Volume 19, Issue 3
| Practical Information
Education in Mexico
By Kevin Rolwing
Mexico’s education system and its evolution over the last half-century can be characterized by one defining feature: its expansive growth. From 1950 to 2000, total student enrollments in the formal education system primary school through graduate studies increased more than eightfold from 3.25 million students in 1950 to 28.22 million students in 2000. Secondary school enrollments in the public sector rose from 1.4 million in 1972 to 5.4 million in 2000. The percentage of the population with a ninth grade education rose from just 9 percent in 1970 to 41.4 percent in 1998, while in the 1990s alone, enrollment in the tertiary sector grew by 46 percent.
This explosive growth in enrollments has placed tremendous pressure on the Mexican education system. Educational authorities and planners in Mexico are faced with two quite different and partially conflicting tasks: on the one hand, to manage and increase educational opportunities for the burgeoning population; on the other hand, to improve the quality of education at all levels in the face of this increasing demand. Beginning in the 1980’s and continuing through today, Mexico has been implementing needed educational reforms such as standardized national admissions and exit examinations at different levels of education, teacher evaluation and professional development mechanisms, institutional evaluation and accreditation, and a set of rankings for university degree programs.
Until the early nineties, primary schools, lower secondary schools, and teacher education were under the direct control of the federal government, specifically through the offices of the Secretaría de Educación Pública/SEP (Secretariat of Public Education) or state ministries of education. All primary and lower secondary schools had to be registered with the SEP, which supervised and regulated them by setting the academic calendar, curricula, grading scales, graduation requirements and by distributing free textbooks. In 1992, modifications were made to the Constitution and Federal Law of Education that transferred most or the administrative duties for these schools to the respective state ministries of education. Since 1993, the SEP has gradually been devolving educational authority to the 31 state ministries of education, and now plays a role that is more supervisory than regulatory in nature. However, the SEP continues to directly administer basic education (primary and lower secondary education) and teacher education in the Federal District of Mexico City. In addition, the SEP continues to distribute free textbooks to primary and lower secondary schools throughout the nation, and the states are obliged to teach the curriculum set out by the SEP.
Upper secondary and higher education does not, in most cases, come under the direct control of the SEP. Public autonomous universities, where the majority (52%) of tertiary students are enrolled, supervise their own programs, budgets, and teaching personnel, and often supervise the studies of private institutions of higher education. Public technological institutions and teacher training institutes fall under the supervision of the SEP, other federal agencies, or state ministries of education. In 2003, private institutions of higher education accounted for approximately 40 percent of all tertiary enrollments. Private institutions are supervised by either a federal or state governmental agency or a public autonomous university, and in a few cases receive permission from the federal government to operate as a "libre" (independent) institution.
The educational system of Mexico can be divided into four levels:
Compulsory Education Extended from Sixth Grade to Ninth Grade
Preschool Education (Preescolar)
The General Law of Education states that preschool education is a part of basic education, and therefore it is provided free of charge. In December 2001, the Mexican Congress voted to make one year of pre-school education mandatory, a provision that went into effect in 2004. Educational authorities deemed this measure crucial to creating a smoother transition for students from preschool to schooling at the primary level.
Primary school consists of grades one through six and has been compulsory since the constitution of 1917.
The secondary level consists of two cycles:
I. Lower-secondary education (educación média básica): grades 7 - 9
I. Lower-secondary education may be divided into two types:
General admission requirements to lower-secondary school include completion of primary education and entrance examinations. Lower-secondary schools are increasingly linked to primary education, while the upper-secondary schools are primarily under the auspices of tertiary-level institutions. It should be noted that the term “secundaria” always refers to lower-secondary study and never higher-secondary study. The lower-secondary cycle includes both an academic program designed to lead to further education (escuela secundaria), as well as vocational programs (escuela secundaria técnica). Upon completion of the three-year escuela secundaria, students receive a comprehensive transcript that allows them to apply to a higher-secondary school.
Admission to upper-secondary school depends on institutional policies. Standardized examinations have been developed by CENEVAL/Centro Nacional de Evaluación (National Center for Evaluation) for lower secondary school leavers and are used as an admissions criterion for upper-secondary school.
Higher-secondary students are enrolled in SEP-controlled institutions, state-controlled institutions, in private schools, and in preparatory schools affiliated with, and under the auspices of, public autonomous universities.
Higher-secondary studies are classified by curriculum, occupational pursuits and further education options as follows:
I. Academic University-Preparatory (bachillerato propedéutico)
II. Professional Technical Education (educación profesional técnica) leads to the vocational title título de técnico profesional (title of professional technician). This sector of upper-secondary study was formerly classified as terminal vocational study, but in 1997 the SEP designated it as “preparatory.” Holders of the título de técnico profesional are now officially eligible for admission to licenciado degree programs.
III. Mixed university-preparatory and technical training leading to a vocational title and the bachillerato--bachillerato tecnológico bivalente (technological bachelor with dual validity)
Upon completion of a vocational program, the graduate receives a vocational title such as the Título de Enfermera or the Título de Técnico Profesional (Title of Nurse, Title of Professional Technician), and may have the title registered with the Secretariat of Public Education to receive a cédula (license). As such, the graduate has a federally recognized occupational license.
Academic University-Preparatory and Preparatory Programs with Occupational Training
Academic university-preparatory programs are offered at escuelas preparatorias (preparatory schools) or colegios (high schools), and technical university preparatory programs at various types of technical schools and institutes.
The upper-secondary sector, which developed to a large extent independently of the national ministry of education (SEP), is extremely diverse in terms of the number of academic programs and the structure of the programs offered. Traditionally, higher-secondary programs were offered under the auspices of local universities. In recent years, however, the SEP and the individual state ministries of education have fostered the development of freestanding colegios, and the number of private independent preparatory schools has steadily increased. Higher secondary university preparatory programs traditionally have prepared students by discipline streaming in such areas as pre-engineering, pre-medicine, or the humanities among others. The recent trend, however, is for programs to offer a more general academic curriculum. Graduates (bachilleres) from upper secondary programs attached to universities and other higher education institutions have traditionally been granted automatic admission (pase automático) to their institution’s programs, whereas students applying from elsewhere must sit admissions examinations.
Upon completion of academic university-preparatory programs, the graduate receives a transcript certificate attesting to completion of the program. The transcript is issued by, or endorsed by, the higher education institution with which the higher secondary school is affiliated or the supervising governmental agency. In general, after completion of academic university-preparatory programs as well as technical programs incorporating university preparatory studies, the transcript will somewhere state that the student has finished the study of the "bachillerato" or the “preparatoria” (university-preparatory studies). Graduates do not always receive a diploma or degree certificate indicating conferral of the title of bachiller (bachelor), as is usually the case in other Latin American countries.
The system of higher education has expanded tremendously in the past quarter century. In the period 1971 to 2000, total enrollment increased more than six-fold from 290,000 to 1,962,000, while in the last decade of the twentieth century alone there was a 50 percent increase in tertiary enrollments. The "opening" of the system came in response to social demand for access to tertiary studies as the size of the middle class increased with rapid economic development.
Admission to Higher Education
Completion of an academic or technical upper-secondary program (preparatoria or bachillerato) is ordinarily required for admission to tertiary level institutions. Certain university departments require that incoming students complete higher-secondary programs in a track relevant to their prospective major field of study. For instance, students wishing to study medicine are generally required to have completed a bachillerato program in a biology or pre-medicine track. For this reason, graduates from liberal arts programs wishing to enroll in a technical/scientific program may be required to complete a second bachillerato program in a scientific/technical stream in order to make up for deficiencies. Normally, however, the student is exempted from the general courses offered in every bachillerato program, having to take only the specialized-track courses.
Selection processes at institutions of higher education differ greatly, reflecting the demand for admission to their programs. Institutional entrance examinations and bachillerato grade point averages are mechanisms which institutions have traditionally made use of in selecting incoming students. Some institutions grant graduates of affiliated bachillerato programs automatic admission (pase automático), while requiring bachillerato graduates from other institutions to undergo an entrance examination and to meet stiffer academic requirements.
Mexico, until recently, had no national standardized examination to indicate the academic performance of upper secondary graduates. Since 1994, higher secondary exit examinations designed by CENEVAL have been used increasingly for the admissions process to higher education. Some universities use a Spanish version of secondary school examinations designed by the College Board in the United States as an admissions examination.
Types of Institutions
According to the Centro Nacional de Evaluación para la Educación Superior CENEVAL there are more than 2,000 institutions of higher education in Mexico that may be grouped into six categories based on their degree offerings:
• Subsistema de Universidades Públicas (Public University Subsystem): includes 56 federal and state universities, most of which have been awarded the status of “autonomous”
• Subsistema de Educación Tecnológica (Technological Education Subsystem): Research-based science and technology institutions comprising eight polytechnic universities and 224 technological institutes offering university degrees in engineering and applied sciences
• Subsistema de Universidades Tecnológicas (Technological University Subsystem): 60 institutions administered by state authorities but authorized by guidelines established by the SEP that offer two-year técnico degree programs incorporating on-the-job training in applied disciplines.
• Subsistema de Educación Normal (Teacher Training Subsystem): 457 institutions that offer licenciado degree programs for all types and levels of teacher training.
• Subsistema de Otras Instituciones Públicas (Other Public Institutions Subsystem): 116 “other” specialized institutions of higher education including the Instituto de Antropología e Historia, schools belonging to the umbrella institution of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes and institutions of the armed forces.
• Subsistema de Instituciones Particulares (Private Institution Subsystem): 1,115 private higher education institutions whose programs of study are supervised by either federal or state ministries, or by public autonomous universities. Private institutions of higher education offer all types of degrees in all disciplines.
Institutions of higher education may also be categorized according to their official institutional and program recognition. According to this schema, there are six types of institutions: public autonomous universities, public state institutions, institutions dependent on the federal government, private independent (libre) institutions, private institutions with official validity, and institutions without official validity (see sidebar).
Validez Oficial de Estudios (Official Validity of Studies)
In Mexico, the basic stamp of official approval for higher education studies is known as validez oficial de estudios (Official Validity of Studies). This classification serves as the basic indicator of governmental and professional approval of higher education programs, and in this sense represents the closest equivalent to regional accreditation in the United States. All programs offered at the three different types of public institution outlined above inherently enjoy the status of official validity as a matter of legal definition. A few prestigious private institutions have been proclaimed "libre" (independent) by presidential decree, which means, among other things, that all their programs are granted official validity. Most programs at private educational institutions obtain the status of official validity in one of two ways, "incorporación" (incorporation) or "reconocimiento" (recognition) as outlined below. Private institutions may be founded without governmental permission, but their programs and credentials will lack official validity unless obtained by one of the above-mentioned means, or if the institution is declared “libre” by presidential decree.
A private institution may have all or some of its academic programs of study "incorporated" under a public autonomous university. Incorporated programs are under the auspices and direction of the public autonomous university. Often, the private institution's curriculum is modeled after the public autonomous university’s own degree programs. Historically, Mexico's largest university, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, has been the dominant model for both public and private universities with regards to curriculum content and structure. The private institution may issue academic transcripts and temporary certificates, but the incorporating public autonomous university issues the final degree certificate.
The federal or state ministries of education or other agencies may bestow official validity upon all or a portion of a private institution's programs through "reconocimiento" (recognition). Private academic institutions must submit to the federal SEP or a state ministry of education an application detailing study plans and teaching personnel in order to have their degree programs considered for official approval. Programs that are granted approval receive the legal classification reconocimiento de validez oficial de estudios/RVOE (recognition of official validity of studies). Many such recognized programs are similar to those offered at public institutions under the jurisdiction of a particular governmental body. Private institutions with recognized programs issue their own degree certificates and academic transcripts, although authorities of the recognizing governmental agency often also sign these.
Programs with No Official Validity
It should be noted that some programs at a private institution may have official validity, whereas other programs at the same institution may lack it.
The principle of "autonomy" signifies the independence of an institution of higher education from governmental control and intrusion. Autonomous institutions ideally enjoy the academic freedom to teach without interference from the government. Although public institutions receive their endowments from governments, both federal and state autonomous universities exercise the right of choosing how to budget these funds. Other types of public institutions are subject to greater degrees of governmental oversight as relates to budgeting decisions. Autonomous universities also have the right to choose their rectors, deans, and governing bodies. At other types of public institution, government officials are normally responsible for appointing these officers.
Técnico Superior Universitario (University Higher Technician) or Profesional Asociado (Professional Associate)
Licenciado (Licentiate) or Professional Title
Maestría (Master's degree)
Not all institutions of higher education employ a system of course credits to measure in a quantitative manner the amount of study completed in a program, and not all institutions employing credits use the same definition. The National Association of Universities and Higher Education Institutions/ANUIES (Asociación de Universidades e Instituciones de Educación Superior) has recommended the following schema for credit allocation: two credits for each hour of theoretical instruction and one credit for each hour of practical instruction. The Universidad Nacional Autónoma/UNAM uses the ANUIES definition. This credit system may also be used in upper secondary programs. Licenciado degree students ordinarily accumulate a minimum of 300 credits during a four-year program.
The following table provides the WES suggested equivalency for the three common Mexican grading scales:
Degrees awarded in Mexico are equivalent to those awarded in the United States at the corresponding level.
Requirements for Licentiate-Level Degree Programs
In order to earn the final qualification of licenciado or an equivalent professional title at most institutions of higher education, students must complete all the prescribed coursework, complete a period of social service (480 hours to one year full-time depending on the field of study), present a thesis or final project, and sit a professional examination, which is normally a thesis defense. Some universities grant students the option of completing additional coursework, usually at the graduate level, in lieu of writing a thesis. Students with an exceptional grade point average may be exempted from the thesis requirement. Some universities do not require a thesis.
The Carta de Pasante
Many institutions of higher education issue students a "diploma" following completion of coursework in a program, but before submission of the required thesis, and thus before the licenciado degree has been officially awarded. Students may also receive a “diploma para pertenecer a la generación de XXXX” (“diploma for belonging to the class of XXXX”). If the diploma does not state that the student has completed all required coursework, and if the transcript does not clearly demonstrate degree completion, further investigation is required to verify that the student has actually completed all coursework in the certificate program.
Recent Programs and Policies to Improve Education In Mexico
Due to the tremendous growth in the school population, higher education massification, globalization of economies and education, and increased pressure on educational resources, educational authorities have implemented many new laws, educational reforms, and structures designed to ultimately improve the efficiency and quality of education in Mexico.
One of the major protagonists in educational reforms in Mexico is ANUIES, the Asociación Nacional de Universidades e Instituciones de Educación Superior (National Association of Universities and Higher Education Institutions). ANUIES is a non-governmental body founded in 1950 that is involved in higher education assessment and planning. It advises and works with governmental bodies and committees on education policy and serves as a clearinghouse for education information and statistics. ANUIES publishes books and monographs on higher education, and a quarterly newsletter, Revista de la Educación Superior (Higher Education Review). ANUIES is comprised of 146 of the leading public and private higher education institutions representing 85 percent of Mexico’s higher education students.
All Teacher Training Institutions Transformed to Higher Education Institutions
In 1984, a law was enacted making the bachillerato the admission requirement to the escuelas normales (teacher training schools). Previously, preschool and primary school teachers completed a four-year curriculum following nine years of elementary and lower-secondary schooling. Several years were needed for full implementation of this new law. With the new law, the escuelas normales were renamed escuelas normales superiores (higher teacher training schools).
Currently, the escuelas normales superiores offer licentiate degree programs for preschool, primary school, secondary school, special education, and physical education teachers. They also offer different types of graduate and continuing education programs. There are also six-year summer programs (cursos intensivos) designed for teachers who completed their teacher training at upper secondary level to upgrade their qualification to the licentiate degree. The Universidad Nacional Pedagógica also offers a special three-year non-residential licenciado degree program to teachers trained at upper secondary level in addition to other teacher training and education programs.
System of Technological Universities
In 1991, a new type of institution of higher education, the universidad tecnológica, was founded. These technological universities offer applied two-year programs in business administration, technology, and applied sciences leading to the qualification of técnico superior universitario (university higher technician). The two-year program consists of six 15-week semesters with 30 percent of the curriculum being theoretical instruction and 70 percent practical instruction and projects. Until the founding of these institutions, almost all technological studies were offered either at the upper-secondary level or in four- or five-year university degree programs. The system of universidades tecnológicas is administered by the state ministries of education, and the total number of institutions has grown to a total of 60 as of 2006. This new system is still relatively small in terms of enrollment, comprising about 2 percent of the total higher education student body.
Graduate Programs of Excellence in Science and Technology
In 1991, the National Council for Science and Technology (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología--CONACYT) developed an evaluation mechanism for the designation of graduate programs of excellence. Graduate programs, including specialization programs, master’s degrees and doctoral degrees, that met various evaluative criteria (including faculty academic preparation, published research, human and physical resources, professor/student ratio, financial support) obtained a special designation and were included on a list of graduate programs of excellence in science and technology (Padrón de Programas de Posgrado de Excelencia para Ciencia y Tecnología) and were eligible for CONACYT study and research grants. In addition to the financial support provided by CONACYT, graduate degree programs that attained this coveted status earned an elevated academic recognition in university circles and among prospective incoming graduate students, both nationally and internationally. However, educational planners and academics saw the greatest benefit of the Padrón as a mechanism to spur on and induce greater quality assurance in graduate programs across Mexico.
In 2001 CONACYT reformed and refined the procedures for the designation of graduate programs of excellence by introducing three new distinct categories of quality measurement in all types of graduate programs (especialista, maestría, doctorado). All graduate programs that now apply for the evaluation process are included on list called the Programa para el Fortalecimiento del Posgrado Nacional PFPN (Program for the Fortification of National Graduate Studies).
Graduate programs that have been deemed to reach an acceptable measurement of quality assurance are included on the Padrón Nacional de Posgrado (PNP), (National Registry of Graduate Studies). On this registry, graduate programs are further classified into two distinct categories, the Alto Nivel (High Level) and a higher designation Competentes a Nivel Internacional (Competent on an International Level). As of April 2006, there were 337 programs included on the PNP list.
Graduate programs that have been deemed to not have attained the quality assurance level of the Padrón Nacional de Posgrado (PNP), (National Registry of Graduate Programs) are included on another list called the Programa Integral de Fortalecimiento del Posgrado PIFOP (Integral Program for the Fortification of Graduate Studies). It is foreseen that universities whose graduate programs have been relegated to this list will endeavor to strengthen these programs so that they can be re-evaluated at a later date and included on the Padrón Nacional de Posgrado (PNP), (National Registry of Graduate Studies). As of April 2006, there were 381 programs on the PIFOP list.
In summary, graduate programs that have applied for a CONACYT designation may be classified in ascending order of quality:
One can obtain more information on the history and progress of the Graduate Programs of Excellence program and view all programs listed on the Programa para el Fortalecimiento del Posgrado Nacional PFPN list by visiting the CONACYT website at http://www.conacyt.mx/ and then clicking on the “instituciones educativas” link.
Centro Nacional de Evaluación CENEVAL (National Center of Evaluation)
CENEVAL was founded in 1994 as an autonomous civil association. It designs and administers admissions examinations for students applying to bachillerato, licenciatura and maestría degree programs. In addition, CENEVAL has also designed competency examinations for técnico superior and licenciado graduates in many fields of study.
El Consejo para la Acreditación de la Educación Superior, A.C. COPAES (Higher Education Accreditation Council)
This non-profit civic organization has been charged since 2000 by the Secretaria de Educación Pública to recognize official accrediting bodies in different fields of study that in turn accredit undergraduate degree programs (licenciado, técnico superior, profesional asociado) and proclaim the accredited degree programs to be of “good quality” (buena calidad). The individual accrediting bodies recognized by the El Consejo para la Acreditación de la Educación Superior, A.C. – COPAES must evaluate degree programs utilizing a template of qualitative criteria that include the following: curriculum, evaluation of learning, student profiles, physical infrastructure, research, administrative and academic staff, and administrative and financial management. The accrediting bodies must renew their recognition status with COPAES every five years, and institutions must also submit accredited degree programs to a re-evaluation every five years.
Accredited programs will enjoy higher academic prestige both nationally and internationally and will be eligible for additional governmental financial support and grants. It must be noted that accreditation of university degree programs through COPAES is voluntary, but the rewards of academic prestige and financial support are expected to induce higher education institutions to seek to have their programs accredited and, of course, ultimately to improve their programs and academic services.
As of March 2006, COPAES has recognized accrediting bodies in the following twenty-two study areas: agriculture, architecture, marine sciences, chemical sciences, social sciences, accounting and business administration, design, economics, law nutritional sciences, communication sciences, nursing, computer and information sciences, engineering, medicine, veterinary medicine and animal sciences, dentistry psychology, tourism, pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences, biology, physical education and sports sciences.
Accrediting bodies that are in process of recognition through COPAES include the following study areas: art, English language instruction, physics education, humanities and pedagogy.
As of December 2005, COPAES had accredited a total of 725 degree programs in the above-mentioned disciplines offered by a total of 62 public institutions and 37 private institutions. (SEP statistics from 2003 show 6,600 licenciado programs throughout Mexico.)
Federación de Instituciones Mexicanas Particulares de Educación Superior — FIMPES (The Federation of Mexican Private Institutions of Higher Education)
FIMPES consists of the leading private higher education institutions. In order to become a member of the association, a higher education institution must meet various criteria for higher education quality. The federation promotes communication, exchange, and shared resources and research among its members. The FIMPES website provides a directory of full members (acreditados), and institutions that have applied for membership (aspirantes): http://www.fimpes.ur.mx/.
Asociación Mexicana para la EducaciónInternacional, A.C AMPEI (The Mexican Association for International Education)
AMPEI, founded in July 1992, is a non-profit organization whose mission is to contribute to strengthening the academic quality of Mexican higher educational institutions through international cooperation. Sponsored by funds from different organizations that support institutions of higher education worldwide, as well as annual membership fees, AMPEI carries out different activities such as promoting exchanges and professional development particularly in the international areas and acts as an international exchange information clearinghouse. Members of the association can be found at: http://www.ampei.org.mx/.
• ANUIES (Asociación Nacional de Universidades e Institutos Superiores) (Internet Homepage: www.anuies.mx. (Provides information on institutions of higher education and links to other important educational and governmental agencies)
• ANUIES is a non-governmental university association composed of public and private institutions of higher education (144) which studies educational policies and practices, and makes recommendations. It acts as an information clearinghouse and publishes books, articles, and periodicals concerned with all aspects of the Mexican system of higher education. There are links on its website to two educational journals: Confluencia and Revista de la Educación Superior
• University of Texas, International Office, Mexico Info Sheet (by Kitty Villa)
• Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP) --Secretariat of Education (SEP) Internet homepage: http://www.sep.gob.mx/wb2/. (Provides information on all aspects of system of education, including directories of schools and higher education institutions)
• Subsecretaría de Educación Superior (SES) — (Undersecretariat for Higher Education) Internet homepage: http://ses4.sep.gob.mx/. (Provides information on all aspects of higher education, including articles and statistics, as well as a directory of higher education institutions, directory of accredited undergraduate programs, and a directory of graduate programs of excellence).
• La Certificación de la Educación Superior en México—prepared by the Centro Nacional de Evaluación para la Educación Superior, A.C. and available on the UNESCO website at: www.iesalc.unesco.org.ve
• Informe Nacional sobre la Educación Superior en México (2003).Prepared by the Subsecretaría de Educación Superior e Investigación Cientifica SESIC and available on the UNESCO website at: www.iesalc.unesco.org.ve
• Programa Nacional de Educación 2001-2006 prepared by the Secretaría de Educación Pública Superior e Investigación Cientifica SESIC and available on the UNESCO website at: www.iesalc.unesco.org.ve
• National Office of Overseas Skills Recognition (1993). Country Education Profiles - Mexico - A Comparative Study. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.
• Villa, Kitty M. (1982). Mexico. Washington, DC: World Education Series.