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A fresh curriculum for education

Article - November 18, 2014

The educational reform aims to help schools boost student performance with a layer of oversight at the national level


As Mexico moves into high-skill and value-added activities such as durable goods, electronics, aerospace and biotechnology, it is demanding more sophisticated skills from its workforce to fuel the country’s upward mobility. Modernising the country’s education system is at the centre of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s efforts to continue this trend of economic development, with a fundamental reorganisation of its education system, whose performance has stagnated even as Mexico has climbed up the income ladder.

Currently, Mexico spends more on education, per pupil, than any country in the world, with the exception of New Zealand, according to Education Minister Emilio Chuayffet. And yet the quality of education that its students receive has lagged. In order for the country to compete in the global economy, its leaders argue that reforms are necessary, which is why President Enrique Peña Nieto – together with lawmakers from the major political parties – passed a set of critical laws governing the country’s education system.

The new framework gives the federal government the power to set national standards for performance and teacher evaluation. It also prohibits the sale or inheritance of teaching positions and introduces mandatory exams to evaluate teachers. Crucially, the measures solidify local control over schools, allowing them more autonomy to form their own curricula and to manage their personnel, while giving the federal government more leverage for teacher certification, evaluation and salary decisions. The aim is to give schools more freedom to come up with creative ways to improve the learning environment and boost student performance, while adding a layer of oversight and accountability at the national level, including a nationwide teacher-training programme to help educators learn and pass on the system’s best practices and most effective techniques. “This is the first step in a very profound reform that the national education system requires, above all, so that the state regains control over education in Mexico,” Mr Chuayffet explains.

The new laws also set up a process for the selection of teachers using open competition among qualified university graduates. Once hired, a merit-based system will give high-performing teachers the opportunity to rise in rank based on their professional achievements.

“Now is the time to clear the path for the great educators of the country,” President Peña Nieto has declared.

As in the other major reforms set into action by the Pact for Mexico, the President counts on the support of lawmakers from the country’s major political parties to help implement the new educational system.

“This is a transformative initiative that, on one hand, transcribes into law the agreements included in the Alliance for Education Quality, and on the other, strengthens the technical and managerial autonomy given to the National Institute for the Evaluation of Education,” says Gustavo Madero Muñoz, President of the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN).

“The initiative puts forward a professional system for teachers. They are the protagonists of the process and it’s the state’s obligation to give them security in terms of their jobs, their salaries and in the value of their service,” Mr Chuayffet adds. The education reform will help ensure the full exercise of the constitutional right to a quality education, proponents argue. “The reforms’ substance must be quality; preparing children in a quality structure, so they can graduate with all the necessary skills and become a member of the productive sector and social life,” says Jesús Ancer Rodríguez, Rector of the Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo León (UANL).

To get an idea of what a world-class education system looks like, evaluators need go no further than Nuevo León, a state that ranks at the top of the country in the quality and the level of education it provides. Nuevo León’s success rests on strong relations and collaboration between the government, the private sector and academia, according to Mr Ancer Rodríguez. “This approach,” he says, “helps promote competitiveness and the advancement of innovative solutions to market problems.”

“Nuevo León has three principles,” he continues. “One is coverage, which makes the state a prime location for education. Another is fairness and a level playing field for all. The third is quality. The UANL has all the international accreditations for its students to have the capacity and the necessary skills to enter the job market.”

While the new laws address several important areas, institutions like UANL must work to further the spread of higher education in Mexico, Mr Ancer Rodríguez argues. “This educational reform deals basically with quality, especially in elementary education,” he adds. “But when it comes to higher education, the reform must deal with school enrolment and coverage. That is the great national challenge. After secondary education, young people must have the possibility and expectation to be able to continue their studies into further and higher education.”

Using his leadership position in the state’s flagship higher education institution, Mr Ancer Rodríguez has worked to make sure that the system provides these opportunities.

“A student who completes basic education, including high school, has a guaranteed place in higher education,” he says. “Our state has ensured that the school alumni end up having a secure position, either at the university or the public subsystems, and we can ensure their education.”

UANL’s rector adds, “Our university’s enrolment has been growing over the years, and today we are the third-largest university in the country. We have more than 157,000 students: 67,000 at the high-school level, 85,000 undergraduate and 5,000 on postgraduate studies. Over the last three years as university rector, we have increased the number of students by 30,000. This gives a lot of young people the opportunity to study.”

Working together with the government, UANL created a major recruitment plan that provides nearly 82,000 scholarships per semester. “We are the university that grants the most scholarships nationwide,” Mr Ancer Rodríguez affirms. “We believe that all students must have the opportunity to complete their education.”

Institutions like UANL are at the forefront of Mexico’s move into high-value manufacturing and services – areas that require engagement with top universities and companies around the world, particularly in the UK. Around 20,000 Mexicans travel every year to study abroad. The USA, Canada and the UK are the most sought-after destinations, with the UK being the main location for those looking to specialise in areas of engineering and social sciences. Mexico sends more foreign students to the UK than any other Latin American country.

“We are focused on strategic areas such as automotive and aerospace. We have world-class research centres,” Mr Ancer Rodríguez says. “We have just signed an agreement with Chrysler, in which they committed to hiring only UANL-graduated engineers. There are over 14,000 students in the engineering faculty, UANL produces more engineers than any other Mexican university.”