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Federations Magazine Article
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Higher Education Decentralizes

Higher Education Decentralizes by Roberto Rodriguez-Gomez

The major political changes that reshaped mexico
in the 20th century have been crucial in transforming
the country’s higher education system. This
transformation of higher education took place while
Mexico was undergoing even greater changes: moving
from a one-party to a multi-party democracy and
responding to an era of privatization.
Access to higher education was very limited in Mexico
before 1950, owing to the small number of institutions at this
level and, above all, to the small proportion of the population
who had completed basic education. In 1950, Mexico had less
than 24 institutions of higher education with a total enrolment
of about 30,000 students. After a period of extraordinary expansion
in the 1970s, enrolment had reached more than 800,000
The diversification process in post-secondary education
gained momentum in the 1980s and has intensified and matured
in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. Key elements
in this process included:
• An increase in private investment that caused enrolment in
private higher education institutions to climb to one-third of
the total for the country, and to 40 per cent for the graduate
studies level. One factor in this growth is the public system’s
failure to meet demand and the lack of rigorous academic
quality control.
• Promotion of high-tech studies in the public sector.
• Creation of almost 20 new public institutions in the states, by the
federal government, with the participation of state governments.
• Decentralization of state public universities, including the
creation of facilities in cities that are not state capitals.
As a result, the post-secondary education system doubled its
enrolment between 1990 and 2006 to 2.5 million students from
1.2 million.
Federal Financing Changed in 1997
The growth of post-secondary education has been
greatly affected by a 1997 amendment to the Fiscal
Coordination Law, an integral part of Mexico’s new
federalism. This budget amendment introduced the
concept of “support funds” to supplement the contributions
in the National Fiscal Coordination System. It
was instituted to improve the public treasury’s tax
coordination functions and facilitate the decentralization
of public services.
Federal and state
responsibilities for
spending programs
and oversight were
also specified within
this new budget framework.
Under it, federal
agencies are accountable for the global calculation of
the budget to be transferred to each state, and the
state records the funds received in their own accounting
systems. To reduce the risk of state and municipal
entities using resources provided by this law for other
activities, a formula of “earmarked funds” was
adopted and control mechanisms were established.
This granting of earmarked fiscal resources to the states for
education has been a key incentive for encouraging more
investment in education, particularly when these funds can be used for programs such as teacher training for basic education
and high-tech programs.
The new mechanism for providing funds coexists with more
flexible instruments for allocating decentralized expenditures,
including programs subject to operating rules approved each
year in the federal budget, as well as joint federal-state agreements
to finance specific programs. The joint agreements have
been used to meet states’ demands for the creation of new public
institutions, or to increase the subsidies granted to state
universities. Also, autonomous federal and state public universities
have taken steps to obtain special allocations directly
from the federal congress.
Public and Private Universities Compete
Mexico has nearly 800 public institutions which enrol twothirds
of the 2.6 million post-secondary students. The state
universities, which account for roughly one-half of the public
sector enrolments, are autonomous and receive both federal
and state subsidies. Federal universities and technological
institutes, now a much smaller post-secondary presence, are
maintained largely with federal funds. The decentralized technological
institutes are legally dependent on the states and are
financed through concurrent subsidies.
For the most part, training of teachers is handled by 276 public
institutions that enrol about 95,000 students – four per cent
of enrolments – and are subsidized through funds transferred
to the states.
The 27 public research centres, subsidized with federal funds
in the science and technology sector and some state subsidies,
provide graduate education to more than 3,000 students.
The private sector is the fastest growing segment of post-secondary
education in Mexico. There are now more than 1,200
private institutions that enrol roughly one-third of all students.
These private institutions are picking up much of the growing
demand for post-secondary education and the trend will likely
continue for the foreseeable future.
Continuing Tensions Unresolved
Despite advances toward decentralization and federalization of
post-secondary education, there are significant tensions and
dilemmas that call for broad solutions. One key problem is the
lack of coordination and regulation with a federal approach,
though the federal education authority still retains important
powers in the field of curriculum orientation of the sectors it coordinates,
particularly in high tech education and teacher training.
Quality-control policies focused on the public universities
of the states, based on the provision of additional federal
resources, also demonstrate a centralist bias as they continue
to be regulated and governed exclusively by the federal authority.
Finally, there is a lack of norms for the stable regulation of
federal and state powers in this area. No less important is the
obvious tension between the autonomy granted by law to most
federal and state public universities and the influence of federal
public policies on the institutions.
Mexico’s road leading from a higher education system that
is extensively decentralized, but subject to central public policies,
to a truly federal system formed by multiple state systems
still lies ahead.