Health & Education

Getting In Line


In December 2012, Mexico’s three main political parties together signed the Pacto por México (Pact for Mexico), an unusual occasion of political unity that christened 95 initiatives of focus for […]

In December 2012, Mexico’s three main political parties together signed the Pacto por México (Pact for Mexico), an unusual occasion of political unity that christened 95 initiatives of focus for newly elected President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the National Action Party (PAN), and the Part of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) together inked the agreement. In January 2013, the Green Party signed onto the pact, too. One of the most important initiatives listed was that of education reform.


Mexico’s educational system consists of basic, secondary, and higher education, with basic education being compulsory for all children between the ages of six and 14. Preschool is both optional and free for children between three and five years of age.

Basic education is supplied by federal, state, and local governments as well as by private institutions. Some 93% of basic education is government funded, with the remaining 7% privately funded.

For each primary school student, Mexico spends 15% of its per capita GDP and, for each secondary school student, 17% of its per capita GDP. This spending is lower than the OECD average of 23% and 26%, respectively.
Increased enrollment has been particularly overwhelming in Mexico over the past few decades. Between 1950 and 2000, student enrollment in the formal education system in Mexico jumped from 3.25 million to 28.22 million. As of 2016, this number has reached 36.3 million, or nearly 30% of the country’s population.
At the secondary school level, the gross enrollment rate has increased from 54% in 1991 to 90% in 2014. At the tertiary level, this rate increased from 15% in 1991 to 31.2% in 2016. However steep the rise in Mexico’s education enrollment rates, the regional average is already far ahead, with tertiary level rates already at 46% in 2010.

Poor Performance

In 2012, 15-year old Mexico students scored 81 points below the OECD average in mathematics and less than 1% of Mexican students are top performers in mathematics, while this rate averaged 13% among OECD countries. The enrollment rate of 15 to 19 year olds in Mexico stands at 53%. Only Colombia and China experience lower rates of 43% and 34%, respectively. The OECD average is 84%. Mexico is the only OECD country where 15-19 year olds are expected to spend more time in employment (6.3 years) than in education (5.3 years), and more than 20% of 15-19 year olds are neither employed nor in school. Second to last among OECD countries, only 37% of Mexican adults have received secondary education, a rate that is just above Turkey’s 34% and far below the OECD average of 75%.

Education hurdles lead to troubled outcomes in employment, with stark differences between men and women. Among those with below upper secondary education, only 44% of women are employed, compared to 88% of men. Some 56% of women with upper secondary education are employed, while 91% of men are employed with the same level of education. For those with tertiary education, 72% of women and 88% of men are employed. Ironically, Mexicans with higher levels of education completion are more susceptible to unemployment. In 2012, among 25-34 year olds with upper secondary or post-secondary non-tertiary education attainment, 5.6% were unemployed. Meanwhile, 6.7% of tertiary-educated 25-34 year olds were unemployed. Only in Korea and Mexico was this same phenomenon unfolding, only with a more narrow difference.

Strong Dissent Paralyses Reform

In 2013, the Mexican Secretariat of Public Education (SEC) introduced a measure that would make 12 years of education compulsory throughout Mexico. However, the law did not kickoff fully due to infrastructure and overall capacity setbacks. SEC hopes compliance will become a reality in 2020, but full compliance is turning out to be an unrealistic expectation. So many rural areas lack the resources to achieve such a goal, and many of the government’s attempts to transform the education sector are often met with aggressive opposition by the country’s teacher’s unions, the 1.4-million-strong Mexican Teachers Union (SNTE), and the 200,000-strong National Coordinating Committee (CNTE).

2013 is also when the newly elected president spearheaded the Pact for Mexico. The education reform the pact encompasses was bold and groundbreaking: it aimed to increase enrolment in secondary and tertiary education, provide financial and curricular autonomy to schools, and improve teacher quality and accountability at the primary and secondary levels. As far as improving teacher quality, the reform called to centralize the payment of teachers’ salaries at the federal level and implement tests for the teachers to measure their competency every three years. The new law underlined new terms for hiring, job security, wages, and promotion. It also called for teaching jobs to be open to competition from any college graduate, regardless of the subject the graduate studied. Additionally, teachers were barred from passing their jobs on to family members or selling them on the market, a traditional practice that allows family members to inherit the role as teachers and promised jobs for life in spite of their academic performance.

The reaction among teachers unions to the pact was fierce and in June 2016, even fatal. In September 2014, protests held by teachers led to police and gang members in Iguala, Guerrero killing six people, wounding 25 and kidnapping 43 students from a local school. The CNTE responded with nationwide protests that nearly crippled the country, particularly in Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Michoacán.

Teachers and their unions

According to the OECD, of the total budget for primary, secondary, and post-secondary non-tertiary education, more than 92% goes to staff compensation and 83% to teachers’ salaries. This is above the OECD average of 79% and 63%, respectively. More than 86% of spending on primary education goes to teachers’ salaries, the highest proportion among all OECD countries, and 79% of secondary education spending goes to teachers’ salaries, the third-highest proportion across OECD countries.

The OECD average student-to-teacher ratio is 15:1 among primary schools and 13:1 among secondary schools. Mexico’s ratio are at 28:1 and 30:1, respectively. While teachers’ unions have a history of being strong political and social forces in Mexico, their staunch opposition to governmental reforms may be hurting students more than helping them. Formerly, government officials have avoided reforms to avert confrontation with teachers unions, which are not only popular but also ridden with union officials who exercise political and financial power. For Mexican students to perform at levels comparable to their OECD counterparts and later contribute successfully to a modern economy, reforms are necessary, even if they are not necessarily welcome.