Mexico hopes to swell its student population by 1 million over five years. Tony Tysome asks if it can succeed.
Mexican higher education has reached a point where it can no longer afford to stand still. A quick analysis of the sector, which caters for about 2 million students out of a national population of 100 million, reveals as many opportunities as threats and probably more weaknesses than strengths.
But then this could be said of the country as a whole. Mexico is endowed with many natural resources, in particular oil, but it is its human resources that will help the country keep pace with change. Herein lies the challenge.
The threats and weaknesses arise largely out of Mexico's centralist mindset, and the systems and bureaucracies that have been built over the years to support it.
President Vicente Fox's administration, elected last year after 71 years of Institutional Revolutionary Party rule, is still enjoying its honeymoon with the electorate. But it needs to push through some unpopular reforms if Mexico is to realise its full economic potential.
The governing National Action Party knows that education is key to developing human resources. With more than a third of Mexicans under 14, schools are the administration's first focus for investment. But the demographic bump is heading towards higher education. The number of 15 to 24-year-olds is close to its highest historical level and will account for about a fifth of the population for the next 20 years.
The centre-right government plans to meet the growing demand for higher education places by raising student numbers by 1 million by 2006, and to reach a total of 6 million by 2025. But the system must overcome some key problems if these aims are to be achieved.
The first is the centralist problem. About a fifth of the population is in Mexico City, the largest city in the world. This leaves many of the provincial states poorly funded and with relatively weak public services, including education.
The university system is dominated by one institution, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Unam), which accommodates 300,000 students, 15 per cent of the total. Unam is based in Mexico City and enjoys 100 per cent federal funding, an anomaly that is not appreciated by the 34 public state universities. It has been estimated that Unam's income, at 12 billion pesos (£948 million), has exceeded the budget for the whole of the state of Chiapas.
Unam rector Juan Ramon de la Fuente says that his institution generates half the country's research output, using 23 per cent of the federal budget for research and development. But he admits: "Unam is like a mirror of the rest of the country. We face some of the most acute contradictions."
The vulnerability of this system was exposed just over a year ago when a politically motivated strike closed Unam and brought it to the verge of collapse, exposing a gaping hole in higher education provision.
Efforts are being made to decentralise and re-balance the system. Mexico's national organisation for higher education institutions is preparing a proposal for a funding method designed to bring about a fairer distribution of resources. Unam is not involved. And Conacyt, the national council for science and technology, hopes to redistribute more of its annual 400 million peso budget, half of which goes to Mexico City, into the states and regions.
Much of the planned redistribution is geared towards meeting the needs of industry. Conacyt, for instance, plans to target strategic areas of applied research through regional university, industry and research centre consortia. The education ministry is in the process of establishing new technological universities, offering two-year vocationally oriented degrees, in each Mexican state. Many hopes for decentralisation are pinned on proposals for more online vocationally oriented courses.
But these reforms will do little to open up higher education if standards are not improved at the lower levels.
The number of Mexicans who have never received or completed elementary education continues to rise - it now accounts for 20 per cent of the population. And while illiteracy rates as a percentage of the population have fallen dramatically, the number of illiterate people has remained steady at about 6 million.
The problem is particularly acute outside Mexico City, where seven out of ten small settlements are recognised as having high levels of marginalisation.
With more than 10 million members of indigenous minorities in Mexico, mainly located throughout 24 states, divided into 62 ethnicities and speaking more than 80 tongues and dialects, this is an enormous challenge.
Mexico's higher education institutions will have to learn to work closely with the rest of the education system and with other sectors if they are to take part fully in the country's modernisation programme.
There is also significant potential to benefit from partnerships with foreign institutions. But there is little time for deliberation. Alan Curry, director of the British Council in Mexico, says: "The time is ripe. The opportunities have never been greater - but they won't last for ever."