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Higher education: it’s worse than you think

Its fundamental structure is a bureaucratic relic of the 19th century

Higher education in Mexico is more accessible now than it ever has been in its almost five-century history. As I’ve said before, universities are cranking out engineers, lawyers, business professionals and accountants by the truckload to meet the demands of the rapidly growing economy.

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This is good news. Unfortunately, it’s just about the only good news regarding tertiary education in Mexico.

The fundamental structure of Mexican higher education remains a bureaucratic relic of the 19th century, and despite decades-long reforms, the most fundamental and easiest reform to accomplish has been largely ignored: a national public policy focused on proper funding of tertiary education institutions.

Particularly troubling is the extraordinarily low pay of university professors and researchers, which has resulted in a domino effect of successive malignancies such as lack of productive research, poverty of public and private research funding, a brain drain of Mexican scholars to other countries and a lack of teaching and research positions at the university level, among others.

There’s too much to tackle in a short op-ed (this piece is a distillation of a 6,000-word academic paper co-written with my colleague Luly Caraveo). So I’ll focus on the trifecta of the most terrible: low professor pay and the manifestation of its symptoms, the paucity of published research and subsequent lack of academic research positions, and the brain drain of Mexico’s best and brightest.

Mexican academics are among the lowest paid in the world, fitting within the same quartile as university professors in Ethiopia and Kazakhstan.

As a result, careers in academia and research are mostly eschewed by students who would rather work in the more lucrative private sector. A newly minted PhD in Mexico will earn about the same as a fast-food restaurant manager, hardly an incentive to spend a decade studying for a doctorate.

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And this is despite the fact that Mexico enjoys, according to the World Bank, the 11th richest economy is the world when adjusting GDP for purchasing power parity ─ an economy bigger than South Korea or Saudi Arabia.

Because the best universities in the world are just across the border, successive administrations have not seen the pressing need to invest in tertiary education. A case study on the dangers of benign neglect. And a big mistake.

Aspirants for graduate degrees who have the intellectual talent and financial means study in the U.S. or Europe, and don’t return after obtaining their degrees. Not because they don’t want to. There’s just very few jobs in research, and where they do exist, they pay barely subsistence-level salaries. It’s an unintended and self-perpetuating system of intellectual mediocrity.

Which raises the question: What is the current state of the professoriate in Mexico? It is in shambles. Less than 4% of university professors have doctorates. The vast majority have only bachelor-level degrees, and 70% teach only part-time. Not surprisingly, little research gets done.

In 2012, the country of Canada, with a population roughly the same as the greater Mexico City metropolitan area, produced 49,947 academic publications. Mexico, with a population of over 120,000,000, produced 8,626. A national shame.

Letting other countries do the heavy lifting in scholarship is self-defeating. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the U.S. has granted 2,715,390 patents since 1790, while Mexico has issued 2,581.

For many decades different federal administrations have recognized the problem, and programs have been put into place to address these issues. Unfortunately, they have largely been tantamount to applying a Band-Aid to a sucking chest wound.

To cite two examples, President Peña Nieto has pledged to increase Mexico’s R&D budget to of 1% of GDP over a four-year period; probably achievable only because it is so embarrassingly modest. The SNI (National System of Researchers) was created in 1984 to augment researcher salaries.

The problem is the SNI is grossly underfunded and only 4.7% of academics participate in the program. Moreover, even with the stipends, professor salaries are far below what can be earned in the U.S., Canada or Europe.

Reform is desperately needed, but nothing substantive seems to be forthcoming. Yet the answer isn’t all that complicated: fund tertiary education properly, encourage the development of post-graduate programs and scholarships, expand existing programs, and invest in higher education infrastructure. Graduate students, researchers and innovators will follow.

In sum, there is the greatest of symphonies playing now; it is a symphony of wonder and power and immense beauty, it is a symphony of knowledge. But the concert is not being played in Mexico, and few of the musicians are Mexican.

The Mexicans act as the stagehands and technicians as the music plays on and the crescendo builds. And this is, most sadly, by choice.

Glen Olives Thompson is a professor of North American Law at La Salle University in Chihuahua.

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