Executive Summary

Higher education in Mexico has expanded rapidly in recent years. In the academic year 2017-18, there were 4.5 million students enrolled in higher education in Mexico: 2.4 million more than in 2000. Between 2007 and 2017 tertiary attainment among 25-34 year-olds rose from 16% to 23%, although this is still well below the OECD average of 44%. Around 40% of total enrolment is in federal and state public universities, 20% in various types of technical institution, and 35% in private higher education institutions (HEIs). About 15% of enrolment is in distance education. Higher education institutions are characterised into 13 public and private subsystems, each with distinctive characteristics.

In 2018, the Mexican federal Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) invited the OECD to review the main policies governing higher education in Mexico, updating the 2008 OECD Review of Higher Education in Mexico. The review has examined the strengths and weaknesses of the governance arrangements and strategy in place to steer the higher education system as well as mechanisms to provide public funding to system. It has also focused on external mechanisms of quality assurance, conditions for equity and specific challenges facing technical public HEIs and public Teacher Education Colleges.

Governance of the higher education system

Higher education in Mexico has developed in an evolving system of federalism, where central government has taken a lead in education policy and the role of state governments has been more limited than in other federal systems. Moreover, a legal and doctrinal vision of university autonomy has sharply circumscribed the role of public authorities in relation to the oldest and largest universities in the country. Against this backdrop, the current Higher Education Coordination Act provides insufficient clarity about the division of responsibility for higher education among the federal government, the governments of the 32 federal entities, and individual higher education institutions. In cooperation with the higher education sector, Mexico should develop a more transparent legal framework to provide the clarity and certainty about the precise roles and responsibilities of the federal and state governments in individual autonomous HEIs.

To build an effective system of governance for higher education in Mexico, there is also scope to strengthen the capacity of state authorities to coordinate and help steer regional higher education systems, including through ensuring equitable redistribution of public funds. Autonomous universities need to assume their responsibilities, as publicly funded institutions, to work constructively with authorities and other HEIs to develop a coherent higher education system. This includes implementing the national qualifications framework; a credit transfer and accumulation system; a single student identifier, an effective system of educational statistics and, as discussed below, a national system of accreditation and quality assurance. Strengthened coordination bodies at state and federal levels with clearly assigned objectives and tasks should support the development of these system-wide frameworks and procedures, and contribute to system steering.

Higher education strategy in Mexico

Mexico has a well-established tradition of strategic planning at the federal level, through the National Development Plans (PND) and Sectoral Education Programmes (PSE). However, the most recent Sectoral Education Programme partially duplicates the PND, rather than providing an easily understandable and actionable roadmap for future policy in higher education. In the next iteration of the Sectoral Education Programme, the federal government should include a dedicated section for higher education – one with fewer objectives, each linked to more precise action lines and indicative resource allocation. State development plans often overlap with, rather than clearly complement, national strategies, sometimes containing objectives that are unrealistic in light of the resources and capacity available to state authorities. In future, state development plans should focus only on actions where action at state level can generate a real impact.

Accurate information is important for strategy and policy-making. While key elements of a comprehensive data system for higher education are in place in Mexico, reliable data on funding per student and true cohort data on student progression and graduate outcomes are not available. Mexico should develop a comprehensive and integrated data collection system for higher education, either within SEP or through a small arms-length agency.

Funding higher education in Mexico

In 2015, annual spending per student in public higher education institutions in Mexico was around USD 9 000 adjusted for purchasing power parity, roughly one third the adjusted level in public institutions in the United States. Despite real terms increases, government spending per student on public higher education institutions in Mexico has failed to keep pace with the expansion of enrolment in recent years. If public higher educations are to remain dependent on public funds, additional government investment – combined with efforts to ensure efficiency - will be required to meet political goals regarding quality and equity.

Public resources are allocated to public HEIs based on historical costs and negotiations, without formulae. There is no direct relationship between enrolment, activities or outputs and the budget institutions receive. The system lacks transparency and leads to unjustified differences in funding per student between and within subsystems. The federal authorities should establish a rational system for allocating public funding to public HEIs and find a method to provide multi-annual budget commitments to institutions to facilitate planning. In parallel, SEP should ensure targeted federal “extraordinary” funding programmes have well-defined, complementary objectives explicitly linked to priorities established in the new Sectoral Education Programme.

Quality in higher education

Unlike many OECD countries, Mexico does not have a mandatory system of external accreditation and quality assurance for higher education providers. Not all private HEIs participate in the system of programme registration (RVOE), meaning that some students graduate with diplomas that are not officially recognised. Although sound processes for external programme accreditation and evaluation exist, they remain voluntary and are not appropriate for all sectors of higher education. Furthermore, quality assurance policies and accreditation organisations have focused on programmes and not supported the development of institutional capabilities and responsibilities with respect to quality.

In close cooperation with existing accreditation bodies and the higher education sector, the Mexican authorities should establish a national quality assurance body, probably with non-profit, non-governmental status, to guide further development of external quality assurance. This should develop robust systems of institutional quality review that will allow HEIs with a high proportion of externally accredited programmes to receive institutional accreditation and self-accredit their own programmes. Programme-level review methods should be adapted to the requirements of programmes in technical sectors, and targeted federal funding for quality should be concentrated in subsystems with low levels of external accreditation. Formal registration should be made mandatory for all private HEIs, through a revised RVOE system coordinated at federal level, to ensure all providers meet acceptable minimum quality standards.

Equity in higher education

Social, gender and geographical inequalities in Mexico are considerable. The social background of students has a major influence on their chances of entering and succeeding in upper secondary education, which varies widely in quality. This then affects their opportunities to access higher education. Universities - many with their own secondary schools - can play a bigger role in supporting quality improvement in secondary education. The improvements to quality assurance recommended above are especially important to protect the many students from disadvantaged backgrounds studying in technical education. There is a particular need to ensure the quality and boost the labour market acceptance of short-cycle programmes. This should be accompanied by efforts to improve and streamline public financial support for students, coordinating this fully from the federal level, adjusting the value of maintenance grants and extending eligibility for federal grants to students on programmes with external accreditation at private institutions.

A specific focus on technical higher education and Teacher Education Colleges

Many technical higher education institutions are small, poorly networked with other HEIs, and work with widely varying levels of funding per student. This creates risks for quality. While affiliation to the Tecnológico Nacional de México has given Institutes of Technology access to valuable shared resources to support learning, these institutions lack flexibility to adapt their work to local circumstances. There is scope to increase cooperation among technical HEIs and between technical subsystems and universities, while devolving greater autonomy to individual Institutes of Technology. Technical higher education should be a key focus of government efforts to put public funding of higher education on a more rational basis, improve infrastructure, and enhance quality assurance and quality in educational programmes.

Public Teacher Education Colleges - the normal schools - are subject to strong top-down control and often lack sufficient resources and qualified staff. Enrolment in the subsystem has fallen significantly in recent years and quality concerns persist. The small size of many schools compounds these problems. Mexican authorities should take short-term measures to improve the financial conditions of public normal schools, while planning for their longer-term sustainability through cooperation and mergers. State and federal governments can support networking among normal schools in each state, including better links to State Public Universities and the National Pedagogical University. The qualification requirements for teaching staff in normal schools should also be increased

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