Health & Education

School’s Out For Summer


Mexico is facing a number of challenges to its education reform agenda. Disputes between the federal government and the CNTE have dominated the public policy arena.

President Peña Nieto has put Mexican education at the forefront of his agenda for change. Committed to bringing in a standards-based accountability system and performance-based incentives to Mexico’s deficient education system, he has been adamant about the role of education in the development of the country. Nonetheless, critics of his reform agenda have condemned it as having a far from inclusive pedagogy. Debate surrounding Mexican education reform has thus continued to dominate the political arena.

Education consistently ranks among the top issues that concern Mexican parents and 94% of Mexico’s primary school children are enrolled in the public school system. Unlike neighboring states, there has yet to be a mass exodus of the middle-classes away from public education. However, stakeholders in the education system represent a much wider set of actors than parents, students, and educators. These geographically-dispersed actors epitomize various levels of the social strata and public life. They include, international bodies, NGO’s, officials, unions, the state and private sector groups. Thus, policy formation is being constantly renegotiated through a number of social processes. Debate over the future of Mexico’s schools takes place in the international arena, government and civil service legislative formulation, education forums, protests, strikes, political meetings, and increasingly through the media and social media. The national consensus is fully in favor of reform. Yet, the complexities of the reform have polarized the nation, leaving some stakeholders marginalized. Unions and lobbyists have been using channels outside of formal political processes to ensure that any structural adjustment to the Mexican education system accounts for geographical specificities, the employment demands of teachers, and combats structural inequalities. This has lead to public policy deadlock, the emergence and suppression of new spaces of public debate, and most critically a re-examination within society of the role of the state in education itself.

According to UNESCO in 2012, the total number of secondary schools was 15,110. The country has 21 technological universities, 404 public universities, and 1,955 private universities. The latest statistic for students in basic level education (for ages between 3 and 14/15) is 25.6 million. The number of students in secondary level education (for ages between 14 and 17) is 4,187,528. In tertiary education, this number is 3.5 million. Tertiary gross enrollments ratio was 28% in 2010 and is on the rise. Mexico’s adult literacy rate (for those over 15 years of age) was 93.4% in 2009, and the figures for youth literacy (for those between 15 and 41 years of age), were 98.5%.

A gendered look at the data compiled by UNICEF shows encouraging figures for primary and pre-primary education participation rates. Female literacy was only 0.1% lower than male literacy for 15-24 year olds between 2008-2012. Female figures for pre-primary school participation were above that of males for the same period, with a gross enrolment ratio of 103.7%; male pre-primary school participation was at 101.9%. However, with primary school participation the figures shifted to favor male participation, as male gross enrollment ratio for 2008-12 was 113.4% as opposed to female gross enrollment ratio being at 112.4%. The primary school net attendance ratio showed figures at 96.8% for males and 96.9% for females during the 2008-12 period.
However, it is when analyzing the UNICEF figures for secondary education that Mexico’s need for improvements in the education system become evident. Compulsory education is only up to 9 years of age in Mexico. The secondary school participation figures are lagging behind Mexico’s OECD counterparts. The net enrollment ratio between 2008 and 2012 for males was at a worrying 71.4%, and for females was at 74%. This is because many parents have had no choice but to send their children out to work, and there has been a lack of incentives offered by the federal government or educators for them to be encouraged to stay on at school. Another worrying figure, is the survival rate to last primary grade, which is listed by UNICEF as 95% for 2008-2012.

The WENR have expressed concern about these figures, cautioning that “the gross enrollment ratio at the secondary school level has increased from just 54% in 1991 to 89% in 2010; however, the net enrollment ratio is considerably lower at 71%, which is suggestive of a high secondary drop-out rate. At the tertiary level, the enrollment ratio has risen significantly from 15% in 1991 to 32.8% in 2011-12. Nonetheless, it lags the regional average (46 percent in 2010) by a large margin. By comparison, Argentina enrolled the equivalent of 71 percent of its college age population in 2010 (GER), Panama 60%, and Chile 59%, according to data from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics.”


Mexico’s education reform agenda has to be understood in the wider context of the country’s development. Mexico, the world’s 14th largest economy, and has experienced five major structural reforms in the last few decades. These include budget and fiscal responsibility (2006), the public pension system (1995, 2004), the North American Free Trade Agreement (1994), and the creation of the Bank of Mexico (1994). Mexico’s export oriented economy was highly sensitive to the global downturn. To weather the economic storm, President Nieto has committed to improving competitiveness and efficiency across a range of sectors. These include decreasing the monopoly power of the telecommunications and energy giants, investment in transportation and infrastructure, fiscal discipline, and bringing education up to OECD standards. Mexico suffers from an incongruence of skills with the demands of the labor market. The education reform agenda was formed to increase the competitiveness and efficiency of the Mexican workforce, reduce poverty, and increase the social-mobility of those particularly in the poorer southern states.


Mexico’s integration into the international economic system disrupted large parts of its traditional economy. The traditional and insular education system was especially slow to adapt to the economic changes of the 1980s and 1990s in Mexico, which culminated in the NAFTA agreement. The economic restructuring of the state to support the free market needs of an export-based economy pushed Mexico’s education system into a modern trajectory, based on human capital and competition.

In 1992, reforms to decentralize basic education in Mexican states finally went ahead. It was an inclusive process, and had the support of governors and unions. The curriculum was overhauled and upgraded across the board, and a modern system for rewarding quality teaching was introduced. In 1993, legislation was ratified to reorganize the administration of education throughout the country; individual states would now take on the bureaucratic responsibilities for teachers and schools. The legislation also saw the introduction of social participation councils and municipal councils. These councils would bring together business, the church, teachers, parents, and local bureaucrats in order to launch a new forum for debate for the educational needs of localities.

Other notable educational reforms in Mexico include PROGRESA (1998), which introduced a grant system for mothers in the poorest households to incentivize them to send their children to school rather than out to work. These conditional cash transfers would provide mothers with increasing funds as their children progressed through the education system. It has been widely deemed a success, however, the current problems Mexican education face are based upon the quality and inclusiveness of the education process, rather than child participation rates, which are generally stable.

The most notable reforms in higher education were undertaken during the Vicente Fox administration. President Fox revolutionized the higher education system during the early 2000s. The state’s capital injection would see the offering of extraordinary funds for faculty, research, infrastructure, graduate education and low-income students. The federal government also invested heavily in tertiary education alternatives, such as polytechnics. These new technical institutes and traditional universities would continue to thrive long after Fox’s tenure. A noteworthy success story is the Universidad de Guanajuato. In a TBY interview, Rector General Dr. José Manuel Cabrera Sixto noted a budget increase of 50% over the last three years.

The key impetus for President Nieto’s reform agenda was the OECD 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, which ranked Mexico last in educational achievement statistics for OECD countries. It noted that only around a quarter of young Mexicans had completed a baseline qualification at upper secondary level. The Core Reform of Basic Education aims to make education compulsory for children up to the age of 13, re-organize the curriculum with targets and emphasis on mathematics and technology, increase school hours to 7, and re-organize the teacher tenure system. This re-organization has been met with the most opposition. It places the appointment of teaching staff into the hands of authorities and out of the scope of the national teaching union, enforces teacher accreditation, and includes penalties such as the threat of dismissal for teachers who are unable to reach government set targets.


The national teaching union, CNTE, has been the most prominent opponent to the reform agenda. The FT reported that in the CNTE’s bid to ensure the reforms do not break their stranglehold on the education system, they have “repeatedly clashed with police, blocked roads and staged strikes and other disturbances.” The CNTE argue that the reason education statistics are flailing is the lack of infrastructure and investment in classrooms, rather than the quality of teaching. They assert that the federal government should be investing in teaching equipment and educational materials rather than re-organizing the way teachers are employed. They also are concerned about potential job losses, which could be as high as 33,000, if the new accreditation system is put in place.

As Mexican society tries to re-adjust to the demands of a neo-liberal globalized economy, conflict amongst traditionalists and modernists will continue. At this critical moment, it is key that inclusiveness and dialogue is fostered amongst all stakeholders, to ensure the best way forward for next generation.