Mexican scientists hit by cuts question plan for new universities

New president pursues pet project while existing institutions struggle to make ends meet

February 17, 2019
Source: Shutterstock

Researchers in Mexico have warned that crippling funding cuts are undermining universities and science as tensions grow over the new government’s priorities for the sector.

Andres Manuel López Obrador – known as “Amlo” – won the presidential vote by a landslide last year, earning support for his promises to tackle widespread corruption and to rebuild the country’s education system.

A major initiative announced during Mr López Obrador’s campaign was a pledge to build 100 new universities, allowing “every person access to higher education”. This month, the president reaffirmed a proposed budget of 1 billion pesos (£40.4 million) for the scheme, angering academics at a time when existing institutions are struggling to make ends meet.

Official figures from the National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt) show a 47.2 per cent cut in public science spending since 2014.

Last month, the Ministry of Finance introduced new taxes on scholarships and bursaries, cancelled insurance policies, travel expenses and the purchase of laboratory equipment, “in addition to suspending new hires and prohibiting the hiring of personnel for fees”, according to Eugenia Rolan Vera, a senior researcher for Mexico’s Center for Research and Advanced Studies (Cinvestav), the country’s major non-governmental research institute.

Because salaries for researchers and university lecturers have historically been low in Mexico, scholarships and workplace benefits typically make up 20-60 per cent of university salaries. The removal of these incentives means that most people in the sector have experienced a 10-25 per cent fall in their monthly income, according to Dr Rolan.

In an open letter, Dr Rolan warns that “cuts to public spending for science and technology and dictated direct measures of reduction to [academics’] income” are creating a sense of disillusionment among the country’s top scientific minds.

Times Higher Education understands that Cinvestav is in the process of drafting a petition outlining researchers’ concerns to present to parliament alongside an alternative funding proposal.

Francisco Marmolejo, the World Bank’s lead tertiary education specialist, said that Mexico’s funding cuts were an issue of “real concern”.

“The plan to establish new universities is an intriguing one because it intends to tackle issues of inequality of access in higher education, but at this point [its policies] are not clear at all,” he said.

“My perspective is that first [the] government should present more detail on its plans [for higher education reform] since currently it is only a very general proposition. The lack of clarity of the proposal leads to too much speculation.”

The new president has been criticised over his government’s controversial hiring practices; earlier this month, Conacyt issued an apology for hiring David Alexir Ledesma, an undergraduate believed to have personal connections to Amlo, in a deputy director role at the organisation.

Meanwhile, published proposals for educational reform restated Mr López Obrador’s desire to build new universities but made no mention of the autonomy of public universities – a historically sensitive subject for Mexican higher education that has until now been enshrined by law. Mr López Obrador later apologised for what he said was a “mistake”.

Daniel Herrera Luckie, a PhD student in chemical engineering at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico, said that his own institution had “reduced the benefits and increased the [work]load”, making it challenging for academics to tutor more than two graduate students a year.

“If the system is not [already] failing, it is on the way to doing it under Amlo,” he said.

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