Mexico's familiar woes

February 20, 1998

Mexico is six time zones away from Britain, and has a markedly different political system and history. But the higher education issues making the news at the beginning of 1998 have a distinctly British feel.

Funding concerns are rife, academic pay has fallen sharply since 1980 with unions sniping at employers and each other over what to do about it, and there are arguments over academic autonomy.

Worries are greatest at the University of Queretaro (UAQ), which has been struggling desperately with its finances for the past four years. The 47-year-old institution - with 13,000 students the largest of eight universities in the state of Queretaro - has a cumulative deficit of 110 million pesos (Pounds 8 million), equivalent to 46 per cent of its annual budget.

Its problems deepened last autumn when Queretaro was one of the states whose governorship was taken from Mexico's ruling party, the PRI, by the right-wing opposition PAN. Asked for emergency assistance by the university, new state governor Ignacio Loyola proved as unbending as the saint for whom he was named.

Mr Loyola said the state would be better off investing in its roads. He said the PRI had used the university to give salaries to friends and political allies and that the institution's salvation was in its own hands. He was particularly critical of a system under which academics can retire on full pay after 29 years' service.

Leading members of his party have called for the state to be given oversight of the university's finances and the right to make recommendations on its spending. The other parties and the university rector, Zepeda Garrido, who blames the financial worries on underfunding by the state and federal governments, described this as a threat to its academic autonomy.

Opposition state assembly members accuse the PAN of seeking to privatise UAQ, whose fees are already the highest of Mexico's 34 public universities. Loyola said: "They must recognise that autonomy is not sovereignty."

Pay has provoked a rash of disputes. The 3,500-strong STUNAM union at the giant Mexico City-based National University, which has over a quarter of a million students and 29,000 academic staff, released a survey showing academic salaries had fallen by 76.9 per cent in real terms since 1980.

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