Mexico has emerged as the most promising Latin American student recruitment market for UK universities.
UK institutions are running almost neck-and-neck with rivals from the United States by capturing a 30 per cent share of scholarship students backed by the Mexican government.
But imminent changes in the scholarship rules and in Mexican higher education mean recruiters from the United Kingdom must act quickly and work hard to hold their position, British Council officials based in Mexico have said.
The new administration of President Vicente Fox, which continues to ride on a wave of popular support, has introduced ambitious plans to reform Mexican higher education.
The proposals include forging closer links between Mexican universities and industry, significantly increasing the proportion of academics holding a masters or PhD qualification and expanding student numbers from about 2 million now to 3 million by 2006.
The British Council has helped UK institutions gain a key role in the academic qualification initiative, known as Promep. Already 100 Mexican professors have been recruited onto British PhD or masters programmes. British interests are also buoyed by commercial links developed through the Trade Partners UK initiative, which is backed by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Foreign Office, and a new free-trade agreement between Mexico and the European Union.
It will not be easy for UK institutions to reap the benefits of this market, which British Council chiefs predict will soon double in fee value to be worth up to £60 million to the UK.
Conacyt, Mexico's sole research council, provides graduates about 1,500 international scholarships each year. It plans to tie scholarship holders into specific industry-based areas of research and study and commit them to return to the institution or company through which they applied.
The goal of the approach was to develop "knowledge-based business opportunities", said Jaime Parada Avila, Conacyt's new general director. Scholarships would go to applicants planning to study at institutions that could offer an "integrated package" with industry links. Many of Conacyt's planned "areas of opportunity" coincide with such areas of UK research excellence as manufacturing systems, advanced materials, biotechnology and sustainable development.
Alan Curry, director of the British Council in Mexico, said the changes meant that the time was ripe for more British institutions to begin long-term investment in the market, tailored to Mexican needs. But he said that if UK institutions were to hold off growing competition from the US, Australia, Canada and Spain, they would have to do more than just send a representative to an education fair.
"The showcase approach is fine up to a point, but it does not address the need in this country for contacts with people at all levels. We have to provide the depth of contact to convince someone it is worth packing their bags and making a huge personal investment to go to the UK," he added.