Student victory in debt crisis

May 17, 1996

Mexican students overseas have won a battle with their government to safeguard their grants from cuts in public spending programmes.

When the Mexican exchange rate and foreign debt crisis broke in December 1994 it looked like overseas student grants would be an easy target for cuts. By April 1995 the government science and technology board, Conacyt, started sending out smaller cheques to Mexican students studying abroad.

But the move met considerable resistance and the plight of foreign students was widely reported in the press. An official was sent to France, where the protests were loudest, to calm things down.

Alberto Cadera, head of the communications division, said: "Since then cuts in Conacyt have fallen on the administrative and finance sections, the director's office, publications and communications." The overall budget is the same for 1996 as it was in 1994 but a higher proportion is devoted to exchange-related spending which includes student grants for studying abroad.

Government opinion was swayed in favour of students overseas by meetings with representatives of foreign universities from Europe, Asia and the United States. It became convinced that allowing its best students to study abroad was the best way of getting access to high-quality advanced education and research facilities and building international academic relations.

In 1995, Conacyt financed 3,360 postgraduate students, a rise of 32 per cent over 1994. To avert a brain drain the agency offers returning students financial support for one year while job hunting. If that does not work they will get a further year's support from the National Research System's programme to help returning academics.

Students have preferential treatment when being placed in one of the academic and research institutions financed by Conacyt, all of which are oriented towards the country's perceived scientific and technological needs and are biased towards links with industry.

Students who stay at home are not so lucky. Last year Conacyt funded 12,840 domestic postgraduates, a rise of 40 per cent on 1994. However, they received only 44 per cent of the grants budget in 1995 compared to 55 per cent in 1994.

This year's allocation is more likely to send domestic students into biology, physics, medicine, chemistry and health sciences. Up to 1995 universities in Mexico City were favoured with over half of the budget, this year 61.4 per cent will go to universities in the provinces.

Total expenditure on science and technology research is planned to increase to 0.7 per cent of gross national product by the year 2000. This would be a major increase as it has never risen above 0.40 per cent of GNP over the past 15 years.

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