Mexican president pushes on with compulsory higher education plan

Andres Manuel López Obrador’s controversial proposal could force lawmakers to reconsider the legal age of adulthood

February 27, 2019
Man sits at child’s desk
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Mexico’s president is pushing ahead with controversial plans to make university study compulsory, a move that could force lawmakers to reconsider the legal age of adulthood in the country.

Andres Manuel López Obrador’s published plans for educational reform state that “preschool education, primary, secondary and higher education will be obligatory”, and declare that these levels make up the “basic” education required of citizens.

Mr López Obrador – known as “Amlo” – would support the policy by making higher education free and by opening 100 new universities in his first term. Sector leaders have questioned how such a plan would be funded at a time when existing public institutions are suffering major funding cuts.

A second clause in the government policy, stating that parents “must be responsible for their children receiving compulsory education…in the terms established by law”, has sparked further confusion.

The age of majority for Mexicans is 18. Very few students start higher education before that age, so if the law is passed, parents will be required to force their adult children to enrol.

Alma Maldonado, a higher education researcher at Mexico City’s Center for Research and Advanced Studies at the National Polytechnic Institute, said the clause was “a big mistake”.

“Imagine,” she said. “They are all adults. You cannot make them do anything. But now Mexicans have to send their kids on to higher education or they are breaking the law.”

Francisco Marmolejo, the World Bank’s lead tertiary education specialist, who began his career as an academic in Mexico, agreed that it was “impossible” to place the responsibility on parents without further changes in law.

“What is needed is a system with equitable access opportunities to a diversified arrangement of post-secondary educational institutions,” he said. “I don’t know of any country in the world in which tertiary education is mandatory.”

The proposals are being discussed in Mexico’s National Congress, where Mr López Obrador’s party has a majority. “However, they need some votes to pass institutional change,” said Dr Maldonado, “so that opens a small window for us to try to influence the initiative.”

An alternative education proposal drafted by a group of rebel scientists – led by Dr Maldonado – is being discussed alongside the government’s own after receiving public backing from the opposition parties.

Some remain certain that Mr López Obrador’s proposals will require several amendments before they are voted through, with opposition members demanding that the government provide an accurate estimate of the costs of the reforms.

But others predict that the new president will find a way to push ahead regardless.

Beatriz Rumbos, dean of actuarial sciences, mathematics and statistics at Mexico City’s Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology, said: “If anything, we have seen that Amlo keeps his promises, no matter how ill-advised they may be.

“The ‘100 universities plan’ is one of these promises that must be kept, and he will claim that his government has delivered higher education to the poorest Mexicans.

“His motto is, ‘no young person will be left out of higher education,’” she added. “Now, what is the plan?”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Obviously neither AMLO nor anyone else in Mexico is really thinking of making higher education mandatory. Traditionally, the term "obligatory education" refers to the State´s obligation to provide free access to public institutions (AMLO´s not talking about making private institutions free), not the family´s obligation to send their children to school at all levels considered mandatory. However, it is true that the clause was a mistake and should be removed. Of more concern to most academics here is the removal in AMLO´s education proposal of the constitutional clause guaranteeing university autonomy. The president has said that omission was a "mistake," but his party´s lawmakers have yet to correct the clause in their proposal before the Mexican congress. And today´s revelations in the media that an as yet unnamed public university has been involved in money laundering to the tune of 30 billion pesos (USD 1.5 billion) is likely to fuel the arguments against autonomy.

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