Penny-a-term university fights fees

March 5, 1999

Students from the world's largest university, the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM), come from more prosperous sections of society, a survey has shown.

Salvador Malo Alvarez, secretary of planning for UNAM, said the survey of just under 30,000 UNAM students showed that about 80 per cent came from families whose income was at least four times higher than the national minimum. More than half owned their own homes.

Mr Malo Alvarez said the figures showed that the economic position of students had improved in the past ten years, as had the educational level of parents. About 13 per cent of families had six or more dependants.

The findings have inevitably fed the debate as to whether UNAM should charge more than nominal student fees.

These have remained unchanged since they were fixed in 1948 at 20 centavos (Pounds 0.01) per term. Mr Malo Alvarez was quoted in the newspaper La Jornada as asking whether the university should still continue to "privilege people who have no economic necessity for it".

The economic difficulties faced by UNAM have revived the debate, which also surfaced in the 1980s and 1990s. Attempts under the last two rectors to revise fee levels have been thwarted.

Spokesmen for the present rector, Francisco Barnes de Castro, who has been quoted as saying that 70 per cent of students could afford to pay higher fees, deny there are definite plans for an increase. It was, they said, merely an option if the university failed to win more government funding.

Supporters of higher fees argue that they would increase the resources available to the university and allow a system of grants for students from poor homes. Student unions, which defeated the previous attempts to raise fees, warned they would mobilise against any new bid.

Mr Malo Alvarez told La Reforma that the government grant of 8,000 million pesos (Pounds 500 million) awarded to UNAM for the coming academic year was about 400 million pesos short of the amount required to maintain its current spending after a year of 18 per cent inflation.

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