and improve education, for these were identified by the Monterrey Tech administration as the key challenges facing Mexico in the 1990s.
Students would learn leadership and entrepreneurship. They would be socially responsible and environmentally aware. Faculty were told bluntly that they would have to learn critical thinking and respect for other people.
Technology had to change. The university's satellite network, with 12 uplinks and 1,124 receiving sites, is fine for televised lectures. But student-centred learning required new technology, with easy access to the internet, home-grown learning resources and a "virtual library" of online subscription journals. The satellite sessions became interactive, with students responding through the internet.
From a shortlist of six learning environments, IBM's Lotus LearningSpace was chosen after a six-month evaluation. "What we liked most was the capability of working offline," Lopez says.
This matters because from August, all students will be required to have laptop computers. Even with a network socket for every two laptops, and 1,700 dialup lines, students cannot be plugged in all the time.
About 200,000 copies of the mission statement (http://www.sistema.itesm.mx/ mapa.htm) were printed. Courses were remodelled. Assessment was reformed. Anyone trying to get through a course by merely learning the facts would be exposed and shamed. Now, Lopez says, "a student may have to repeat the course in thermodynamics because he did not learn critical thinking." Honesty was nurtured by getting students to assess each other, and teamwork by, well, getting them to work in teams. Students are young and willing to learn. They caught on quickly and if surveys can be trusted, actually put in extra study hours each week. The toughest part was to re-educate the faculty.
Some saw the irony of being ordered to think critically by middle-aged administrators in suits. "You are teaching me how to redesign my course, and you lecture me for ten hours," they complained. Others wheedled: "This is a great method. But it does not work for my course. I have to lecture." Tough, when you have been told you can interrupt the students only three times in each hour, for no more than five minutes each time.
When a class splits into teams to design heat exchangers, each team's work is assessed by its own members and by other teams. There is also a conventional exam. Students are told to mark other members of their own team "by what they contribute to your knowledge". The team's final score is the lowest mark achieved by any of its members. Instead of kicking away ladders, bright students learn to share what they know.
Teachers have to find 300 hours for retraining, some of it taken out of vacations. Lopez insists that "it is not a mandatory thing. You are free not to do it". You would also be mad not to. There are pay rises for lecturers who redesign their courses and get them accepted university-wide. They face assessment by students each semester. Fail twice and you are on probation; fail again and you are out.
There are structural reasons why Monterrey Tech's rector Rafael Rangel and his team can act as charismatic business leaders, imposing cultural change from the top down, while the teachers apparently respond like a hungry, ambitious sales force.
The university is fully private. By law it gets no government support. It is run as a business. There are no trade unions. In Europe the chief allegiance of academics may be to their subject and their department, but here they are constantly reminded of their role in the organisation.
Tuition fees are around US$6000 a year. The laptops cost students an additional US$60 a month over three years, 26 per cent of students have a scholarship or loan and a free place is offered to the "best" student from each high school in the country. But, inevitably, most ITESM students come from better-off families. "There is nothing we can do unless the government gives us the money for education," Lopez says.
He believes providing and housing desktop computers would have been even more costly. This single institution has a computer network twice the geographical size of the United Kingdom's Janet, and Lopez is its technological visionary.
But he and his colleagues insist that education comes first. "If we had to choose between technology and the new educational model, we would certainly choose the new educational model."
Luckily it is not a choice they have to make.