Chapter 3. Governance, planning and resources

This chapter examines the broad framework conditions that affect the operation of higher education in Mexico, focusing on governance arrangements, strategic planning and funding. The chapter first focuses on the broad governance of the higher education system and, in particular, the respective roles of the federal government, state authorities and individual higher education institutions. It goes on to examine recent national strategy for higher education, as articulated in the National Development Plan and Sectoral Education Programme, as well as the role and capacity of states in higher education planning. Finally, the chapter examines the level of public funding for public higher education institutions and the mechanisms used to allocate resources. For each of these three areas, the chapter provides a specific set of recommendations for improvement.


3.1. Focus of this chapter

In this chapter, we examine key elements of the public policy environment in which higher education providers in Mexico operate, looking in particular at the legal and governance framework, strategic planning, and public funding of higher education. These are areas where public authorities play an important role in all higher education systems, although with considerable variation in terms of regulation and intervention across jurisdictions.

In many countries, including Mexico, the oldest universities are older than the state in which they are located and have often developed with a strong degree of institutional autonomy. This is the case in Latin America, but also in the English-speaking world and most of continental Europe. Although universities are frequently public institutions, they have greater independence than most other parts of the public sector. Over time, particularly as higher education has expanded, governments have tended to increase their level of intervention in the regulation of higher education systems and have often sought to steer higher education institutions in line with goals established at a political level. Key examples of government intervention include:

  • Expansion of higher education enrolment and provision through provision of grants programmes for students, the creation of new institutions, or expansion of existing ones;

  • Introducing new types of institutions to meet national needs in professional or technological sectors (for example, through the creation of polytechnics in many countries in the 1960s to 1990s);

  • Establishment of national qualification frameworks that regulate the types of qualifications that exist, often in partnership with or under the leadership of academic communities, but sometimes with a strong political dimension (as in the case of the Bologna reforms in Europe that instituted a standard bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate degree structure, a single credit system and recommendations for external and internal quality assurance);

  • Facilitating coordination between parts of the education system and pathways between different levels of education and training: this may include determining general entrance requirements for higher education (deciding between open access and selective systems) or support for common application systems1;

  • Regulating employment conditions for staff, sometimes even through specific, jurisdiction-wide rules governing the employment conditions of academic staff;

  • Establishing common standards for external quality assurance in teaching, research, and funding external quality assurance bodies, and

  • Funding higher education: while governments have long been providers of funding, in the past this was often unconditional. Increasingly, governments ask for greater accountability from higher education institutions and greater proof of the quality and impact of the activities higher education institutions conduct. There has been an increase in competitive funding and performance-related funding that seeks to incentivise institutions to act in specific ways and achieve specific goals.

As the role of public authorities in higher education has expanded, so has the volume of legislation and regulation that affects the sector and the need for effective forms of coordination between policies and communication between authorities and higher education institutions.

This chapter focuses on three dimensions of the broader public policy framework for higher education in Mexico:

  1. 1. The legal, administrative and procedural framework for the higher education system that establishes operating rules, the roles and responsibilities of different actors in the system and shared process and systems, as well as governance bodies that regulate, coordinate, support and guide the institutions that make up the national system of higher education;

  2. 2. The political and policy strategies that identify challenges, establish goals for the future development of higher education in Mexico and provide a framework for more specific government policies and a reference point for institutional strategies; and

  3. 3. The resourcing of the higher education system, with a particular focus on the mechanisms that are used to distribute public funding to higher education institutions and ensure it is spent effectively.

3.2. Governance frameworks for higher education in Mexico

3.2.1. Frameworks and governance bodies in higher education systems

Higher education institutions operate within a particular legal, administrative and procedural environment, which affects their legal status, their rights and obligations and how they undertake their work. Within this environment, it is conceptually possible to distinguish: a) the legal framework (laws) that establish basic rules and principles; b) the administrative and procedural framework, composed of “system-level” administrative bodies and procedures and processes in which higher education institutions participate; and c) coordination and governance bodies that help to coordinate and promote communication within the higher education system.

Within complex systems of higher education, the legal framework might be expected to establish the ground rules of the operation of the sector and provide legal certainty to higher education institutions, public authorities and citizens. Primary legislation governing higher education varies between countries in its scope as a result of differing legal and political traditions, but public authorities typically use it to define:

  • The legal status of public higher education institutions, their primary objectives (teaching, research, engagement) and their basic rights and obligations;

  • Where applicable, basic rules for the establishment and operation of private higher education providers;

  • The division of responsibility for public policy relating to higher education (regulation, strategy, funding etc.) between levels of government in a state;

  • The rights and obligations of coordinating public authorities (such as ministries of education) in relation to funding, sharing of information and reporting; and

  • The status and roles of any other public bodies involved in regulating or coordinating higher education, including coordinating councils, quality assurance agencies, statistics agencies or arms-length funding or coordination agencies.

In federal systems, the constitution and broader legislative frameworks often make higher education the primary responsibility of state governments. This is the case in the United States, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium or Australia, for example. In such systems, it is common to establish coordination mechanisms at the level of the federation, so that state education systems remain compatible and can work together. It is also common to assign certain functions to the federal level. In the United States and Germany, for example, responsibility for student financial support lies with the federal governments.

The administrative and procedural framework comprises both administrative entities of public authorities who oversee, regulate and fund higher education (generally government departments) and system-wide procedures managed by public authorities or independent agencies, which may include:

  • A national qualification framework, a common credit system, and rules for transfer and articulation of studies;

  • A common, unique, and persistent student identifier, that allows students’ records to be maintained and transferred and their progress through the education system and subsequently to be tracked anonymously;

  • A unified system of institutional data collection and an agreed methodology for reporting data to government and calculating key indicators;

  • An agreed and published methodology(ies) for the funding of public higher education institutions;

  • A coordinated assessment, application and prioritisation process allocating seats in public higher education institutions;

  • A detailed student aid methodology for the determination of eligibility and award of grant or loan benefits; and

  • A comprehensive and compulsory system of quality assurance.

In both unitary and federal higher education systems, organisations often exist to promote communication and coordination between (often autonomous) higher education institutions and government. This may simply be through sector umbrella bodies, such as Rectors’ Conferences or University Associations, which are independent of government, or it may be through formal coordinating councils or similar bodies established by public authorities. The existence of such coordination bodies and communication channels should facilitate effective policy-making and the work of individual higher education institutions.

The remainder of this section analyses the extent to which the current legal frameworks for Mexican higher education provide clarity and legal certainty about the roles, rights and responsibilities of different actors in the system; whether the administrative and procedural frameworks create effective system-wide procedures; and whether effective coordination bodies are in place to support good governance and policy-making.

3.2.2. Strengths and challenges

A complex and evolving system of federalism, lacking a clear legal division of responsibilities for higher education

Higher education in Mexico has developed within a system of government that is marked by strong national authority and comparatively weak state governments that operate within an evolving system of federalism. It is also characterised by a legal and doctrinal vision of autonomy that has sharply circumscribed the role of public authorities in relation to the oldest and largest higher education institutions in the country. These features of the governance context in Mexico have resulted in a comparatively weak role for public authorities in steering large parts of the higher education sector (the autonomous research universities) and a lack of clarity about the real division of responsibility for higher education policy among the federal government, the governments of the states and individual higher education institutions.

For most of the 20th century Mexico’s system of government “…operated on the principles of theoretical federalism and de facto centralism,” in which the bulk of key governmental decisions were taken at the federal level, and most public spending was done by the federal government (Ordorika, Rodríguez Gómez and Lloyd, 2018[1]). Mexico’s largest and most prominent higher education institutions, its federal universities, were established and funded by national authorities. Non-university higher education institutions, such as the National Polytechnic Institute (founded in 1936) were also created and directed by national authorities. Government recognition of private institutions was also the responsibility of national authorities, who established a centralised licensing process for these institutions. Owing to the fiscal and political pre-eminence of the national government, and the limited capabilities of most states, by 1950 only 12 of Mexico’s 32 federal entities had established state universities, and until the 1970s, 80% of the nation’s higher education students were enrolled in the capital city (OECD, 2008, p. 43[2]).

As part of wider changes to the federal system in the late 1970s, responsibility for provision and regulation of higher education - and the fiscal resources to meet these responsibilities - were provided to states through new federal legislation, most importantly through the Fiscal Coordination Law (Congreso de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, 1978[3]). States were also encouraged by federal authorities to create State Commissions for Higher Education Planning (COEPES), and given shared responsibility for licensing private higher education programmes with the power to issue their own certificates of Recognition of Official Validity of Study Programmes (RVOE). Additionally, efforts were made to create new higher education institutions across the country, including autonomous state universities where these did not exist, and other types of institutions established as decentralised entities of state governments. The latter group included the decentralised Institutes of Technology, Technological Universities and Polytechnic Universities (OECD, 2008[2]).

The distribution of responsibilities among governments remains complex and uncertain. Mexico does not have a Higher Education Act that comprehensively establishes the relationship between public authorities and higher education institutions, in contrast to the legislation in place in many Ibero-American countries, including Colombia (1992), Argentina (1995), Spain (2001), Portugal (2007), Peru (2014), and Chile (2018). These laws characteristically define, among other things, what institutions must do to achieve university status, what forms for autonomy are available to university institutions, how institutions are to govern themselves and take account of their social obligations, and how the quality of provision is to be assured.

Mexico has a Higher Education Coordination Act (Ley para la Coordinacion de la Educación Superior), dating from 1978 (Congreso de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, 1978[4]). The statute stipulates that federal, state, and municipal authorities are to act “in a coordinated manner” (Article 8) in relation to higher education. However, their respective responsibilities to higher education institutions and procedures for coordination of their activities are not outlined with precision. The legislation specifies activities using vague terms such as “coordination”, without defining what this means in practice, and fails to make clear the respective roles of the federal and state governments, referring simply to “the State” (public authorities in general). For example, Article 11 provides that:

In order to develop higher education in response to national, regional and state needs and the institutional requirements of teaching, research and dissemination of culture, the State [el Estado] will coordinate this type of education throughout the Republic, through the promotion of harmonious and solidary interaction between higher education institutions and through the allocation of public resources available for this [public] service, in accordance with the priorities, objectives and guidelines provided by this law. (Congreso de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, 1978[4])

During the course of meetings with higher education stakeholder groups, the Review Team was told that the 1978 Higher Education Coordination Act was badly outdated, having been adopted when the nation’s higher education system had not yet taken its modern form, and that the Act failed to specify sufficiently the responsibilities for public authorities in relation to higher education institutions, and the converse. In 2017 and 2018, deliberations took place to modernise the 1978 legislation, and resulted in the National Association of Universities and Higher Education Institutions (ANUIES), with the support of a number of members of Congress putting forward a proposal for a new draft Act (Anteproyecto de Ley General de Educación Superior). The stated intention of this exercise was to clarify the roles and responsibilities of different actors in the higher education system. However, the draft Act has not to date been debated in Congress and has thus not progressed towards becoming legislation.

Despite the imprecise legal framework governing higher education governance, national authorities in Mexico, through the federal Secretariat of Public Education (SEP), are de facto responsible for:

  • Setting plans for the development of the higher education system that are contained in the six-year Sectoral Education Programme;

  • Proposing a budget framework within which federal budgets for public higher education institutions and programmes are developed;

  • Establishing and managing federal higher programmes (extraordinary funding);

  • Establishing governance rules and providing strategic direction to non-autonomous federal higher education institutions;

  • Agreeing with state authorities on the governance rules and funding levels for non-autonomous state higher education institutions; and

  • Coordinating and implementing, in part, the regulation of private higher education institutions.

State education authorities, in contrast, continue to have a more limited role than is typically the case in other federal systems. They exercise responsibility for the establishment and shared funding of state higher education institutions, for the (shared with federal authorities) regulation of private higher education providers , and the development of state higher education plans that complement the federal government’s sectoral education programme.

Despite clear political will in some cases, states lack the resources and capacity to play a strong role in higher education policy-making and funding

Despite increased decentralisation over the last three decades and the formally shared responsibility for higher education between the federation and states, the states continue to possess modest fiscal and administrative capacities, which limit their ability to take on a stronger role in higher education, one similar to that seen in many other federal countries. As a recent OECD Better Policy Review (OECD, 2017[5]) noted:

Mexico remains a centralised country. Large spending areas are controlled by the federal government. Local government expenditure and investment shares in GDP and public spending are among the lowest in the OECD. At the same time, the distribution of functional responsibilities across levels of government is complex, undermining the effectiveness of policy delivery and public investment. Federal powers are extensive and sometimes overlap with responsibilities of states and municipalities.

States in Mexico have limited tax-raising capacity and rely on financial transfers from the federal government (see Figure 3.1). They receive over 90% of their revenue from transfers from the federal government and less than 10% from taxes. This pattern contrasts sharply with other OECD federal states such as Canada, Germany, Switzerland, and the United States, in which, on average, transfers account for less than a third of sub-national revenue, and state and local taxation account for almost one-half of state and local government revenues.

Figure 3.1. Funding of sub-national government
Sub-national government revenue by source, percentage of total sub-national government revenue 2016

Source: OECD (2016) Sub-national Government Structure and Finance

The federal transfers received by states in Mexico take three main forms. First is core funding allocated under Section (Ramo) 28 of the federal budget, referred to as “participations”2, which states have discretion in allocating. Second are so-called “federal contributions”3 which are earmarked for specific purposes – including aspects of education - under Section 33 of the federal budget and allocated to states on the basis of economic need. Third are specific “agreements” (convenios), through which the federal government provides a grant to a specific public institution.

The amount of Section 28 transfers each state receives depends on their contribution to national economic output, while the amount of Section 33 transfers is calculated to compensate states with high levels of economic disadvantage. This means the level of federal transfers and the proportions available for earmarked or discretionary spending vary between states. As highlighted in the more detailed discussion of funding later in this chapter, the level of funding allocated in convenios for specific institutions, which include the State Public Universities, depends on the outcomes of negotiations between the state and federal governments.

The fact that large proportions of the federal transfers that states receive are earmarked for existing fixed costs (payment of staff salaries and running costs, for example), or tied to agreements with specific institutions means that that state governments have comparatively few resources they can use for discretionary spending on higher education. Economically stronger states, which receive higher levels of non-earmarked funds and have higher revenues from state taxes, theoretically have more resources available that they could chose to allocate to higher education. However, the challenging fiscal and economic environment of recent years mean that all state governments have had limited room to increase public investment.

Within the limits imposed by the legal framework and available funds, it appears that some Mexican states have made greater efforts than others to develop coherent state higher education policies and direct resources to these initiatives. Stakeholders interviewed by the OECD team during the review visit argued that the administrative capacity of state administrations and the political will of individual governors and state governments varied considerably between states in Mexico. As a result, the efforts invested in developing state higher education systems vary correspondingly.

An uneven pattern of intervention by public authorities between subsystems: from laissez-faire to micro-management

Although governmental authority and resources in Mexico rest principally with national authorities, the authority of public officials in relation to higher education institutions is highly uneven. Three very different patterns of public authority and institutional autonomy co-exist within Mexico: for autonomous universities (federal universities and State Public Universities4); for non-autonomous public higher education institutions; and for private higher education institutions. The distinctive understanding and practice of university autonomy in Mexican higher education means that while some parts of the higher education system function under comprehensive and detailed control from the centre of government, others - the autonomous universities - have functioned with virtually no guidance or steering from government.

University autonomy in Mexico is based in principles first outlined in the Cordoba Declaration of 1918, and it evolved in a context of a strongly centralised and authoritarian regime, where the nation’s largest autonomous university became a centre of mobilisation and confrontation between student movements and government (Ordorika, 2003[6]). The principle of university autonomy, first articulated in the Constitution of 1917, is recognised in Article 3, Subsection VII of the current constitution, which guarantees the autonomy of universities, and provides that:

Universities and other institutions of higher education to which the law grants autonomy, will have the power and responsibility to govern themselves; to fulfil their educational goals, pursue research and disseminate culture in accordance with the principles of this article, respecting the freedom of teaching and research and free debate of ideas; determine their plans and programmes; they will set the terms of entry, promotion and retention of their academic staff; and they will manage their assets. Labour relations, for both academic and administrative staff, will be regulated by section A of article 123 of this Constitution, in the terms and with the modalities established by the Federal Labour Law in a manner consistent with [institutional] autonomy, the freedom of teaching and research and the objectives of the institutions to which this subsection refers (Gobierno de la República, 2017[7])

As higher education in Mexico underwent expansion in the 1960s and 1970s, it did so with wider autonomy than elsewhere in Latin America (Levy, 1980[8]), with federal and state universities awarded autonomous status by legislatures. Today, by contemporary international standards, such as those outlined by the European University Association (EUA, 2018[9]), autonomous universities in Mexico continue to exercise wide control over key decisions about internal organisation and governance; the allocation and management of their budgets; human resources (recruitment, salaries, dismissals, and promotions); and especially academic autonomy (including decisions about student admissions, academic content, and the introduction of degree programmes).

While public authorities do not have a highly developed legal basis for steering autonomous higher education institutions, since the 1990s the scope of institutional steering by public authorities has nonetheless widened with respect to state autonomous universities. Extraordinary targeted funding for state universities (in addition to basic funding) was adopted in 1991, and, as discussed later in this chapter, has been used to incentivise state universities to work towards national goals. The rules governing use of extraordinary funds significantly reduce institutional autonomy with respect to the allocation and management of budgets in question.

State Public Universities with Solidarity Support, Intercultural Universities, Technological and Polytechnic Universities, decentralised and federal Institutes of Technology, normal schools and other forms of public institution such as music academies, do not operate as autonomous institutions. Rather, federal non-autonomous institutions operate under the direction of federal authorities (SEP), while non-autonomous state institutions operate under the direction of both federal (SEP) and state education authorities (state education or higher education secretariats). This direction may be exercised in great detail, with the SEP exercising control over funding levels, curriculum, staffing levels, and infrastructure improvements. For example, by some accounts, the selection of rectors and top officials in Intercultural Universities, while notionally the responsibility of the universities, is subject to intervention by state or federal authorities (Ordorika, Rodríguez Gómez and Lloyd, 2018, p. 291[1]).

Private organisations are permitted to provide higher education under the Mexican constitution (Article 3, VI). However, the constitution requires that the State “grant and withdraw the recognition of official validity to studies that are carried out in private schools.” Private universities that wish to award validated credentials have a regulatory process they must undertake for market entry (see Chapter 4). However, they subsequently function with a high level of autonomy, with the capacity to take their own decisions about internal organisation and governance, staffing, resource allocation, and academic decisions.

As a consequence of a strongly centralised federal system in which governing authority is circumscribed university autonomy, there is in Mexico a sharply uneven legal and political scope for the exercise of central government authority, with virtual “no-go zones” (of autonomous university institutions) and areas within which public authorities exercise detailed control.

A proliferation of higher education subsystems and administrative units hinders system-wide policy-making and processes

Mexican scholars suggest that the complexity of the higher education landscape in Mexico means it is inaccurate to speak of a higher education system in the country:

Higher education is not a system in the strict sense, defined in the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española as “a set of rules and principles relating to a subject rationally linked to each other” or “a set of things that are related to each other in an orderly manner and contribute to a determined goal”…One of the characteristics of the “subsystems of higher education” is their disarticulation and fragmentation, which limits their ability to achieve synergies and contribute to achieving the goals of higher education. (Mendoza Rojas, 2018, p. 8[10])

Successive waves of policy initiatives have led national authorities to develop new institutions and institutional types in the interstices where they have freedom of action, creating Polytechnic Universities, Technological Universities, Intercultural Universities, and a national distance university. The proliferation of “subsystems” of different institutional types has a) led to a fragmented institutional structure in the administrative apparatus that oversees higher education in Mexico and b) further complicated the already challenging development of system-wide norms and administrative procedures.

As new subsystems have been created, they have generated new administrative entities in the Secretariat for Public Education, Directorates-General or Coordination offices responsible for funding or steering institutions within its purview. The cumulative result of this pattern is that the higher education landscape and the SEP is highly compartmentalised and fragmented. This has been repeatedly noted by international observers (OECD, 2008[2]), national researchers (Mendoza Rojas, 2018[10]), and higher education stakeholder organisations (ANUIES, 2018[11]). SEP has an Under-secretariat for Higher Education (SES) that provides a notional integration to much of national higher education policy. However, some aspects of higher education, such as the regulation of private institutions and Intercultural Universities5, are located outside the under-secretariat. Within the under-secretariat there are three nominally “decentralised” institutions (the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional, the Universidad Abiertia y a Distancia de Mexico, and the Tecnológico Nacional de México) and five administrative units (see Table 3.1) that work semi-autonomously.

Table 3.1. Administrative units in the Under-secretariat for Higher Education (SES)


Main tasks

Directorate-general for university education

Dirección General de Educación Superior Universitaria


Oversight and steering of public universities

General coordination [office] for Technological and Polytechnic Universities

Coordinación General de Universidades Tecnológicas y Politécnicas


Oversight and steering of Technological and Polytechnic Universities

Directorate-general for higher education for educational professionals

Dirección General de Educación Superior de Profesionales de la Educación


Teacher education – oversight and steering of the normal schools

Directorate-general for professions

Dirección General de Profesiones


Professional certification – issuing professional certificates

National coordination [office] for higher education scholarships

Coordinación Nacional de Becas de Educación Superior


Coordination and award of student scholarships

Source: Organigrama de la Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP, 2018[12])

This compartmentalisation of higher education system and its governance into separate subsystems has combined with the traditionally weak regulatory role of the Mexican state in higher education and the influence of university autonomy to make it harder to develop some of the common norms and procedural standardisation that are typically seen in high-performing higher education systems. Striking examples are:

  • The absence of a widely recognised and used national qualifications framework that situates higher education qualifications in the wider landscape of educational credentials.

  • The absence of system-wide credit accumulation and transfer system that underpins the qualifications systems, ensures the comparability of qualifications.

  • The absence of a single, common student identifier to ensure educational records can be shared between institutions and systems.

  • The comparative weakness of the educational statistical system (despite some recent improvements).

  • The absence of a comprehensive system of external quality assurance for higher education

  • The absence of commonly agreed principles and cost guidelines to guide the allocation of public funds to public higher education institutions

We address the implications of the current funding system later in this chapter and examine external quality assurance mechanism in the next chapter. The lack of the other main elements of system-level infrastructure listed above further weakens the existence of a coherent higher education system in Mexico. In many higher education systems in the OECD, national qualifications frameworks, credit accumulation and transfer systems (such as the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, ECTS) and unique student identifiers have been introduced to increase the coherence and integration of national higher education systems. In particular, these mechanisms facilitate the mobility of students between institutions and study programmes at different levels of education (from undergraduate to postgraduate, for example) and cooperation between different institutions in the same level (allowing joint programmes or mobility periods at other institutions). As seen with the introduction of the ECTS in European countries, the implementation of credit systems is complex, as it is tightly intertwined with a range of other factors, such as the definition of expected learning outcomes, assessment methods and marking practices, and requires strong leadership and close cooperation between higher education institutions (European Commission, 2018[13]).

In Mexico, steps have been taken to develop a national credit accumulation and transfer system, in the form of the Sistema de Asignación y Transferencia de Créditos Académicos (SATCA), principles for which were adopted by the National Association of Universities and Higher Education Institutions (ANUIES) in 2007. However, despite widespread acceptance among the academic community, implementation of system stalled in the early years of implementation as a result of limited funds and resistance among university administrators (Sánchez Escobedo and Martínez Lobatos, 2011[14]) Recent updates to the General Education Act (LGE) (Congreso de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, 1993[15]) explicitly call on the federal government to put in place national qualifications framework and national academic credit system (LGE, Article 12, paragraph IX). However, progress in translating this into practice has been slow (ANUIES, 2018[11]).

A lack of effective coordination bodies, despite strong sector organisations

In addition to the imprecise legal basis and fragmented structure of the institutional landscape in Mexican higher education, the absence of strong coordination bodies at national and state level further hinders the development of strong, system-wide procedures and norms and coherent regional higher education systems.

At state level, many of the states do have a State Commission for Higher Education Planning (Comisión Estatal para la Planeación de la Educación Superior, COEPES), notionally responsible for coordinating different higher education providers at state level and aligning supply of higher education with regional demand. Nevertheless, it appears that the COEPES have long struggled to fulfil this role effectively. In 2011, the SEP reported that only 22 of the 32 federal entities had an operational COEPES (ANUIES, 2018, p. 53[11]). Moreover, stakeholders consulted by the OECD Review Team argued that the COEPES that do exist lack the capacity and resources to have a significant impact on the coordination of state higher education systems and are in most cases de facto inoperative. The most recent policy position paper from ANUIES calls for the COEPES to be “reinstated”, implying they are all but non-existent at present (ANUIES, 2018[11]).

While state coordination bodies might be expected to support the development of state and regional systems of higher education, as discussed above, a series of common standards and processes are needed for an effective national higher education system. In other federal systems, national coordination bodies exist to agree on common standards for higher education systems to ensure state higher education systems remain compatible and interact with federal governments in the fields where the national government has responsibilities (such as student support or research)6. Over the years, there have been various attempts to establish such a coordination body in Mexico, including the National Coordination for Higher Education Planning (Coordinación Nacional para la Planeación de la Educación Superior, CONPES) and the National Council of Higher Education Authorities (Consejo Nacional de Autoridades de Educación Superior, CONAES), relaunched in 2016. However, as with the COEPES, these instances appear to lack the clear mandate and sustainable resources to operate effectively.

In comparison to other OECD countries, non-government sector organisations play a particularly strong role in Mexican higher education, to some extent compensating for the lack of strong formal coordination bodies. ANUIES not only formulates position papers, but plays an important role in collecting and analysing data about the higher education system. As a representative body for a large part of the higher education sector, the association will remain a key stakeholder in Mexican higher education. While the Federation of Private Mexican Higher Education Institutions (FIMPES) is primarily a representative organisation for the private sector, it too has engaged in tasks that go beyond those fulfilled by its counterparts in many other OECD countries, notably through the establishment of its own institution accreditation system.

3.2.3. Key recommendations

In the medium term, reform the federal legislation governing the higher education system to define a clearer division of responsibilities

The 1978 Higher Education Coordination Act provides little clarity on the respective roles, rights and responsibilities of the main actors in the higher education system and their relationships which each other. Although, in the short term, it may be possible to improve coordination and develop effective policies for higher education within the existing legal framework, ultimately, a more transparent legal framework is needed to provide the clarity and certainty needed for the long-term development of higher education in Mexico. The federal government, in consultation with the states and autonomous universities, should therefore develop new federal legislation that specifies the respective roles of the federal government (SEP) and the governments of the states, ensuring that these are distinct and complementary, and makes clear the rights of autonomous institutions and their responsibilities to citizens and government.

Taking into account the financial and administrative capacity of state governments, the guiding principle should be that government tasks should be undertaken at the lowest level possible that guarantees effectiveness and efficiency. Tasks related to a) creating system-wide norms and procedures and b) distribution of financial resources between territories and social groups should rest with the federal authorities. Federal authorities should also assume primary responsibility for establishing the rules regarding licensing higher education (RVOE), external quality assurance, the form and validity of qualifications, credit transfer and accumulation, certification of studies and data reporting, as well as for student aid and most targeted institutional funding. State authorities should focus primarily on shaping and adapting their regional higher education systems to fit regional circumstances and needs, within the common rules and frameworks established at federal level. To ensure shared engagement in the state higher education systems, it makes sense for states to maintain a role in providing funding to public institutions, alongside federal authorities. This could potentially be on the 50:50 basis currently used for many subsystems, but with transparent and unified allocation rules and procedures (see section on funding below).

While respecting the principle of academic freedom enshrined in the Mexican Constitution, the new legislative framework should also make more explicit the responsibilities of autonomous public universities. Universities in many OECD member countries have a strong tradition of autonomy, but are equally expected to respect the rules of agreed national frameworks (on qualifications, access rules, quality assurance etc.) and be accountable to the public for their use of taxpayers’ money. The principle of accountability, as well as autonomy, should guide the formulation of the new federal legislation.

Strengthen the capacity of states to play a strong role in coordinating and steering regional higher education systems that respond to regional needs

In the framework of an adjusted allocation of responsibilities between the federal and state authorities, state authorities should focus on aspects of higher education policy where they can make a real difference at regional level. In some areas, state authorities could remain responsible for the implementation of common rules or programmes agreed at federal level – in areas such as licensing private higher education providers or payment of student scholarships. In other areas, states should have freedom to shape policy to help develop their local and regional higher education systems. This might include convening regional higher education institutions and supporting joint projects to foster cooperation and sharing of resources (see below); identifying regional skills and innovation requirements to which higher education must respond; promoting access to higher education among specific regional populations (complementing a national system of student grants) and providing targeted funding to support quality, relevance and equity through state-level programmes, as long as clearly coordinated with national extraordinary funds (see below).

States currently have varying levels of administrative capacity to implement regional higher education policies and invest varying amounts of resources in higher education, including their respective autonomous State Public Universities. To be able to fulfil the role sketched out above in full, most states need to develop their administrative capacity and have access to adequate financial resources. Devolution of responsibility to individual state governments should therefore take into account the administrative and financial capacity of the states in question. A differentiated system, whereby states that demonstrate greater capacity and meet established criteria gain additional responsibilities could be considered.

To strengthen administrative capacity, the federal government could consider a dedicated targeted funding programme, made conditional on high quality, rational proposals and some level of match funding from state governments. Moreover, to ensure the sustainability of state funding for higher education (state shares of funding for institutions, administrative tasks and regional targeted funds), the federal government (SEP and the Secretariat for Finance and Public Credit) should review current allocation mechanisms to states. In particular, they should examine whether the current balance of earmarked federal transfers (Ramo 33), block transfers (Ramo 28), institutional agreements (convenios) and state resources from local taxes provides the right level and mix of resourcing.

Within a more favourable legal and funding environment, states should be held publicly accountable for the performance their higher education policies, through effective monitoring and publication of results.

Work towards a system of responsibly autonomous institutions

Autonomous higher education institutions are likely to be best placed to design and implement effective educational programmes and develop relevant research, innovation and engagement activities that respond to their specific mission and the environment around them (EUA, 2018[9]). Particularly for publicly funded institutions, with autonomy comes responsibility to act in the general public interest and make good use of resources. Serving the general public interest includes abiding by commonly agreed and transparent rules about things like qualifications, quality assurance, study credits and certification, which influence the effectiveness of the whole higher education system. It also implies cooperating with public authorities and other higher education subsystems. Making good use of resources implies transparency about the use of public funds, effective management of resources, and responsiveness when problems are identified.

Autonomous universities in Mexico have historically tended to equate autonomy with freedom from government intervention. Mexico’s distinctive vision of autonomy emerged and developed in response, in important part, to an authoritarian political regime. However, in an age of multi-party democracy it is incumbent on these institutions to work constructively with federal and state authorities and institutions in other sectors to develop a more effective and coherent higher education system in Mexico. The OECD review team was generally impressed by the constructive attitude of representatives of autonomous institutions that they met, which are also reflected in the most recent policy position paper from university association ANUIES (ANUIES, 2018[11]).

In contrast to the autonomous universities, many other public higher education institutions have very limited institutional autonomy, with most of their activities governed by decisions taken in Mexico City. This is particularly the case of the Institutes of Technology - which from part of the Tecnológico Nacional de México - and the normal schools. For Institutes of Technology, there is scope to grant individual schools that have are of an adequate size greater responsibility in budgetary and staffing matters, as well as more flexibility to tailor study programmes to local needs. For smaller institutes, responsibility could be devolved to regional alliances of institutions that would share some management functions. This latter approach could also work for public normal schools, which currently suffer from micro-management from central government, but are also characterised their small scale and weak management and administrative capacity. As such, regional alliances could also provide a solution for these institutions.

Complete work to create essential system-wide frameworks and procedures, while simplifying federal administrative structures steering higher education policy

The federal administration needs to take a stronger lead in the creation and implementation of system-wide frameworks and procedures, including a national qualifications framework; a credit transfer and accumulation system; a single student identifier and an effective system of educational statistics. As discussed in the next chapter, federal authorities also have a key role to play in enforcing universal licensing of private institutions and facilitating – with the higher education sector - comprehensive external quality assurance.

Developing these system-wide frameworks and procedures will require some initial investment of federal resources to cover start-up and initial implementation. It may be appropriate to create a dedicated extraordinary funding programme to support development of procedures and administrative infrastructure at federal level (within SEP, or in associated non-governmental bodies) and support implementation in institutions. Some system-wide frameworks – as an improved statistical system - will require additional ongoing investment. Others, such as a qualifications framework and credit system cost little to maintain once they are in place and active.

To support the process of creating a more coherent system of higher education in Mexico, it would also make sense to streamline some of the internal structures in the SEP, to ensure:

  • that responsibility for all higher education subsectors is included under the Under-secretariat for Higher Education or, at least, within a single department in a restructured SEP;

  • that there are sufficient resources at the level of the Under-secretariat (or equivalent, future department) to maintain strategic overview of the whole higher education system and push forward the system-wide projects noted above (this might be a unit reporting directly to the Undersecretary) and;

  • that cooperation with the National Council for Science and Technology (CONACyT) – the federal government’s research and innovation agency – is strengthened.

Clarify the mandates and strengthen the capacity of coordination bodies for higher education at federal level and in each state.

In a large and fragmented higher education system like that in Mexico, cooperation bodies at state and federal level can support the development of stronger regional higher education systems and a more coherent national system. Nevertheless, attempts to date to create such bodies in Mexico have been largely unsuccessful. To increase the chances that newly established or reinvigorated bodies are effective, it is crucial that they have clearly defined and realistic mandates and tasks and adequate resources to perform their roles. It is important to avoid creating bureaucratic entities that serve no valuable purpose: the effectiveness of any new coordination bodies must therefore be carefully monitored and their missions periodically reviewed.

Taking these conditions into account, it would be valuable to create coordination forums at federal level and in each state. A federal body would bring together representatives of state higher education systems, representatives of the federal government (the SEP and potentially the Secretariat of Finance) and representatives of national agencies and sector associations (representatives of quality assurance bodies, ANUIES, FIMPES, etc.). Its role could include:

  • Helping to steer and monitor the development of national system-wide frameworks and procedures (see above);

  • Ensuring effective communication between federal government and regional higher education systems and;

  • Providing input into federal development plans and education and science plans and providing a forum for identification of shared challenges, problems in policy implementation and possible solutions.

The state bodies, most probably building on the existing COEPES, where these exist, could focus on:

  • Acting as a liaison point between higher education institutions and state governments, and between institutions from the different subsystems (a forum for discussion and launch of cooperation projects);

  • Providing input to state development plans and state education and science agendas;

  • Being a forum for decision making about certain strategic issues, such as expansion or development of study programmes and extra study places and;

  • Sharing practice in the implementation of national frameworks and procedures, pinpointing challenges and helping to develop solutions if these fall within the scope of state responsibilities for higher education (issues related to the national frameworks would need to be discussed and resolved in the national forum).

3.3. Higher education strategy in Mexico

3.3.1. The role of strategy in higher education

Governments use strategy documents to establish goals in specific fields of public policy and to identify actions that will be taken to achieve the goals established. Although their precise legal forms may vary between jurisdictions and policy fields, such strategies often seek to provide a guiding framework for other policy activities affecting the subjects they address. Such policy activities may include new primary and secondary legislation, regulatory activities and public funding programmes and projects. Policy strategies may be drafted to reflect an established political vision – perhaps based on an election manifesto or coalition agreement - or be the product of open consultation exercises that seek to take into account a broad spectrum of stakeholder interests. In many cases, they result from a combination of these two approaches.

Governments in many OECD countries have formulated, or encouraged the formulation of, policy strategies to articulate goals for the development of their higher education systems. In some OECD countries, such as France (Ministère de l’Éducation nationale, 2017[16]) or Ireland (Department of Education and Skills, 2011[17]), the development of recent higher education strategies has been entrusted to expert groups, with the emerging recommendations subsequently endorsed in full or in part by government. In other cases, such as the most recent higher education strategies in the Netherlands (Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, 2015[18]) or England (BIS, 2014[19]), higher education strategies have been developed within government departments under the authority of the relevant minister and the cabinet. In common with the United States (Department of Education, 2018[20]), Mexico has adopted strategic goals for its higher education system as part of a broader, government-led education strategy (SEP, 2013[21]).

Across these countries, strategies for higher education tend to identify similar challenges and establish broadly similar objectives, in areas such as expansion of enrolment, equity, quality, relevance or innovation. In contrast, differences in the composition and autonomy of the higher education system, and in the organisation of government between countries, have a major impact on the kinds of action included in strategy documents. Central government in jurisdictions with a strong tradition of government intervention may propose changes and initiatives where government takes a strong lead, including through new legislation and regulations that impact directly on the operation of higher education institutions. In federal systems and systems where higher education institutions have stronger autonomy, central governments necessarily rely more on indirect stimulus and support measures, and place more emphasis on negotiation and cooperation between different actors in the higher education system.

Irrespective of differences in government forms and traditions, good policy strategies – in higher education as in other sectors - might be expected to:

  1. 1. Be coherent with, and complementary to, related strategies in the same or other policy areas formulated at other levels or in other parts of government.

  2. 2. Use reliable evidence to assess the current situation in the higher education sector and identify (internal) strengths and weaknesses and (external) opportunities and threats;

  3. 3. Take into account – but not necessarily adopt - the views and perspectives of higher education providers, funders of higher education, students, employers and other sections of society;

  4. 4. Provide a clear vision of how the higher education should develop and goals that should be achieved within a defined timeframe;

  5. 5. Establish objectives which are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound (SMART);

  6. 6. Specify actions that will be taken to achieve the objectives, who will take these and what resources will be used and;

  7. 7. Indicate mechanisms for monitoring progress and addressing problems encountered in achieving objectives over the lifetime of the strategy.

The sections that follow assess the national strategies currently in place to guide the development of higher education in Mexico, identifying strengths and challenges, before formulating recommendations for the next generation of strategies being prepared by the new government.

3.3.2. Strengths and challenges

A tradition of national planning and consultative strategy-setting, but a lack of clarity about implementation activities and limited transparency in monitoring

Mexico has a well-established tradition of strategic planning at federal level. Article 26 of the Mexican constitution and the national Planning Law (Congreso de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, 2018[22]) require the establishment of a National Development Plan (PND) for each six-year presidential term. This plan, which by law should take into account the results of a wide-ranging consultation of citizens, sets out broad priorities for the development of Mexico. As such, it provides a framework of reference for sectoral policy programmes, including a Sectoral Programme for Education (discussed below); for Development Plans drawn up by state governments and; for annual budgeting processes at federal and state level.

The National Development Plan for the period 2013-2018 (Gobierno de la República, 2013[23]), covering the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto, establishes “Mexico with quality education” as one of its five strategic priorities. Under the education priority, the Plan includes specific objectives, “strategies” and “action lines” that explicitly address higher education. These are summarised in Table 3.2. Alongside the action lines, which vary from general objectives to specific activities, the PND establishes a set of indicators that are intended to overall monitor progress in the areas covered by the Plan.

The National Development Plan does not, however, establish fixed targets or benchmarks to be reached. The only indicator focusing explicitly on higher education in the PND is the completion rate (literally, “terminal efficiency”)7 in higher education. In addition, the PND includes Mexico’s position in two international composite indicators, which are published annually and also consider higher education. The first of these is the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, which scores countries on a scale of one to seven in a range of dimensions including in the category “higher education and training” (Schwab, 2017[24]). Secondly, under the strategic goal “Mexico with global responsibility”, the PND includes the Elcano Index of Global Presence (Real Instituto Elcano, 2018[25]), which incorporates the “number of foreign students in tertiary education on the national territory” as one of its variables.

Table 3.2. Higher education in the National Development Plan 2013-2018
Objectives within the strategic priority “Mexico with quality education”



“Action lines” relevant to Higher Education

3.1 Develop the human potential of Mexicans through quality education.

3.1.3 Ensure that study programmes and plans are relevant and contribute to students’ progressing successfully and acquiring skills they will need in life.

Creating an entrepreneurial culture through study programmes at HE level.

Reform the evaluation and certification system for higher education.

Promote development of joint postgraduate programmes with foreign higher education institutions (HEIs).

Create a programme to allow students and staff to spend periods at HEIs abroad.

3.2 Ensure inclusion and equality in the education system.

3.2.1 Increase opportunities to access education in all regions and for all sectors of the population.

Establish alliances with HEIs and social organisations to reduce illiteracy and poor educational results.

3.2.2 Increase support to disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people to reduce illiteracy and poor educational results.

Use a grants programme to increase the proportion disadvantaged young people that transition from secondary education to upper secondary and from this level to higher education.

3.2.3 Create new educational services, expand existing ones and exploit the capacity of existing facilities.

Increase in a sustained way the coverage of (enrolment in) upper secondary and higher education to achieve at least 80% in upper secondary and 40% in higher education.

Promote diversification of the educational offer in line with the requirements of local and regional development.

3.5 Make scientific and technological development and innovation a pillar of social and economic progress.

3.5.1 Contribute to raising investment in RTD annually to reach a level of 1% of GDP.

Promote investment in RTD in public HEIs.

3.5.4 Contribute to the transfer and use of knowledge, linking HEIs and research centres with the public, social and private sectors.

Promote links (vinculación) between HEIs and research centres with public, social and private sectors.

Promote entrepreneurial development of HEIs and research centres to foster technological innovation and self-employment among young people.

Promote and simplify the registration of intellectual property between HEIs, research centres and the scientific community.

Horizontal Strategy I: Democratise productivity.

Increase and improve the cooperation and coordination between all government agencies to bring technical and higher education to places which lack an adequate educational offer and marginalised areas.

Strengthen institutional capacity and links between upper secondary schools and HEIs with the productive sector and encourage the continual review of the educational offer.

Establish a system for tracking graduates from upper secondary and HE and conduct studies of employer needs.

Horizontal Strategy II: Responsive and modern government.

Strengthen mechanisms, instruments and practices for evaluation and accreditation of quality in upper secondary and higher education for campus, mixed and distance courses.

Horizontal Strategy III: Gender perspective.

Promote access, staying on and timely completion of studies by women at all levels and particularly in upper secondary and higher education.

Source: (Gobierno de la República, 2013[23]) – translation by the OECD Secretariat.

On the basis of the PND, the federal Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) is required to develop a separate strategy for the activities under its responsibility: the Sectoral Education Programme (PSE). The most recent PSE (SEP, 2013[21]) has six strategic objectives for the education sector as a whole. For each strategic objective, the PSE establishes intermediate objectives, each with a set of actions. The most relevant objectives of the PSE for higher education are:

  • Strategic Objective Two8 focuses on the quality and relevance of upper secondary education, professional training and higher education. Specific objectives include improving quality assurance mechanisms; developing the capacity of HEIs in research and innovation; improving the relevance of higher education programmes to national needs; exploiting information and communication technologies in higher education (including for distance education) and supporting improvements in higher education infrastructure and facilities.

  • Strategic Objective Three9 focuses on social equity, including access and completion in higher education. Specific objectives include improving student financial support; ensuring further expansion of the system is aligned to regional needs and; “support” for institutions to help them reduce drop-out rates.

  • Strategic Objective Six deals with strengthening research and innovation capacity. Specific objectives include a commitment to increase investment in R&D (notably though funding for CONACyT programmes); expanding and improving the quality of postgraduate education (including through increase coverage of quality assurance mechanism) and promoting better links between HEIs and the productive sector. Objective six has a specific focus on expanding the capacity and quality of postgraduate education in science and technology fields.

The Sectoral Education Programme establishes five progress indicators related specifically to higher education and, unlike the PND, fixes specific targets for the end of the programming period in 2018, as show in Box 3.1.

Box 3.1. Higher education indicators in the Sectoral Education Programme 2013-18
  1. 1. Indicator 2.2 (Quality and relevance objective): Increase the proportion of students enrolled in programmes recognised for their quality (accredited by CIEES or COPAES) from 61.7% in 2012 to 72% in 2018;

  2. 2. Indicator 3.1 (Inclusion objective): Increase the gross enrolment rate in higher education (for higher education, calculated as the number of enrolled students as a proportion of the total population aged 18-22) from 32.1% in 2012 to 40% in 2018;

  3. 3. Indicator 3.2 (Inclusion objective): Increase the gross enrolment rate in higher education for individuals from households in the bottom four income deciles, with the target of raising the rate from 14.7% in 2012 to 17% in 2018.

  4. 4. Indicator 6.1 (R&D objective): Increase expenditure on research and development undertaken in higher education institutions [HERD] as a proportion of GDP from 0.12% in 2012 to 0.25% by 2018.

  5. 5. Indicator 6.2 (R&D objective): Increase the proportion of doctoral programmes in the fields of science and technology in the [CONACyT] National Programme for Quality Postgraduate education (PNPC) from 63.5% in 2012 to 71.6% in 2018.

Although the Sectoral Education Programme fixes targets for drop-out rates (tasas de abandono escolar) for primary, secondary and upper secondary education, it does not establish equivalent targets for higher education. This is curious, as the National Development Plan includes completion rates (eficiencia terminal) in all levels of education, including tertiary, as indicators of progress.

Progress in relation to the goals of the both the National Development Plan and the Sectoral Education Programme and policy activities related to these strategies are outlined in the annual “Government Reports” (Gobierno de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, 2018[26]), which enumerate actions taken by government in each policy field each year. Data relating to the Sectoral Education Programme indicators on enrolment in accredited programmes and gross enrolment rates are published and regularly updated on the higher education section of the SEP website (Dirección General Educación Superior Universitaria (DGESU), 2018[27]).

If considered in light of the characteristics of good strategies outlined above, the most recent National Development Plan and Sectoral Education Programme demonstrate both strengths and weaknesses.

It is positive that both documents seek to take an evidence-based approach to strategy-setting, including extensive analyses of the challenges facing higher education, even if this analysis is in some cases constrained by a lack of reliable data (see discussion below). Those drafting the documents received well-formulated inputs from stakeholders in the higher education sector - a notable example being the proposals prepared by the National Association of Universities and Higher Education Institutions (ANUIES) in advance of the 2012 presidential elections (ANUIES, 2012[28])10. Both strategic documents also take into account the results of broader consultations with citizens, reflecting Mexico’s strong tradition in this respect. Furthermore, the priorities and action lines identified are in general both aligned with the diagnoses in the documents themselves and relevant to the broader challenges facing higher education in Mexico and discussed in this report.

While the OECD review team was generally impressed by the level of debate about key issues in higher education policy and the awareness of government officials and stakeholders about the challenges the Mexican system faces, it considers that the current strategic policy framework for higher education in Mexico fails to fulfil its potential in guiding effective policy for a number of reasons:

  1. 1. First, the complementarity between the National Development Plan (PND) and the Sectoral Education Programme (PSE) – and in particular the specific added value of the PSE – is not sufficiently clear. As part of its whole-of-government strategy, the PND already establishes comparatively detailed objectives and lines of action to guide higher education policy. Although it provides a more fine-grained breakdown of objectives and lines of action, the PSE does not provide a greater level of detail on the specific actions that will be taken to implement the strategy and achieve its objectives. The indicators specified in the PND and the PSE do not appear to be fully consistent and the relationship between the two indicator sets is not clear. As a result, the Sectoral Education Programme to some extent merely duplicates the PND, rather than providing an easily understandable and actionable roadmap for future policy.

  2. 2. Second, the logical relationships between the challenges identified, the actions that are proposed and the expected results and impacts are not adequately explained in the Sectoral Education Programme. Diagnoses, objectives and actions lines and indicators are presented in separate chapters without clear links between them. The PSE includes a very large number of action lines with limited or no explanation of each and only very few indicators with no clear explanation of how the planned actions will affect the indicators chosen. As a result the PSE reads rather like a list of good intentions. A programme with fewer action lines, each with clearly identified indicators of progress (at an appropriate level of ambition and meeting SMART criteria) would make it possible for policy makers to understand where their activities fit into the wider picture and for everyone to monitor progress towards goals more effectively.

  3. 3. Third, the choice, in the PND and PSE, to formulate general objectives that apply to all sectors of education and training makes it harder to understand and monitor the strategy for individual educational sectors, including higher education. As educational institutions and the public bodies responsible for their supervision and steering are largely organised by educational sector, a sector-by-sector structure in strategy documents would seem more appropriate to aid readability and facilitate implementation and monitoring.

  4. 4. Finally, leaving aside the inherent difficulty of reporting clearly on implementation of a strategy as wide-ranging and unspecific as the PSE, current systems for reporting progress appear inadequate. The Government Reports are long and lack a clear analytical framework and structure for reporting, while monitoring data is presented in a raw form without explanatory analysis that would allow stakeholders and citizens to gain a clear understanding of progress.

Despite recent improvements, incomplete data about the characteristics and performance of the higher education system still hinder policy-making

As already highlighted, reliable information about the characteristics and performance of the higher education system is crucial to developing an accurate diagnosis of the challenges the sector faces and – on this basis – designing appropriate policy measures to improve the situation. Mexico has put in place a compulsory data reporting system coordinated by SEP’s Directorate-General for Planning, Programming and Educational Statistics (DGPPyEE). All educational establishments are required to report key information on institutional structures, income, enrolment and graduation at the beginning of every academic year using standardised reporting tools, referred to as Format 911, submitted through an online reporting portal (SEP, 2018[29]).

SEP’s Directorate-General for University Higher Education (DGESU) publishes basic data on the higher education system, derived primarily from the Format 911 reporting system, on its website (Dirección General Educación Superior Universitaria (DGESU), 2018[27]). This database provides accessible data on enrolment, completion of studies (egreso) and formal graduation (titulación), broken down by federal state and higher education subsystem. Data on enrolment rates in accredited programmes (a key indicator in the Sectoral Education Programme) from COPAES and CIEES are provided on the same site, while data on teaching staff and basic funding data are available on the website of SEP’s planning division (DGPPyEE, 2018[30]). The National Association of Universities and Higher Education Institutions (ANUIES) contributes directly to the development of the data collection tools and conducts its own analysis of the information collected (Mendoza Rojas, 2018[10]; ANUIES, 2018[11]).

While key elements of a comprehensive data system for higher education are in place, a number of variables that would be valuable for policy-making and evaluation are not currently available in Mexico. Some of these information gaps are common to all or nearly all higher education systems and are inherently difficult to address. As representatives of SEP note in a recent presentation to universities (Malo, 2018[31]), policy makers in Mexico – in common with the counterparts in most other countries - lack good information about educational processes: the content of programmes, pedagogical approaches, support given to students etc. To address this to some extent, in 2016-17, SEP undertook a wide-ranging survey of institutional leaders, teaching staff and students in higher education (SEP, 2018[32]), focusing on the educational approaches used within institutions. While such surveys can only ever provide a partial picture of reality and face many methodological difficulties, the results of the TRESMEX exercise do appear to provide some useful insights for policy-making. In contrast to many OECD countries, Mexico does have some reliable data on student learning outcomes, from the standardised student assessments undertaken by the National Centre of Evaluation for Higher. Education CENEVAL. However, these data are not comprehensive, nor representative, as they are the results of a subset of programmes that choose to evaluate their learners.

Other current information gaps in Mexico have been tackled in other countries and could be addressed in Mexico to improve understanding of the higher education system. Two issues stand out in particular:

  1. 1. First, as far as the OECD review team can determine, consolidated data on educational spending per student in the different subsystems is not available. As discussed below, the absence of transparent, consolidated data on public and private spending on education per student makes it hard to compare resourcing levels and assess efficiency. It seems likely that many higher education institutions do not have internal accounting and cost allocation systems in place to allow them to report spending on educational activities with complete accuracy. Particular complications include the difficulty of distinguishing staff costs associated with education and research (a challenge common to all higher education systems) and the inclusion of upper secondary and higher education services in the same budget in many public universities (a challenge specific to Mexico).

  2. 2. Second, accurate, true cohort data on students’ educational careers and subsequent education and employment status and outcomes is not available in Mexico. At present, completion (egreso) and formal graduation (titulación) rates are often reported in relation to current enrolment levels rather than on the basis of individual’s actual progression within the educational system. Given the legitimate focus on completion and graduation rates (eficiencia terminal) in Mexico, the shortcomings of current data should be addressed. At the same time, despite commitments made in both the current National Development Plan and the Sectoral Education Programme, Mexico lacks a comprehensive system of graduate tracking. This hampers good student choices in selection of programmes, undermines transparency and accountability and makes internal and external monitoring of institutional performance more challenging. While high rates of informal employment in the Mexican economy create specific challenges, better information on employment outcomes can be very useful for informing policy and practice in a changing economy. Mexico does have a universal Unique Population Registry Code (Clave Única de Registro de Población, CURP) which could be used as a basis for better follow-up of individuals within and after education, following developments in practice in several of other education systems.

Ongoing efforts to engage with the higher education sector across the country, but with uncertain results

As noted in the discussion of the National Development Plan and Sectoral Education Programme above, it is hard to obtain a clear picture of progress in relation to the many action lines for higher education contained in these national strategies. This in part reflects the fact that activities and follow-up of the strategies is dispersed across the different Directorates-General of the SEP. One of the most substantial follow-up activities related to the Sectoral Education Programme has been the so-called “Comprehensive higher education planning initiative” (PIDES), started in 2015 and still underway at the time of writing (SEP, 2018[33]).

Described as a “collective reflection and working exercise”, PIDES has been conceived as a way for the SEP to engage with the higher education community in Mexico, to further refine priorities identified in existing strategies and develop specific projects involving groups of HEIs working towards the priorities and objectives identified. The exercise has involved the organisation of eight two-day sessions each year since 2016 in different regions of Mexico, each bringing together representatives of around 120 higher education institutions to discuss challenges and develop projects. A total of 83 inter-institutional projects in seven thematic areas and involving 721 HEIs have been started (Malo, 2018[31]).

The efforts by SEP to engage with the higher education sector and state higher education bodies through the PIDES initiative are admirable for a stakeholder engagement perspective. It is likely that the results of the discussions and consultations can feed into policy-making processes for the next National Development Plan and Sectoral Education Programme. The idea of supporting inter-institutional projects is, in principle promising, provided the issues addressed in the projects are best tackled at institutional level. Inter-institutional cooperation may, for example, be particularly helpful in areas like curriculum design, effective use of digital technologies or institutional strategies for supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, the ultimate objective of the PIDES project is unclear. Moreover, it is hard to imagine how institutional projects could address more structural issues such as improving the functioning of coordination bodies (COEPES – see above) in the federal states, or issues that would be more efficiently tackled through national initiatives, such as graduate tracking. At the time of writing no information is available on the design and real effectiveness of the projects supported in PIDES.

Considerable variation in the planning capacity between states and a lack of clarity about implementation and follow-up

Each state in Mexico has planning legislation and a State Development Plan (PDE), broadly mirroring the legislative framework in place at federal level. Some states also have their own State Education Programmes, reflecting the strong role of states in school education and their shared responsibilities in higher education. In most states, including Mexico City, higher education falls under the responsibility of state Public Education Secretariats, although in four states11, separate state government departments have responsibility for higher education alongside science, technology and innovation (and in some cases upper secondary education).

It has not been possible within the scope of this review to examine state education policies in any detail. It is clear that some states do have the capacity to undertake coherent, evidence-based analyses of the challenges facing their education systems. The State Education Plan for the State of Guanajuato (Gobierno del Estado de Guanajuato, 2013[34]), for example, contains a well-structured diagnosis and set of objectives. However, as with the Sectoral Education Programme, it is far harder to understand from the State plans seen by the Review Team which specific actions will be taken, who will take them and how they will be financed. To some extent, the State plans appear to overlap with, rather than clearly complement, the national Sectoral Educational Programme and National Development Plan. Moreover, the broad and ambitious objectives, such as promoting equity and improving quality in higher education, established in State plans appear to be disproportionate in light of the limited resources states have to achieve them.

3.3.3. Key recommendations

In the next iteration of the Sectoral Education Programme, include a dedicated section for higher education with fewer objectives, each linked to more precise action lines and indicative resource allocation.

The new government will have become developing the new National Development Plan and the SEP, following a planned restructuring by the new administration, will be responsible for producing a new Sectoral Education Programme. In the view of the OECD Review Team, the next of iteration of the Sectoral Education Programme should aim to provide a clear and more precise programme of action in the field of higher education. To be useful, the new Education Programme should move away from being a wish list of general objectives to being a set of actionable projects. In particular, the new Sectoral Education Programme should:

  • Clearly identify specific priorities for the higher education sector, recognising the distinct needs and challenges of this sector. This could be aided through a distinct chapter on higher education or clearer delimitation of higher education objectives under thematic headings.

  • Specify a small(er) number of well-defined thematic projects (for example on quality, equity, innovation in education), setting realistic objectives and timeframes and explaining the actions that will be taken to achieve these objectives on the basis of a rational intervention logic.

  • Specify indicators that will be directly influenced by the proposed activities and establish targets to be met.

  • Make explicit the funding sources that will be used to support the projects defined and in particular the way a reformed set of extraordinary targeted funding programmes will be deployed.

  • Establish a far more robust programme of monitoring and evaluation to make progress towards the goals of the Sectoral Education Programme transparent for citizens and stakeholders.

Develop a comprehensive and integrated information system for higher education

Mexico needs a stronger national data system on higher education to support policy-making and ensure citizens and stakeholders are informed about the scope and performance of the sector. Despite efforts to improve the availability of basic statistics, quantitative information on higher education in Mexico is clearly inadequate. Priorities should include:

  • Building capacity in the collection and management of data at national level, whether through increasing capacity within the SEP or establishing a small arms-length agency. Whichever option is chosen, the statistical and analytical capacity in ANUIES should be exploited.

  • Ensuring higher education institutions use standard classifications of budgetary information and accounting and receive clear guidance on all forms of statistical reporting (to improve accuracy of Format 911 collections).

  • Develop and exploit a single student identifier, based on the Clave Única de Registro de Población (CURP), to facilitate the transfer of student records and allow continuous, anonymised tracking of students throughout their educational career and transition to the labour market.

Ensure state higher education programmes are complementary to the sectoral education programme and focus on issues where states can make a real impact

The wider efforts to streamline governance of the higher education system in Mexico, proposed above, should create a more rational distribution of responsibilities between the federal government and state education authorities. As suggested, states should focus on building strong and coherent regional higher education systems to meet the needs of their citizens and economies, while leaving certain system-wide regulatory and financial allocation tasks to the federal level. In this context, State-level strategies for higher education should focus exclusively on issues where legal competence and resources will allow states to have real impact. State higher education strategies should:

  • Focus on state responsibilities, and issues where state governments have real agency, while ensuring clearer complementarity with the Sectoral Education Programme.

  • Prioritise alignment of higher education to specific regional strengths and requirements.

  • Include actions to improve cooperation and coordination between higher education institutions in their states, ensuring a clear role for the reinvigorated state coordination bodies (COEPES) in programming and implementation.

  • As for the Sectoral Education Programme, specify a small number of clearly defined, realistic thematic projects with a clear intervention logic, realistic objectives and indicative budgetary allocation.

3.4. Funding higher education in Mexico

3.4.1. Key issues for funding higher education

The funding of higher education has been high on the agenda – in educational policy circles and, to varying extents, in the wider political debate - in many OECD countries in the last decade. Against the backdrop of growing enrolment rates, governments across the world have grappled with the question of how best to provide adequate funding to public higher education providers, in particular to allow them to maintain and improve the quality and relevance of the education they provide.

In some OECD countries with predominantly or exclusively public systems of higher education, a key issue has been the share of funding from that should come from the public purse and the role of tuition fees charged to students and their families. In countries such as Australia and England, over time, reforms have led to a considerable shift in the burden of funding higher education away from government and to students, with policy makers often pointing to the individual returns for students obtained from completing higher education and the need to focus finite public resources on earlier stages of the education system (Browne, 2010[35]). In many other OECD countries, commitment to the public funding of higher education has been stronger. Indeed, in some states there has been a decrease in the role of private funding: in Germany, for example, tuition fees were abolished by all federal states by 2014 (Gilch, 2014[36]).

Another policy question, this time common to all OECD countries, is how to ensure public investment in higher education is spent effectively and efficiently to ensure students acquire the knowledge and skills they need and staff and institutions are able to fulfil their other missions related to research, innovation and engagement with the wider community. Many countries have adjusted the way funding is allocated to public higher education institutions, including through moving from historical budgeting to various types of formula-based funding that take into account the numbers of students or graduates. In addition, governments have experimented with different forms of performance-related funding, as part of core funding formulae, through targeted funding for specific objectives or, as in the Netherlands or Ireland, by linking resources to institutional performance agreements.

Despite an expansion of enrolment in private institutions in the 1990s, recent Mexican governments have increased public investment in higher education in real terms and promoted the expansion of public provision of higher education (Mendoza Rojas, Javier, 2017[37]). As a result, the share of students in private higher education has stabilised at around one third of total enrolment – a level considerably lower in Mexico than in many other Latin American countries, most notably Brazil, where more than 70% of students study in private institutions (INEP, 2017[38]). Public higher education institutions charge symbolic or very low fees to study and a system of public grants for students – albeit with low coverage – has been maintained and expanded over time. As we go on to discuss in the chapter on equity, there is certainly a need to reflect on the equity of the current system of fees and student support across the whole of Mexican higher education and consider changes. However, it is clear that the public higher education systems in Mexico will continue to depend primarily on public funds for the foreseeable future.

Taking this into account, this section of the report examines the effectiveness of the systems in place in Mexico to deliver public funding to higher education institutions, focusing on the following key questions:

  • Adequacy of overall levels of funding: is the level of investment in the public higher education system as a whole adequate to allow them to provide high quality, relevant education and fulfil their other missions?

  • Funding allocation mechanisms: are the procedures and mechanisms used to allocate funding transparent and proportional to the activities the institutions are expected to perform?

  • Equity in funding: in a diverse system like that in Mexico, is the amount of funding for different types of public higher education institution appropriate and equitable?

  • Results orientation: to what extent do current funding allocation mechanisms encourage higher education institutions to work towards national goals and incentivise good performance?

  • Stability and predictability: to what extent does the current funding system allow public higher education institutions to plan effectively for the medium to long term and implement long-term development strategies?

3.4.2. Strengths and challenges

Public spending on higher education has grown, but more slowly than enrolments, resulting in falling spending per student

Among the most meaningful ways to compare levels of investment in higher education is to examine institutional spending per enrolled student, where necessary adjusting for differences in purchasing power between jurisdictions. Providing good quality higher education requires labour-intensive interaction between highly qualified teaching staff and students, and staff costs (salaries, pension contributions etc.) account for a high proportion of institutional expenses in all higher education systems (OECD, 2018, p. 316[39]). Although staff-student ratios and other costs (facilities, equipment etc.) for educating each student vary considerably between disciplines and there are no hard-and-fast rules about how much investment is “enough”, it is reasonable to assume there is a positive correlation between levels of investment per student and the ability of institutions to deliver quality education.

Calculating and comparing levels of expenditure per student is fraught with difficulties, most notably because it is hard to disentangle resources spent directly on the education of students from those spent on other institutional functions such as management, research or community engagement. This problem is most pronounced in research universities and institutes, where academics are engaged in significant amounts of research activity alongside teaching, which both diverts their attention for teaching and has the potential to enrich it. In Mexico, the problem is exacerbated by a lack of easily accessible data on spending per institution. Notwithstanding these difficulties, various analyses allow us to obtain a picture of patterns of spending per student in Mexican higher education from a comparative perspective and over time.

The OECD’s most recent Education at a Glance (OECD, 2018[39]), shows that total spending per student (including on research) in public higher education institutions is among the lowest in the OECD. In 2015, annual spending per student in public institutions in Mexico was calculated to be just under USD 9 000 adjusted for purchasing power parity. This is roughly one third of the level in public HEIs in the United States (USD 26 650), the OECD member with second highest expenditure per student, after outlier Luxembourg. Of OECD countries for which data is available, only Israel, Greece, Latvia, Turkey and Hungary had lower levels of total spending per student in their public higher education institutions, after differences in purchasing power have been accounted for.

However, as shown in Figure 3.2, the headline spending level masks the fact that government spending (subsidies from federal and state governments) accounts for a particularly high proportion of total expenditure on public institutions. Purchasing power-adjusted public spending per student in public institutions in Mexico is around 64% of US public spending per student in public institutions and is higher than in Australia, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Italy, Chile, the United Kingdom and Colombia. The comparatively low level of total spending per student in public institutions in Mexico is thus at least as much a reflection of low private spending (notably income from student fees, research contracts and consulting), as of low levels of government spending. Moreover, spending levels must be seen in the context of overall levels of economic development. Total public spending on higher education institutions in Mexico in 2015 represented one percent of GDP, the same proportion as in Germany and above the proportion spent by the United States (OECD, 2018, p. 267[39]).

Figure 3.2. Public and private spending per student in public HEIs, selected countries (2015)
Expenditure per FTE student in public higher education institutions from public and private sources in USD converted using PPP

Note: * Data for the United Kingdom refer to institutions that formally have private, not-for-profit, legal status, but which have historically been government-dependent and considered to be public institutions in national policy documents.

Source: OECD Educational Finance Indicators. Expenditure per full-time equivalent student, by source of funds and type of expenditure (OECD, 2018[39]).

In Mexico, recent analyses suggest that, despite real terms increases, government spending per student has failed to keep pace with the expansion of enrolment. Over the four annual budget exercises from 2012 to 2015, Mendoza Rojas (2017[37]) calculates that federal spending on higher education (excluding research funds directed through CONACyT) increased in real terms by 8.4%, albeit with considerable variation between federal institutions and subsidies to the states. The same paper argues that real-terms spending per student actually fell over the same period, as shown in Figure 3.3. This trend reflects considerable increases in student numbers in public institutions, driven in part by government initiatives to expand provision and access to higher education, in line with the goals of the National Development Plan and Sectoral Education Programme.

Figure 3.3. Federal subsidy for higher education per student
Federal spending on all types of public higher education institution per student in 2015 Mexican pesos (MXN)

Note: Calculations only take into account enrolment in face-to-face programmes and exclude normal schools. Spending data includes all federal spending on higher education institutions, including ordinary subsidies to federal institutions, extraordinary funding programmes and earmarked transfers to states.

Source: Financiamiento de la educación superior en la primera mitad del gobierno de Enrique Peña Nieto: ¿fin del periodo de expansión? (Mendoza Rojas, Javier, 2017[37]).

2015 was a year characterised by significant strain on federal budgets in Mexico in the wake of a sharp fall in the global oil price. Although data from the SEP show that the federal budget for higher education increased in nominal terms year-on-year in the years 2016-2018, analysis by ANUIES (2018, p. 90[11]) suggests that the federal budget for higher education, excluding research, fell in real terms by almost 8% over the two years from 2015 to 2017. According to the same ANUIES analysis, over the same period, enrolment in public institutions (excluding normal schools) rose by 8%.

A complex system of core funding to higher education institutions, lacking transparent allocation mechanisms

The complex network of subsystems of institutional types within Mexican higher education and the division of responsibility for higher education between the federal government and the states is mirrored in a complex system of funding for public higher education institutions. Across subsystems, institutions receive core funding to cover staff and operating costs referred to as “ordinary funding”. Public institutions – in particular State Public Universities - may also be eligible for targeted “extraordinary” funding, allocated to specific government programmes and awarded to institutions through competitive calls for proposal or – in a few cases12 – allocation formulae.

Federal higher education institutions receive their core (“ordinary”) funding directly from the federal government, with the amount of subsidy for each institution specified each year in the Federal Budget Act (Congreso de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, 2017[40]). Ordinary subsidies are allocated to federal higher education institutions under Section 11 of the federal budget, with institutions receiving specific amounts from distinct functional budget lines (“programmes”), of which the most significant are for institutional management (“Public service and good government” - O001); “Higher education and postgraduate services” (E010); and “Scientific research and technological development” (E021)13. The sum of the amounts allocated under these budget lines forms the total ordinary subsidy for each federal institution for a given year. Although a nominal distinction is made in the Budget Act between allocations for undergraduate and postgraduate education and for research (and for upper secondary education for institutions that incorporate schools), the amounts under each heading are based on a historic cost model and adjusted each year, depending on the availability of federal funds. No specific formulae exist to guide the allocation of resources for different budget lines, meaning there is no direct relationship between enrolment, activities or outputs and the budget institutions receive.

Autonomous State Public Universities (UPES) and non-autonomous public higher education institutions under the responsibility of the states (UPEAS, Technological Universities, Polytechnic Universities, Intercultural Universities, decentralised Institutes of Technology and other types of state higher education institution such as arts or music schools) receive a share of their core (“ordinary”) funding from the federal government and a share from the state government. For non-autonomous state institutions – which account for the majority of public institutions, although not a majority of student enrolment – state governments and the Federation each provide 50% of core funding (Mendoza Rojas, 2018[10]). Annual budgets are negotiated between the SEP and state authorities, again on the basis of historical allocations. An amount corresponding to 50% of the total subsidiary is then adopted explicitly for each institution in each state’s budget act, while the federal share of funding is dispersed by the department of the SEP responsible for the subsystem in question, using funds allocated for this purpose in the federal budget (Section 11, budget line U006 “Subsidies for state decentralised organisations”).

The situation for autonomous State Public Universities, which are typically the largest institutions in states outside the capital, is more complex. While responsibility for core institutional funding is also shared between the state and the Federation, the share of total core funding provided by each level is subject to individual negotiations for each institution. The budget shares and amounts are fixed each year in institutional agreements (convenios). The share of funding assumed respectively by the federal and state levels varies considerably across the country. Whereas, for some institutions, such as the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, the split in funding between Federation and state is roughly 50:50, for others, including the Universidad Autónoma de Tlaxcala and the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, state governments contribute less than 15% core funding (ANUIES, 2018[11]).

The distribution of responsibility between the Federation and states for funding public higher education institutions in each subsystem is summarised in Table 3.3. It is important to recall that a majority of the funding from states originally also comes from the federal level in the form of core funding and transfers, as states have limited tax-raising powers.

Table 3.3. Allocation of core funding to public higher education institutions


Legal status

Proportion of core funding from federal government

Proportion of core funding from state government

Federal public universities

Autonomous institutions (universities) / Federal parastatal entity (others)


State Public Universities (UPES)

Autonomous institution*



State Public Universities with Solidarity Support (UPEAS)

State parastatal entity



Technological Universities (UT)

State parastatal entity



Polytechnic Universities (UPOL)

State parastatal entity



Intercultural Universities (UIC)

State parastatal entity



Federal Institutes of Technology (IT-FED)

Federal parastatal entity (Part of TecNM)


Decentralised Institutes of Technology (IT-DESC)

State parastatal entity (Part of TecNM)



Other public HEIs

State parastatal entity



Federal normal schools

Federal parastatal entity


State normal schools

State parastatal entity


CONACyT Research Centres

Federal parastatal entity


Note: *One State Public University (Universidad de Quintana Roo) is not an autonomous institution; ** ANUIES calculations; *** A limited number of State Public Universities with Solidarity Support receive a different proportion of funding from the federation and their state; **** CONACyT research centres are allocated federal funding through Section 38 of the federal budget, which is specific to CONACyT

Source: OECD based on (ANUIES, 2018[11]; Mendoza Rojas, 2018[10]).

A proportion of the resources from annual budget for the national student grant programme (budget line S243) are allocated directly to federal institutions (such as UNAM, UAM etc.) through the federal budget. In these cases, the institution in question is responsible for allocating the grants to students. The remainder of the grants programme budget is allocated initially to the SEP Directorates-General that oversee the different subsystems of public institutions at state level and thence disbursed to the states for payment to student beneficiaries.

The absence of transparent mechanisms for allocation of resources to public higher education institutions has been criticised by ANUIES, the main representative body for public (and some private) institutions. In their most recent policy proposals (ANUIES, 2018[11]), the Association calls for a more rational and equitable (see below) funding allocation model, based on an assessment of the real costs associated with providing educational services (different types of programme in different fields) and other institutional activities. Mendoza Rojas (2017[37]) notes that reform of the funding model has been on the agenda in Mexico for some years and was even included as a priority in a previous Sectoral Education Programme, but was not mentioned in the 2013-2018 programme.

It seems likely that reform has been hindered by a) a lack of information, b) the inherent complexity of designing an effective new formula-based system, c) the sensitivity of university funding as such and d) a lack of additional public funds to help implement changes. Experience from other countries (Bennetot Pruvot, Claeys-Kulik and Estermann, 2015[41]) shows that the transition from historical budgeting to funding formulae requires additional resources to minimise the budget reductions for institutions that stand to lose from a more rational, activity and output-based allocation mechanism and, more significantly, allocate additional money to institutions that have previously been “underfunded” according to the new model.

Unjustified differences in funding per student exist between and within subsystems, with some subsystems systematically underfunded

There is wide and often unexplained variation in public subsidy per student between higher education institutions in Mexico. This is largely related to the lack of a transparent allocation mechanism for public resources, discussed above. Some variation in per student funding between institutions is to be expected. Some disciplines, such as hard sciences, medicine and certain arts subjects, are inherently more expensive to provide than others, such as social sciences, law or humanities. Equally, the difficulty of disaggregating spending on educational services means that per student spending rates are sometimes calculated using total institutional budgets, which include spending on research, innovation and engagement. Institutions with large research budgets and significant engagement activities will inevitably be more expensive.

Even taking into account these factors, wide variation in per student funding is visible between institutions in Mexico in single subsystems and with theoretically similar missions and profiles. A prominent example is that of State Public Universities (UPES). ANUIES calculates that in 2017, the Universidad Autónoma de Guerrero received a core operating budget (ordinary funding) of MXN 34 946 per student, while the Universidad Autónoma de Tamaulipas received 3.7 times as much, with MXN 128 806 per student (ANUIES, 2018[11]). The ANUIES figures include upper secondary students in the enrolment figures for some institutions (weighted to 0.7 of a tertiary student), as it is generally impossible to disaggregate the public funding universities receive for, and spend on, their in-house upper secondary schools. This is another complicating factor in obtaining an accurate picture of per student funding in Mexico. Nevertheless, even when considering just the universities without in-house secondary schools, it is evident that the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur, for example, receives double the subsidy per student obtained by the Universidad Autónoma de Tlaxcala (MXN 85 176 compared to MXN 43 351 in 2017).

In some cases, these differences in funding result from higher contributions from individual state governments to the ordinary funding of UPES. For example, the State of Tamaulipas, with the highest spending per student, also contributes the highest share among all states of the total public funding received by the local State Public University and the highest state subsidy per student in absolute terms. The relatively low funding per student at the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca appears to result from the very low contribution from the State government (only 10% of ordinary subsidy). However, the variation in the level of subsidiary from the federal government between nominally similar institutions is striking. Whereas the UPES in the State of Mexico and in Guerrero receive only around MXN 25 000 in ordinary funding per student per year, the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán receives MXN 79 859 per student per year. It is also noteworthy that Yucatán, one of the wealthier entities in the Federation, contributes only MXN 11 200 per student to its UPES, an amount that corresponds to 11.5% of the state’s GDP per capita.

Table 3.4. State and federal core funding to selected UPES in Mexican pesos (MXN) per student and as a proportion of GDP per capita


Total budget ordinary budget in 2017

ANUIES spend per student

State share of ordinary subsidy

State spending per student

Federal spending per student

GDP per capita 2015 (MXN)

Spending per student as % GDP per capita

Universidad Autónoma de Tamaulipas

4 666 106 444

128 806


72 260

56 546

122 206


Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán

2 048 405 685

91 059


11 200

79 859

97 215


Universidad Veracruzana

4 474 999 534

79 523


37 614

41 909

83 928


Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla

5 659 166 038

70 412


22 743

47 669

70 868


Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México

3 565 508 813

48 929


24 660

24 269

75 983


Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca

971 112 630

44 485


4 582

39 903

54 034


Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León

6 756 077 996

41 808


11 121

30 687

205 952


Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Hidalgo

1 674 882 116

40 980


10 286

30 694

78 669


Universidad Autónoma de Guerrero

2 426 335 399

34 946


9 296

25 650

56 671


Source: Data on budget, spending per student and state share of ordinary subsidy (ANUIES, 2018[11]); GDP per capita data:

The significant variation in federal and state subsidies per student and in the relative financial effort made by individual states in supporting their principal public research universities needs to be addressed in order to establish a more transparent and equitable distribution of funding within this subsystem of higher education.

It is more difficult to obtain data on spending per student for other subsystems of higher education in Mexico as this information is not compiled centrally in an accessible form14. With the resources available to them, ANUIES have calculated that, in 2016, federal universities received on average MXN 118 000 per student per year (compared to an average of MXN 56 000 for UPES, discussed above), federal Institutes of Technology MXN 37 000 per student per year, decentralised Institutes of Technology MXN 29 000 and Technological and Polytechnic Universities MXN 24 000 per student per year, on average (ANUIES, 2018, p. 92[11]). No data are available for normal schools or the various types of public higher education institution grouped under the “other” category and which include music and performing arts schools under the control of the states. As noted earlier, the differences between these average funding rates are to some extent explained by differences in the missions of the different types of institution. In particular, federal universities and some UPES concentrate the vast majority of Mexico’s academic research activity, medical schools and a large proportion of the country’s postgraduate education, which explains their higher funding levels.

In an attempt to gain further insight into the funding of higher education institutions, the OECD review team compared the budgets allocated to individual higher education institutions in the State of Puebla, one of the locations visited during the review mission. The state Budget Act includes the full breakdown of the ordinary budget allocations for the UPES (the Benemerita Universidad Autonoma de Puebla) and the state’s share of ordinary subsidies for other institutional types, including State Public Universities with Solidarity Support (UPEAS), Intercultural Universities (UIC), Technological and Polytechnic Universities (UT and UPOL) and decentralised Institutes of Technology (IT-DESC). Using data from the SEP’s enrolment database for 2016-17 and funding allocations form the 2016 state budget law and with the assumption that the 50:50 split in ordinary subsidies between the state and the Federation is respected, it is possible to calculate spending per student for a selection of institution in the state’s higher education system. The results are presented in Table 3.5.

Table 3.5. Spending per student in selected public HEIs in the State of Puebla 2016
Budget allocations in Mexican pesos (MXN)



Enrolment 2016-2017

State Funding*

Federal Funding

Total core public funding

Public funding / student

Benemerita Universidad Autonoma de Puebla


78 761

1 929 127 863

3 740 414 448

5 669 542 311

71 984

Universidad Interserrana del Estado de Puebla Ahuacatlan



9 148 373

9 148 373**

18 296 746

59 022

Universidad Intercultural del Estado de Puebla



12 960 806

12 960 806**

25 921 612

36 716

Instituto Tecnologico Superior de Venustiano Carranza



9 186 881

9 186 881**

1.8 373 762

33 226

Universidad Tecnologica de Puebla


6 773

105 158 314

105 158 314**

210 316 628

31 052

Universidad Tecnologica de Izucar de Matamoros


2 117

30 653 556

30 653 556**

61 307 112

28 959

Instituto Tecnologico Superior de Huauchinango


1 779

22 660 517

22 660 517**

45 321 034

25 476

Instituto Tecnologico Superior de Teziutlan


2 545

31 127 804

31 127 804**

62 255 608

24 462

Universidad Tecnologica de Oriental



7 385 488

7 385 488**

14 770 976

24 455

Universidad Tecnologica de Huejotzingo


3 493

42 418 579

42 418 579**

84 837 158

24 288

Universidad Interserrana del Estado de Puebla Chilchotla



9 235 632

9 235 632**

18 471 264

23 500

Universidad Politecnica de Puebla


2 638

29 002 074

29 002 074**

58 004 148

21 988

Universidad Tecnologica de Tecamachalco


3 536

38 012 385

38 012 385**

76 024 770

21 500

Instituto Tecnologico Superior de Zacapoaxtla


2 361

22 472 106

22 472 106**

44 944 212

19 036

Universidad Tecnologica de Xicotepec de Juarez


3 339

25 223 935

25 223 935**

50 447 870

15 109

Universidad Politecnica de Amozoc


1 291

8 084 439

8 084 439**

16 168 878

12 524

Universidad Politecnica Metropolitana de Puebla



4 088 920

4 088 920**

8 177 840

10 593

Note: * Allocations based on specific attributions in the Puebla State Budget Act for 2016; ** Federal allocations assume that the general principle of 1:1 match-funding between state and Federation for non-autonomous institutions is respected.

Source: Data on funding allocations: (Congreso del Estado de Puebla, 2015[42]) Data on enrolment: (Dirección General Educación Superior Universitaria (DGESU), 2018[27]).

The data, while only relating to one of the states in Mexico (the fifth largest by population), show high spend in UPEAS and Intercultural Universities and very variable spend between decentralised Institutes of Technology and Polytechnic and Technological Universities (which may or may not be explained by differences in disciplinary focus). In the latter two types of institution, the lowest-funded institutions of each type in Puebla State receive less than half the amount of ordinary subsidy received by the best-funded institution of the same category.

A well-established system of competitive and targeted funding, but programmes are fragmented, with overlapping objectives and complex application procedures

Since the early 1990s, the Mexican federal government has operated a series of additional funding programmes to support higher education, in addition to the direct (“ordinary”) subsidies it provides to institutions. These “extraordinary” funding programmes provide target funding for specific objectives to public higher education institutions under the remit of the states, and, in particular, to State Public Universities (UPES). Federal public higher education institutions are not generally eligible to receive funds under extraordinary funding programmes.

The programmes are administered by different departments within the SEP, in most cases through annual calls for proposals15. The SEP establishes terms of reference and institutions submit proposals, which are then evaluated by external experts or evaluation committees and successful institutions then receive the additional funding directly or through funds transferred via state administrations.

Historically, the extraordinary funding programmes have focused in particular on promoting a) improvements in infrastructure and expansion of the higher education system; b) upgrading the qualification levels of full-time academic staff and c) supporting institutional projects to increase the quality of teaching and learning, including through external accreditation of programmes. A major restructuring of programmes occurred in 2014, when a number of programmes specific to the higher education sector were combined with programmes with similar aims in other sectors of education and training. At this time, the Programa del Mejoramiento del Profesorado (PROMEP), which had been providing funds to support academics upgrade their qualifications since 1996, was combined with programmes for training primary and secondary school teachers under the umbrella of the Programa para el Desarrollo Profesional Docente (PRODEP). The fundamental focus and actions of the previous programme were retained, but as a strand of a wider programme.

A similar process occurred with other programmes. The Programa de Fortalecimiento de la Calidad Educativa (PFCE) was created as a programme to support quality across sectors of education and training, but incorporating distinct action lines from earlier programmes to support institutional projects in higher education and promote acquisition of external quality accreditation. The Programa para la Inclusión y la Equidad Educativa (PIYEE), again covering all educational sectors, supports infrastructure and management projects to improve accessibility for disabled students and develop strategies to support students from vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Alongside these programmes that target public higher education institutions in different subsystems, two current programmes provide more structural support to UPES. The Programa de Carrera Docente en UPES provides funds to UPES to allow them to reward full-time staff that meet specific criteria (including performance in research, teaching responsibilities etc.) with additional salary bonuses. The Fondo de Apoyo para el Saneamiento Financiero y la Atención a Problemas Estructurales de las UPES provides funds to help UPES meet their obligations in relation to pension payments to former staff as well as improve their internal management processes.

As summarised in Table 3.6, below, two further federal programmes exist at present. The comparatively small Programa de Apoyo al Desarrollo de la Educación Superior (PADES), which support institutional development projects in a wide range of thematic areas, and the Programa de Expansión de la Educación Media Superior y Superior, which has historically supported the creation of new facilities, new programmes and new institutions of higher education to improve access. However, in the fiscal year 2018, no funding was allocated to this programme.

Table 3.6. Extraordinary funding programmes for higher education in 2018

Funding programme

Budget line

Institution types eligible

Objective / focus

Total budget 2018 (pesos)

Programme to Strengthen Educational Quality (Higher Education)

Programa de Fortalecimiento de la Calidad Educativa (PFCE)


UPES, UPEAS, UPOL, UT, UIC, Public normal schools

Support for institutional development plans with projects aimed at improving quality of educational programmes and achieving accreditation

1 862 591 120

Programme to support the development of higher education

Programa de Apoyo al Desarrollo de la Educación Superior (PADES)



Institutional projects to support a) quality ; b) diversification and relevance; c) embedding “transversal content”, d) internationalisation; and e) innovation in education

436 966 486

Programme for Educational Inclusion and Equity

Programa para la Inclusión y la Equidad Educativa (PIEE)


UPES, UPEAS, UPOL, UT, UIC, Public normal schools

Support to institutions to a) improve staying on and completion rates for vulnerable and indigenous students and b) improve accessibility for disabled students

52 497 746

Programme for Professional Development of Teachers (Higher Education)

Programa para el Desarrollo Profesional Docente (PRODEP)


UPES, UPEAS, UPOL, UT, UIC, Public normal schools

Support to HEIs to fund full-time Academic Staff to gain qualifications (Master’s / Doctorate) and activities in Academic Research Groups (Cuerpos academicos)

656 407 011

Programme for Academic Careers in UPES

Programa de Carrera Docente en UPES


The 34 State Public Universities (UPES)

Funding allocated to UPES for bonuses for full –time teaching staff who have proven record of performance in teaching and research

350 000 000

Support fund for financial restructuring & addressing structural problems in UPES

Fondo de Apoyo para el Saneamiento Financiero y la Atención a Problemas Estructurales de las UPES


The 34 State Public Universities (UPES)

Supporting projects to reduce accumulated pension deficits

700 000 000

Programme for expansion of upper secondary & higher education

Programa de Expansión de la Educación Media Superior y Superior


UPES, UPEAS, UPOL, UT, UIC, Public normal schools

Creation of new sites and educational programmes and expansion of existing programmes


(not funds allocated to HE strand in 2018)

Source: PFCE (SEP, 2018[43]); PADES (SEP, 2018[44]); PIYEE (Dirección General de Educación Superior Universitaría (DGESU), 2018[45]); PRODEP (SEP, 2017[46]); UPES programmes (SEP, 2018[47]; SEP, 2018[48]); Budget data: (Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público, 2018[49]).

In principle, targeted funding programmes, such as the extraordinary funds used in Mexico can be a valuable tool to allow governments to increase the focus of higher education institutions on strategic goals and increase focus on results and performance, while allowing institutions to develop and implement projects that would not be possible with ordinary operating resources. There is a general sense among policy makers and stakeholders in Mexico consulted by the OECD Review Team that the extraordinary funds have indeed had positive impacts, such as increases in the qualification levels of staff and an increase in the number of programmes with external quality accreditation. Even though there have not been systematic impact evaluations, it seems that the extraordinary funds have focused attention within institutions on issues such as quality that are national priorities. This is all the more notable, given the complexity of the Mexican higher education landscape and the strong degree of autonomy enjoyed by research universities, which make it challenging for governments to influence and steer the system.

Despite these positive aspects, the system of extraordinary funding as currently designed in Mexico has a number of weaknesses.

A first, and fundamental, point, raised by several stakeholders and institutional representatives in Mexico is that a proportion of extraordinary funds are used for activities that are not “extraordinary”, but part of the everyday operation of HEIs. The most striking examples of this are the specific support programmes for UPES to deal with shortfalls in pension payments or provide incentive payments to staff. Although public institutions may sometimes experience budget difficulties and require additional financial support, it appears that extraordinary support programmes have been in place for UPES in Mexico for at least 10 years (Mendoza Rojas, 2018[10]). This suggests that the allocation mechanisms for ordinary funding are not providing effective coverage for operational costs. Similarly, it would be reasonably to expect HEIs develop and fund a system of performance-related remuneration as part of their internal human resources policy, rather than relying on an external fund, which anachronistically applies to only one subsystem of higher education.

More generally, it can be harder to draw the line between activities that should be part of the core business of HEIs and those that warrant dedicated project funding. It could be argued that virtually all activities supported by extraordinary funds should be part of the core missions of effective institutions. However, in the Mexican context, where such a high proportion of institutional funding in public institutions is absorbed by staff costs and basic operating expenses, providing additional project-based resources for institutional project to bolster quality, inclusion and staff capacity building would appear to be a sound and pragmatic solution, provided these projects can be designed and implemented effectively.

A second recurring criticism of the current system of extraordinary funding is its failure to promote long-term planning and projects. As the federal budget is adopted annually, resources are allocated under the extraordinary funds one year at a time. At the same time, the design of programmes and funding levels can vary considerably from one year to the next. ANUIES (2018[11]) and other stakeholders interviewed by the OECD Review Team claim that this has led to a development of ad hoc projects that meet the requirements of specific calls for proposals, but are not embedded effectively in long-term institutional development strategies and do not always last long enough to have the desired effects. The budget cuts of recent years are likely to have exacerbated these problems, as institutions have even less certainty that resources will be available in the medium term to implement ongoing and long-term projects.

A third issue relates to the definition and focus on the extraordinary programmes. Here there are two issues. First, although the main programmes for quality, staff training and inclusion appear relatively clearly focused, the precise added value of the PADES programme, which covers multiple objective with little money, is unclear. It is crucial that the purpose and complementarity of funding programmes is clear to stakeholders. Second, the decision to incorporate higher education programmes into cross-sectoral programmes in 2014 means that programme documents become unwieldy with different requirements and proposed actions for each sector. As with the Sectoral Education Programme, it would make more sense to organise programmes on sectoral lines, with a specific extraordinary programme for higher education.

Finally, the current generation of extraordinary programmes are being implemented without a systematic programme of impact evaluation. The National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (CONEVAL) undertakes evaluations of the design of the programmes and evaluations and monitoring of programme processes and outputs, which is already a positive step, but in many cases notes the absence of clear evidence on impact (CONEVAL, 2017[50]). Evaluations of extraordinary programmes that have been undertaken (see, for example, (N.I.K. Beta S.C., 2018[51])) note difficulties in establishing a clear intervention logic (linking activities and expected results and impacts), a lack of well-defined indicators of impact and difficulties in obtaining consistent information on results and impacts from institutional reporting. Better information on results and impacts would allow the SEP to adjust the design of the programmes accordingly, although care must be taken not to impose excessive administrative burden on institutions. At present there is little evidence of a culture of evaluation and learning from past experiences in the design of funding programmes.

Unpredictability in funding levels and programmes have hindered medium to long-term planning within institutions

The discussions above have highlighted the absence of transparent mechanisms for awarding core “ordinary” funding to public higher education institutions and considerable instability in the design and funding levels attributed to the various extraordinary funding programmes. These factors reduce the predictability of income streams for institutions and act as a barrier to long-term institutional planning and projects. Further, the fact that enrolment has expanded faster than ordinary funding and longstanding financial problems, such as an inadequacy of institutional pension funds, mean many institutions are focused on finding resources to keep their institutions running, rather than engaging in activities to drive the longer term improvement of their work.

While budget constraints and annual fiscal and budgetary cycles are common across OECD countries, many countries do provide their public higher education institutions with greater predictability, not only through transparent financial allocation mechanisms, but multi-annual budget provisions.

3.4.3. Key recommendations

Ensure the federal budget allocated to higher education is proportionate to political goals and policy targets

Expanding participation in higher education has been a key goal in the 2013-2018 National Development Plan and is likely to remain a priority for the new government. However, educating more students, while seeking to maintain or increase quality, requires more resources. These resources can only realistically come from public funds or tuition fees charged to students. If the political choice of the Mexican government is to rely on public funding sources for public education institutions, then the resources allocated to the sector must be adjusted to reflect increasing student numbers.

Mexico currently spends a similar proportion of its GDP on public subsidy to higher education institutions as some leading OECD economies. However, absolute levels of investment per student are already comparatively low. It is questionable how much more expansion of the system can be achieved within current levels of spending, even with some reallocation between institutions. Moreover, transitioning to a more rational allocation model for institutional funding, as proposed below, is likely to require additional resources. To deal with these challenges, while maintaining the principle of a publicly funded system, Mexico will need to commit additional public money to higher education.

Establish a rational system for allocating public funding to federal and state higher education institutions, taking into account institutional missions and real costs

The current system for allocating public money to public higher education institutions based is not transparent and takes no account of the tasks institutions actually perform for their money or the results they achieve. Mexico should introduce a rational system for allocating core (ordinary) public funding to federal and public state higher education institutions. The new system of funding should:

  • Reflect the activities undertaken by higher education institutions, with funding for different types of activity (tertiary education, research, engagement) clearly distinguished in allocations. Budget lines for activities not directly related to the core business of higher education institutions (secondary schooling, provision of community facilities or national scientific services) should be clearly separated from the higher education budgeting process and subject to their own allocation rules.

  • Be based on an assessment of real unit costs per student and/or graduate for delivering different types of educational programme, taking into account variation between disciplines, and include weightings to take into account differences in costs between expensive and less expensive locations in the country.

  • Focus on compensating “losers” in current system with additional funds, while seeking to minimise funding “shocks” for institutions that currently receive disproportionately high funding and stand to lose out with a more rational funding formula.

  • Be accepted by both federal and state governments and applied consistently throughout the Republic.

The development of a new funding model will require a considerable effort of time and resources to develop appropriate unit costs and find ways to replace existing budget processes with a more rational model without causing unacceptable financial instability for individual institutions. An expert committee composed of financial experts from inside and outside the higher education systems and a clear mandate may be the most appropriate way to proceed. This committee should draw on the experience of other OECD countries.

Use the new funding model as a basis for correcting unjustified differences in institutional funding across the system

In the short-term, the new funding mechanism should be used to ensure, in particular, that the technical and professionally oriented sectors (Institutes of Technology, Technological Universities and Polytechnic Universities) are funded at a level that allows them to deliver high quality programmes in sometime expensive fields (such as engineering or nursing), while updating their curricula and teaching methods.

All state public higher education institutions, including autonomous State Public Universities, should be funded on an equitable basis, most probably with half of core funding from the Federation and half from States.

In the longer term, the public normal schools should be funded through the same model. However, it is likely that the current network of often very small schools will be an expensive basis on which to calculate unit operating costs. As such, reform of the funding model should be combined with attempts to maximise efficiency in normal schools, notably through alliances and mergers.

Reform extraordinary funding programmes to focus exclusively on quality and equity-related projects that complement the core activities of HEIs

The reformed funding formula outlined above, should ensure public higher education institutions receive adequate funds to cover reasonable operating costs and staff compensation and pension policies. The extraordinary funding programmes should be maintained, but focused exclusively on projects that go above and beyond the day-to-day operation of institutions. The funds should be explicitly linked to priorities established in the new Sectoral Education Programme. These could include:

  • Supporting quality and innovation in learning and teaching (through a reformed quality and innovation programme), with differentiated support for institutions at different stages in their quality development.

  • Promoting equity, through targeted institutional measures to improve support and facilities for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. This fund should, as at present, complement, but in no way overlap with mainstream student financial support mechanisms.

  • Supporting the establishment and implementation of system-wide norms and procedures, including the proposed credit transfer and accumulation system and an improved higher education statistical system.

In order to achieve efficiency and encourage mutual learning between institutions, the extraordinary funds should encourage, where appropriate, joint cooperation projects between institutions. The programmes should also support multi-year projects to facilitate activities with a long-term impact.

Move to long-term budget planning

The current system of annual budgeting reflects the annual state budget cycle, but creates considerable financial instability and unpredictability for public higher education institutions. The SEP and the higher education sector should work together with the Secretariat for Finance and Public Credit to find a method to provide multi-annual budget commitments to institutions.

In return for greater financial predictability, institutions should be required to present clear institutional development plans and report in an accurate and timely manner on their use of resources, activities and performance.


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[13] European Commission (2018), The European Higher Education Area in 2018: Bologna Process Implementation Report, European Commission/EACEA/Eurydice, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg,

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← 1. Examples of this include the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) in the UK or Parcoursup in France.

← 2. Participaciones a Entidades Federativas y Municipios (Ramo 28)

← 3. Aportaciones Federales para Entidades Federativas y Municipios (Ramo 33)

← 4. Although federal and state universities have different funding arrangements, they share a similar autonomous status.

← 5. Managed by the horizontal Coordinación General de Educación Intercultural y Bilingüe

← 6. The Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (Kultusministerkonferenz), for example, plays this role in Germany’s decentralised system of higher education.

← 7. According to the National Development Plan, “completion rate” is defined as “the percentage of students who manage to complete their studies in a timely manner in each educational level, according to the average formal duration established for programmes at each level”. For higher education the average formal duration is fixed as five years, which corresponds to the formal duration of a bachelor’s degree (licenciatura).

← 8. “To strengthen the quality and relevance of upper secondary education, higher education and professional training, in order to contribute to the development of Mexico”

← 9. “To ensure greater coverage, inclusion and educational equity among all groups of the population to build a fairer society”

← 10. ANUIES published an updated analysis and set of proposals in advance of the 2018 presidential election (ANUIES, 2018[34]).

← 11. Jalisco, Guanajuato, Oaxaca and Yucatán

← 12. For example, the Programme for Academic Careers in State Public Universities

← 13. Other less frequent allocations are made for “Social infrastructure projects in the education sector” (K009); “Maintenance of infrastructure” (K027)

← 14. In principle the data gathered from the Format 911 would allow this information to be compiled, although it would require considerable resources to cross-check financial information supplied by institutions with budget allocations made by federal and state authorities.

← 15. The Fondo de Apoyo para la Atención a Problemas Estructurales de las UPES is allocated on a formula basis.

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