Globalization and the Transformation of the Mexican University by Hugo Aboites

Submitted by Fozzie on April 22, 2018

Globalization and the transformation
of the Mexican university
Hugo Aboites (1)

Within the last ten years, the Mexican university has been drastically transformed. The economic policy of privatization and reliance on foreign investments has been paralleled in the educational sphere by a similar privatization of knowledge and a greater dependence on Œimported knowledge¹. Until these recent changes, the Mexican university was the expression of a social pact dating back to the 1910 Revolution, according to which the university was to be an institution committed to providing free education, open to all, autonomous (boards were usually composed of faculty, students, administrators and staff, while government officials and businessmen were never present), democratic, intellectually progressive and, thanks to the unionizing drives of the seventies, professionalized. The university was also the institutional foundation of the country's research infrastructure. Of the nearly 2,100 units of research and development, 880 belonged to the universities and only 55 to private industry, government centers accounting for most of the rest. This vision of what the university was to be was seldom completely realized; it was, however, the frame of reference of many university struggles over the last six decades. By contrast the changes that have been introduced in the 1980s in higher education involve a complete reinterpretation of the legal mandate of the institutions, which often instructed that research and teaching should address the ³needs and the problems of the society".

The changes that have taken place have been dramatic in almost every area. Tuition fees, in most universities, have increased, and so has the influence of big business on higher education, following the creation of national and local organisms endowed with academic authority, whose membership includes selected faculty members, government officials and business representatives. A new wage policy has been introduced that ties faculty salaries to productivity. Unions have been pushed to the margins of university life, by the introduction of new wage policies that are not subject to collective bargaining, and by a legal disposition, dating back to 1981, that prevents them from negotiating most of the issues relevant to academic life. Subsidies for education have been cut, with the result that the growth rate of students in higher education, already very low (15% of the youth in the 18-24 bracket, against 50% in the U.S.), is slowing down. The space given to the discussion of ideas and criticism has shrunk and has been subjected to market rules. Students, staff and faculty organization, that were instrumental in establishing that education is a right and an exercise of democracy, are slowly being replaced by an amorphous number of individuals who only relate to each other as providers and consumers of an "educational service." These tendencies have been intensified by the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). According to the logic of the NAFTA, knowledge-producing institutions must come under the control of both the industrialists, who are eager to acquire technological innovations, and the government whose task, under the Agreement, is to protect the property rights of U.S. and Canadian companies (see Chapter 17 of the Agreement), and insure that the production of knowledge is controlled by the market.

State and University in the eighties

The "rationalization" of the Mexican university is the outcome of a process that began in 1982. In the fall of that year, the Mexican government declared that it could not continue to service the foreign debt. No event could have been more dramatic and symbolic than this moratorium. It showed that the State was unable to foster growth within the political and economic arrangement created over the last decades and even before. It also showed that, for the last ten years, the crisis had been postponed only through the borrowing of more and more funds, so that, in less than a decade, the debt had grown from around $30 billion dollars to more than $100 billions. The rate of borrowing had increased especially in the previous years, when the flight of capital from Mexican investors had reached record heights.

The collapse was to serve the government, in the following years, as the basis for the introduction of a different kind of social deal in the country, where any new step would be justified as a ³painful but necessary measure² in a period of economic emergency. A crisis of such depth, it was said, could not be resolved without a complete restructuring of the country's economy. Accordingly, the new group in power--the technocrats and modernizers--argued that Mexico should conform to the rules and standards set by the international financial agencies, particularly the International Monetary Fund (IMF), presumably to gain a new international respectability and build the conditions for a new type of development.

It was clear for the modernizers that Mexico's integration in the global economy and its expected sequel, the arrival of foreign capital, were not possible within the context of the existing relations between the State and the main social sectors in the country. The social benefits stipulated by such relations, including access to education, were presented as an excessive overhead for the State and prospective investors. Thus, in May 1992, the federal government put an end to the existing single, centralized system of elementary and secondary education, both in order to shift the financial responsibility of education to states and local communities, and to disperse in 30 different sections a union that, up to that point, had been the only one in the country for all the employees of the Ministry of Education and, as such, was one of the most powerful unions of Latin America. For years the presence of a single union had forced the State to negotiate almost every change, and had greatly inhibited business' influence on education.

A similar logic was applied to the university system. Beginning in the early 1980s, a quick series of new measures were introduced that undermined the most positive characteristics of the Mexican university. In 1980, following a change in the constitutional article concerning education,(2) new labor rules were introduced that limited the rights of university workers' organizations (especially those of the faculty) to negotiate ³academic² matters. This meant the exclusion of the teachers' union from any bilateral supervision over the academic process used to recruit and promote the faculty. The new legal provision also explicitly ruled out the possibility of a national union of university workers. Later on, in 1982-83, another milestone in the path of change was reached. Following to the letter the recommendations of the IMF, a drastic reduction in higher education subsidies was put into place. It was carried on by increasing, by only a few points, the funds for higher education, whereas the yearly inflation neared 100% percent. Not surprisingly, by 1984, the real value of the subsidies and the salaries of the faculty and staff workers had fallen by almost 50%.

The cut of subsidies, put a strong pressure on the universities' administrators, leading them to question the feasibility of a virtually free higher education and to explore the possibility of strengthening relations with the private sector. Later, the government educational cabinet,(3) took the increases in tuition-fees, and the search for ties with private companies, as a sign that university administrators were willing to start a process of "reform towards excellence." Soon such moves would be seen as the condition for granting additional funds, for specific projects, in selected institutions. According to the new criteria, funds that were much needed for the foreseen expansion of the university, were given, instead, to those institutions that pursued change within the governmental guidelines.

This strategy of reductions combined with selective support worked so well that, ten years after the first cuts, in 1992, the real value of the regular subsidies had not substantially increased (it never returned to the pre-1982 levels), while the funds based on "quality" have substantially increased to the advantage of science and technology programs, and graduate studies.

By the second half of the eighties, the government's success in the reshaping funding policies, and tying them to desired institutional behavior, had made a big dent on the universities' autonomy, with regard to their ability to distribute resources. As the regular subsidy was insufficient, and supplementary funds could not be transferred to any other budget line, being usually earmarked for very specific projects, the search for additional resources became frantic. This undermined one of the bases of university autonomy : the use of such criteria as real or projected enrollment, to determine the amount of funds needed. The government, however, was satisfied, and declared that universities should now adapt to the reality of global competition (by raising quality and helping industry) and demonstrate a greater efficiency in the use of public funds.

The strategy of selective funding also served to diffuse the protest of the universitarios against the new austerity policies. In the early eighties, the subsidy cuts had created a unified front in every higher education sector-- scientists, administrators, unions, prominent faculty, artists, intellectuals, students and families. But the selective distribution of funds in scientifically and politically strategic areas (to top researchers, for example) cooled the protest.

At the same time, the new procedures for distributing funds created other problems. University presidents were frequently put in the position of having to figure out what to do to appear productive. In an effort to homogenize and render more democratic the application of guide-lines, the National Association of Universities and Higher Education Institutions (Asociación Nacional de Universidades e Instituciones de Enseñanza Superior, ANUIES)--a board made up of the presidents of all institutions-- was given the task of determining the criteria to be used by Œpeer committees¹ for the evaluations of the institutions. But they could not change the new approach set up by the government.

The introduction of this new form of funding marked the transition from ³austerity² (simple cuts) to ³structural change,² or ³restructuring² (selective distribution), in governmental parlance. A classical example of the new approach is how the notion of faculty salary changed and, with it, the concept of a professional faculty. Starting in 1984, selected faculty began to receive a substantial supplement to their wages (30-40% more), directly from the Ministry of Education. Who should receive this supplement, and how much it should be, was a decision made outside the institutions, by committees appointed by the government. In June, 1984 a presidential decree had created the National System of Researchers (Sistema Nacional de Investigadores, SNI) . It included around 4,000 scientists, many of them part of the country's 14,000 members full-time faculty. In 1989, special funds were also allocated for public institutions, so that they could establish a similar program; however the government specified that funds were to be given to no more than 30% of the eligible faculty. The adoption of similar practices for the distribution of research funds by the National Council of Science and Technology (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología, CONACYT) and other agencies completed the new scenario.

The structural changes served not only to lower the level of political confrontation (for it could always be said that, however little, something was being done for higher education); they also served to reduce public spending for education. Ten years after the first cuts of 1982-83, the State finances were in a better shape than ever (the 1992 budget had a surplus), but spending for education has hardly increased, and is still far from the pre-1982 levels, despite the growth of the university system in these years.

The institutionalization of a reduced commitment by the State towards higher education signals a new political relation between the State and the academic institutions, and a new concept of the relation between the university and society. The message is that any concern for the problems of society must be superseded by the needs of the productive apparatus, as defined by the corporations and the business community. In the words of the Under-Secretary of Higher Education and Scientific Research of the Ministry of Education (Secretaría de Educación Pública, SEP):

[T]he most important part of the new university will be its linkage to society; joint planning between universities and industry; sharing of information for decision making; coordinated use of laboratories of industry, coordinated research, and the fact that industry¹s training and professionalization of its personnel become a process [endorsed] by the certification of the universities. (4)

As a result of the protectionist policies pursued by the government in previous years, Mexican industry had never felt the need to invest in research and development programs and infrastructure. Thus, it is not surprising that the 120,000 businesses, that constitute the industrial apparatus of the country, have only a total of 55 R&D; centers. Nor is industry in any rush to set up a research infrastructure, although it is the accepted wisdom that global competition will wipe out the companies that cannot upgrade their technology and productivity. For its part, the government is not asking industry to finance the establishment of research centers in their plants, nor is prepared to finance the creation of such centers. It prefers to welcome industry to the use of the 880 centers available in the public higher education institutions. Everything there is ready and working. The new imperatives set by competition within the new global economy have been the center piece of the ideology by which the government has justified the transformation of the university. It is now accepted that the competitive challenge posed by economic globalization calls for a "high quality" university, as far as teaching and research, and that universities must develop the technological basis enabling Mexican industry to become a competitive exporter. Many university presidents, thus, are convinced of the intrinsic goodness of linking the university to industry; and this reasoning is strengthened by the fact that, again and again, the government has used the scarcity of funds to pressure academic institutions to establish closer relations with business. Such relations are now a prerequisite for the approval and funding of some academic programs.(5)

It is at the national level that this trend is most visible. The government is calling for the achievement of a broad agreement between government, industry and the universities. Meanwhile, the National Council for Science and Technology (CONACYT) has secured the participation of several CEOs of large corporations (airlines, communications, construction), as members of the highest ranking committee that is charged with the formation of highly trained scientists. Among other things, this committee decides which graduate programs--in the country's academic institutions and in the universities of the entire world-- are ³of excellence." In such programs, students may receive scholarships for room, board and fees, and the programs themselves are eligible for additional funds. More importantly, in 1990, the Ministry of Education and the representatives of the private sector signed an agreement that made government and business partners, in the conduction of that segment of higher education (the technical institutions) directly depending on the government.

The trend being set, some autonomous universities are exploring in which ways their relation with business can become an institutional program. Some universities, like UAM (Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana), try to circumvent their founding charter by setting guidelines and regulations that give priority to ³research programs harmonizing the needs of research and the needs of production.²(6) Others are more adamant and change their charters. This is what occurred in the Universidad Autónoma de Sonora, where changes were introduced allowing for the increase of tuition fees and the participation of businessmen in the Board of Directors.

One of the consequences of the new funding policies is that the possibility for the university to have a cohesive body of workers (staff and academic) has been undermined. The lowering and restructuring of salaries have created a sharp differentiation within the institutions. The programs introduced to supplement the salaries have widened the lower-higher income gap from 5 to 12. They have also created an atmosphere of uncertainty, since the supplements are temporary and new merit schemes are constantly being devised with different objectives (four are currently in operation). Finally, supplement programs deteriorate the professional commitment of those faculty and staff (about 90% of the total in any given institution) who are not eligible, or have been rejected in the evaluations.

Salary wise, only 10% of all workers (lumping together academic and staff) have incomes similar, in real value, to those of the past decade, that is $2,000 dollars a month or more. By contrast, 90% have an average income of around $500 dollars a month. Thus, many of the latter have to find alternative ways to supplement their salaries outside the institution. The merit pay policy, then, means a de facto reduction in the number of faculty and staff actually devoted to full-time work in the universities. For only about one third of the 16,000 full-time faculty, in the public higher education institutions, are in fact Œfully¹ paid.

The change in funding and pay policies have deeply affected the unions. The response from unions and faculty in 1983-1986 was very strong, but it has receded. A series of strikes during those years, which, at one point, closed up to twenty universities for a month, were unable to win a substantial salary rise or modify the government plan for the universities. As a result, unions are now forced to accept very low increases, and are not allowed to supervise, in any capacity, the granting of the supplementary programs. The explicit instruction given by government officials to the university administrators is that they should not, by any means, negotiate the amounts or criteria for those funds.(7)

The new rules concerning the funding of the universities have also prompted a race among the administrators of different institutions to increase or introduce tuition fees. One remaining stronghold of free higher education still in existence is the National Autonomous University (UNAM), where a tenacious student movement has been able to prevent a planned tuition fees increase from the present amount--less than $1 dollar a year-- to $750 dollars. In other public institutions, tuition fees have already risen from similar low levels to $200 dollars a year. Given that more than half the students in public institutions come from families with incomes under $8,400 dollars a year, these increases will certainly have a strong impact on the families' ability to afford higher education for their children. Moreover, we can be sure that, once the idea is established that public education is not free, the burden of every fiscal crisis will be placed on the students.

The new creed that universities must submit to the plebiscite of the market is also reducing the spaces available for free and independent analysis. The Œneeds of society¹ are now unequivocally identified with those of the CEOs or their managerial offices, or with those defined by the Government. Significantly, some salary supplements are only granted to teachers whose activities follow the government plans for the country's development. (8)

While the importance of the unions and other collegiate bodies, as channels of participation and cohesion in the university, has diminished, institutional bureaucracies have been strengthened both in numbers and in functions. Echoing some of the suggestions of the World Bank for higher education in Latin America,(9) the Under-Secretary for Higher Education and Scientific Research has condemned the way in which universities select their presidents, administrators and representatives in the university councils, which are the core of self-government in the universities. The claim is that ³[t]he process used to appoint and choose authorities and representatives in several universities is far from sensitive to the opinion and the weight that should be given to the more brilliant faculty²(10) --"the more brilliant" referring, without doubt, to the teachers selected in the evaluations for supplementary salary.

In conclusion, the new relations that have been established, inside and outside the university, point to a historic change with regard to the role of the university in Mexican society. True, the State's blueprint for the universities will have to undergo modifications, given the resistance of students, university workers (including the faculty), collegiate bodies, and the administrators themselves. It is, indeed, possible that the State may not be able to guarantee that the changes so far implemented will hold. The network of relations that supports these changes is still tenuous, top-down, and based on little consensus. Competence, productivity, quality and market needs can hardly be points of reference for academic activities, because the changes introduced inhibit such integration. Productivity, and merit pay can have an appeal for those who have access to programs providing a supplementary salary. For the rest, given the low salaries and the striking differences in pay, they have the opposite effect. In addition, the available programs are run by the government and from outside the institutions, which means that no self-sustaining dynamics can be generated from within the universities. In part to avoid this problem, the government is planning to create a few "high quality" universities so well connected to the market as to not need any prodding, and 40% to 60% self-sufficient as far as their funding requirements (through a combination of tuition fees, industry contracts and private donations). As for the remaining institutions, they are to form a subordinate layer, most of them receiving little funding and only in specific circumstances, and for "solid" projects. This plan fits very well with what is happening in other sectors, like the postal service and bussing. Unable to modernize the entire postal system, the government has created a special high-price system that runs efficiently, but only attends to a small fraction of the bulk of the mail. In the case of bussing, if a passenger can afford a 100% increase, instead of traveling the entire night in a crowded bus, s/he can travel in a super luxurious bus, with t.v. sets, bar and seats that extend for a full nights¹ rest.

This scenario is already unfolding in academe as well, and so are its contradictions. First, promoting a deep differentiation among institutions and university workers, holds very few promises as a strategy for increasing productivity. No matter how well paid and motivated are the 10% of the university workers who receive "merit pay", and no matter how hard they work, their effort can not compensate for the ballast represented by the 90% of the workers who have low salaries and resent this differential treatment. Such deep differences in earnings, in fact, make it clear that workers do not control their work environment, and justify a low-level commitment on the side of the faculty and staff not included in the new deal. A similar approach can be used to judge the probable efficiency of creating such enormous differences between institutions.

Furthermore, the corporate sector does not seem that interested in funding the universities or extensively using their laboratories. Possibly, only a few big corporations will establish relations with the universities, and probably many of them represent foreign capital. Judging from what is happening now, it is doubtful that such an intervention could make a significant difference in the universities' budget, or could pay for the real costs of the services. It is to be expected that the corporate world will only establish those connections that are clearly to its advantage, and will only seek to take advantage of the low overhead and low salaries of the researchers. Thus, in addition to the difficulty of face saving, in front of the fact that the new university is charging tuition and, at the same time, subsidizing big and foreign corporations, this leaves the government in the difficult position of having to continue to run the system and pay for it directly.

The resistance of workers and students, however disperse, has managed to slow the pace of change or, at times, bluntly stop it. This is what has happened in the National Autonomous University (UNAM) in 1986-87, when plans to increase the tuition fees were met by demonstrations of more than 100,000 students, and by a student strike that shut down the university for a month. As a result of these and other instances of resistance, the government now knows that, before attempting to change certain areas and institutions, it must give careful consideration to the risks involved. As the national electoral landscape becomes more and more unpredictable, mobilizations in the universities are not welcome. This is why, in 1992, the proposal to increase tuition fees in UNAM was again withdrawn, in front of the threat of new demonstrations and strikes, and the likelihood that these disturbance might quickly link with another potentially explosive conflict surrounding the elections in the state of Michoacán.

Another political problem is that all these changes have deep consequences for power relations inside and outside the institutions. Conflicts arising from disputes over areas of influence inside the institutions are more likely to occur in an environment undergoing constant changes, especially if the latter lack widespread support, and are based on little more than the authority to control resources. The instability of institutional life is also increased by the marginalization of large organizations such as the unions. At the national level, repeated confrontations between the Presidents of public universities and the Minister of Education, on matters related to funding, clearly show that the new relations have not crystallized yet and they may never do.

The State, in the universities and other areas, is now experiencing the effects of these contradictions. To Œmodernize¹ itself it had to shrink in size and severe its ties with the popular sector. However, by doing so, it has lost a great deal of the support it needed to carry on its programs. Support from the corporations, and a favorable world public opinion, are not enough to maintain the control of the rudder. The establishment of the "Solidarity" (³Solidaridad² ) program (which devotes federal resources to public and community works, in collaboration with peasants and the urban poor) has revealed the acceptance of the limitations typical of a neo-liberal approach to development. The Mexican State has had to realize that a pure will to change, and a technocratic blueprint are not sufficient to change a country. In the countryside, in the factories and in the universities the times seem mature for the establishment of a new social pact.

1. Departmento de Education y Comunicacion, Division de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades, Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana- Xochimilco (UAM) Medico, D.F. Tel. & FAX (5) 568 63 51.

2. This constitutional amendment established autonomy as a constitutional right of the universities, but it also resulted in the banning of a national union, and the banning of the supervisory participation of unions in the admission, promotion and removal of the faculty.

3. This includes the Ministry of Education (SEP, for its initials in Spanish), particularly the Under-Secretary for Higher Education and Scientific Research; the Ministry of Planning and Budget (SPP, in Spanish), and, with regard to specific issues and overall guidelines, the Presidential Office itself.

4. La Jornada, 25/6/1990. (p.1)

5. Programs in technology and engineering may also be evaluated according to the following : (i.) the relations of the faculty with the productive sector; (ii.) the relation between the research program and the problems of the productive sector. CONACYT Convocatoria : Actualizacion del Padron de Programas de Posgrado de Excelencia. La Jornada (Mexico) 25/5/1992. (p.18).

6. The last part of the sentence was added by the proponents in order to ease its approval by the University Council, and it evokes the discourse of the nationalist sector in industry. Its future is in doubt in light of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Politicas de Investigacion,1.2. Politicas Generales. UAM 1985.

7. ..the administration of money incentives for faculty..should be completely outside of the negotiations with unions or guilds. La Jornada, 24/4/1992. (p.3).

8. For example, the criteria to be met by applicants to the National System of Researchers are "the recent productivity of the researcher...[and his/her] contribution to the scientific, technological, social and cultural development of Mexico, taking into account the objectives and direction stated in the National Plan of Development". This Plan is the program prepared by the President's team as the guideline for the government actions. It is not submitted to any legislative discussion for approval and it changes every six years with the new Administration (no reelection is allowed). "Acuerdo por el que se establece el Sistema Nacional de Investigadores." Secreteria de Educacion Publica. Diario Official. 26/7/1984.

9. D.Winkler, "Higher Education in Latin America. Issues of Efficiency and Equality." World Bank Discussion Paper #7, 1990. There are many "policy choices" that are based on the assumption that "significant constraints to improving efficiency include a system of governance which often substitutes political for performance criteria; emphasis on university autonomy which rejects policy directives from government" (p. xiii).

10. In "Existe en las universidades simulacion, abandono e improductividad", El Universal, 27/11/1992.