Education reforms march on in Mexico

In the past decade, Mexico’s education sector has made notable progress, despite the pressure the nation’s demographic boom has placed on its system. Coverage, especially in primary education, has increased considerably. The system is now faced with the substantial challenge of raising the overall quality of education and increasing coverage at the post-secondary and tertiary levels, while reducing high drop-out rates.

Recognising the strategic importance of education in raising Mexico’s economic competitiveness, the government passed an important structural reform in 2013 aimed at improving the quality and increasing the efficiency of the system. In 2015 nearly two years after the reform passed, progress is visible, but resistance from Mexico’s powerful teachers’ unions has resulted in a less-than-smooth implementation of changes. Following through with the reform, despite the opposition of the unions, will prove key to breaking the decades-long status quo and ensuring long-term quality and efficiency improvements for the sector.


The Mexican education system is commonly divided into basic, post-secondary and tertiary education. Basic education covers students from three to 14 years of age and is generally split into three levels: three-to-five-year-olds attend pre-school, the completion of which became mandatory in 2008; children ages six to 11 attend primary school, which includes grades one to six; and 11-to-14-year-olds attend secondary school, which comprises grades seven to nine. With a total of 25.9m students in the 2013/14 academic year, basic education accounted for the majority of total enrolment (72.6%) at all levels, according to the Ministry of Public Education (Secretaria de Educación Publica, SEP). Of these, nearly 4.8m were enrolled in preschool, while the primary and secondary levels accounted for 14.6m and 6.6m students, respectively.

Post-secondary education (15-to-17-year-olds), which comprises grades 10 through 12, became compulsory in 2012 and can be of two types: general ( bachillerato) or technical professional programmes. In the 2013/14 academic year, the two branches totalled nearly 4.7m students, or 13.1% of enrolment. Finally, tertiary education includes graduate and post-graduate programmes. With 3.4m students, this level represented 9.5% of enrolment in 2013/14. Vocational training accounted for the remaining 4.7% of enrolment.

The public sector attracts the vast majority of total enrolment (86.5%), while the private sector accounts for the remaining 13.5% – nearly 2.5m students – and is predominantly active at the tertiary level.


The population boom in the past few decades, which saw the population rise from roughly 25m in 1950 to more than 100m by 2000, has put significant pressure on the education system. Enrolment has increased from some 25m in 1990/91 to 35.74m students in 2013/14; the equivalent of 30.2% of the population in 2013, according to SEP, placing Mexico’s education system among the largest in Latin America.

Despite this, Mexico has managed to achieve universal coverage in primary education, reaching 108% (including students repeating a year) in 2013/14, and the country is close to achieving the same in secondary education, which is at 97.1%. The average number of years of school attended for Mexicans (15 years and older) stood at nine in 2014.

At the upper-secondary and tertiary levels, however, increasing coverage continues to pose a challenge. Though enrolment increased from 57.2% in 2005/06, it remains low at 69.4% in 2013/14, a trend attributed in large part to historically high drop-out rates associated with a lack of incentives to stay in school and socio-economic reasons compelling students to begin earning an income at younger ages. Recent efforts to reduce drop-out rates, such as the programme “Yo no abandono” (I do not abandon) that includes scholarships, an early warning initiative and a tutoring programme, have contributed to a significant reduction in drop-out rates in recent years. These registered a reduction from 17.5% in 2000/01 to 13.1% in 2013/14. The current government has set the ambitious goal to increase coverage at this level to 80% and reduce dropout rates to 9% by 2018.

Tertiary enrolment registered at 33.1% in 2013/14 with a drop-out rate of 6.9%. The government hopes to reach 40% coverage at this level by 2018. A key effort to expand coverage at all levels includes increasing the grants available to students. In 2013/14, 7.6m students in public schools across the country benefitted from grants – nearly 30% of the student body – the vast majority (78%) of which went to students in basic education. For 2014/15 a total of MXN41.9bn ($2.82bn) were allocated to grants programmes, representing a 28% increase compared to the previous year.


Despite the progress made in increasing coverage in the past decade, quality remains a major challenge for the education system. In the World Economic Forum’s “Global Competitiveness Report 2014/15”, Mexico ranked 123rd out of 144 countries assessed in quality of the education system, behind Panama (93rd), El Salvador (100th), Colombia (101st), Argentina (102nd), Bolivia (111th), Venezuela (114th) and Honduras (116th). It ranked even lower in quality of maths and science education, at 128th, but slightly higher in quality of primary education (118th), and considerably higher in quality of management schools (70th).

In the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 edition, the most recent edition in which Mexico participated, the country also ranked among the bottom OECD countries, though it performed relatively well compared to other Latin American countries. Mexican 15-year olds scored an average of 413 points in PISA’s mathematics assessment, 81 points below the OECD average of 494, which, according to the OECD, is the equivalent to about two years of schooling. Additionally, 55% of Mexican students did not reach basic competencies and only 1% of 15-year-old students achieved high competency levels. Nonetheless, the score represented an important improvement from PISA’s 2003 edition, in which Mexican students averaged 385 points in the mathematics assessment. Despite this, the test revealed that significant performance gaps remain among indigenous and low socio-economic status populations, pointing to the need to work towards a more egalitarian system.

Inefficient Spending

While in many instances a lack of quality is associated with low education expenditure, that is not the case in Mexico. Money spent on education reached 6.2% of GDP in 2011, slightly above the OECD average of 6.1%, but lower than other Latin American countries, including Argentina (7.2%), Chile (6.9%) and Colombia (6.7%). In 2014 education expenditure reached nearly MXN1.13trn ($76.05bn), representing a 4.6% increase from MXN1.08trn ($72.68bn) in 2013, with the public sector accounting for the majority of total spending (79.3%), according to SEP. The private sector accounted for the remaining 20.7%.

Despite the consistent increase in expenditure since 2000, spending per student has not necessarily followed the trend. In fact, according to the OECD, investment in tertiary education per student actually fell by 4% from 2005 to 2011, reaching 1.3% of GDP, in contrast to a 10% increase among OECD countries. That is because the vast majority of public resources are spent on compensation for Mexico’s large body of teachers, which totalled over 2m in 2013/14. According to the OECD, more than 92% of the total budget for primary, secondary and post-secondary education in Mexico is spent on staff compensation, with teachers’ salaries accounting for 83% of that budget, placing Mexico significantly above OECD averages of 79% and 63%, respectively. Yet, Mexico has the highest student-teacher ratios among OECD countries in primary and secondary education, at 28:1 and 30:1, respectively.

Union Grip

One peculiarity of the education system was the significant power of the National Union of Education Workers (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, SNTE) and its smaller, more radical left-wing arm, the National Coordinator of Educational Workers (Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, CNTE). Besides having significant political power, before the establishment of the Professional Teaching Staff Service, the two unions had significant control in hiring and promoting teachers and have often resisted change. Hiring and promotion practices were known to involve the sale and inheritance of teaching positions, along with other alleged corrupt practices contributing to the poor quality of education.


In 2009 the government introduced a comprehensive reform at the post-secondary level, which among other things, established the Sistema Nacional de Bachillerato. The new system standardised the curriculum and introduced a certification process.

Soon after assuming power, the current government announced a structural reform aimed not only at improving the quality of education, but also at changing the model. A key piece in diagnosing the system was the implementation of the very first census of Mexico’s pre-primary, primary and secondary schools, the results of which were made public in early 2014. The census confirmed the inefficient allocation of resources, revealing that 13%, or 298,200, of those registered on schools’ payrolls (of a total of 2.25m) did not actually turn up to work. According to the survey, 115,000 had quit, retired or died, 113,300 had another job, 39,200 could not be located and 30,700 were on leave. Of the 2.25m, 978,100 were actual teachers and 971,000 corresponded to other staff. The census also shed light on the significant infrastructure needs the system faces; 41% of Mexico’s 207,682 schools had no sewage system; 11% lacked potable water and 31% lacked a connection to the potable water system.

Step By Step

Based on this diagnostic tool, the reform was comprised of four main pillars. The first consisted of placing schools at the centre of the education system; that is, breaking with the previous status quo in which schools enjoyed little autonomy. A second component was the establishment of the Professional Teaching Staff Service, a measure introducing mandatory evaluations for the hiring, promotion and permanence of teachers and staff in basic and post-secondary public education. Third was the establishment of the National System for Evaluation, administered by the autonomous National Institute for Educational Evaluation (Instituto Nacional para la Evaluación de la Educación, INEE), in charge of assessing student performance and overseeing system quality. Finally, the fourth pillar was the establishment of an electronic information and management system, designed to facilitate access to information among authorities and institutions and ultimately strengthen the management autonomy of schools.

The reform was introduced in the fall of 2013 and received an allocation of MXN7.5bn ($504.75m) in its first year. While it has been met with significant opposition from the two main teacher unions, particularly in three states – Oaxaca, Michoacán and Guerrero – the government has moved forward in implementing the reform, but not without compromises.

Contenious Measure

One important change is the transfer of federal funds to schools directly, eliminating the role of state governments. Javier Treviño Cantú, under-secretary of planning and evaluation of education policy at SEP, told OBG, “This is a fundamental change in the conception and implementation of the system, ensuring that resources are spent in a much more efficient and effective manner to improve our school’s infrastructure and other important issues.” A key project is the Schools of Excellence Programme ( Programa Escuelas de Excelencia para Abatir el Rezago Educativo, PEEARE), which seeks to not only close the infrastructure gap but also strengthen the management autonomy of some 20,000 basic education public schools, by allowing the school community to decide how the resources should be allocated. According to SEP, as of April 2015, more than MXN7.2bn ($484.6m) had been disbursed through the programme, and almost MXN4.2bn ($282.7m), or 58%, had been executed since the programme began in September 2014.


Another key accomplishment was the administration of teacher evaluations, a measure that was met with significant resistance from teacher unions, sparking demonstrations. Alexandra Zapata, researcher at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO), told OBG, “One important accomplishment of the reform has been the relative independence of INEE, which has successfully carried out different tests for prospective teachers to enter the service.” According to SEP, as of April 2015, some 35,000 prospective teachers had undergone testing, effectively breaking the tradition of unaccountability in assigning teaching positions.

However, in May 2015 SEP announced the cancellation of all teacher evaluations, stating it needed to consider new elements in the evaluation process. SEP subsequently announced the re-instatement of the evaluations, which were carried out in June in all states, with the exception of the Oaxaca, Michoacán and Chiapas, where evaluations were re-instated in July.

Centralised Pay

Next came the reform that proposed to centralise payment of teacher salaries starting in January 2015, with the federal government assuming responsibility for the transfers.

“This measure was aimed at cleansing the teacher payroll of the irregularities that existed for decades, with the potential to be one of the most impactful and transformative actions taken as part of the reform. However, the manner in which the authorities negotiated the number of teaching positions each state would get paid for – privately – lacked transparency and failed to generate trust that the payroll irregularities would henceforth cease," Zapata told OBG.


Other measures have progressed far more smoothly. INEE is overseeing the design and implementation of a new standardised test for students, which replaces the previous test, ENLACE (Evaluación Nacional de Logro Académico en Centros Escolares), once overseen by SEP and implemented at the national level since 2006 for basic, secondary and post-secondary levels. Primary and secondary levels are set to take the new test in 2015, while the post-secondary level will continue to take ENLACE until the new test is ready.

The government is also moving forward with efforts to increase the use of ICT resources in schools. Through its digital literacy programme, the current administration has begun distributing tablets to fifth graders. According to SEP, 15 states participated in the 2014/15 programme, and the government is looking to cover all 32 states by the end of the current administration’s term in 2018. The measure is also complemented by efforts to increase connectivity. “We are working with the Ministry of Communications and Transport and up to now have connected some 30,000 schools and another 30,000 are expected in 2015,” Treviño told OBG.

Tertiary Education

At the tertiary level, raising the quality of Mexico’s universities would necessarily entail strengthening the country’s quality assurance system. Mexico’s accreditation process is voluntary and characterised by multiple actors. The Council for Accreditation of Higher Education entrusts the accreditation of programmes offered by public and private institutions to several delegated bodies. For private tertiary institutions, approval of study programmes is granted through the recognition of official validation of studies (reconocimiento de validez oficial de estudios, RVOE).

There is, however, no single quality assurance agency, and the RVOE can be awarded by the SEP, state education authorities or some authorised public tertiary institutions. Since public universities require accreditation to receive funding, quality is more uniform among public institutions, which also tend to have more diverse offerings. The need for quality assurance is magnified in the context of the increasing number of tertiary private institutions. According to SEP, of the 7203 tertiary-level institutions in 2014/15, 3948, or 54.8% were private, and attracted nearly 40% of total enrolment.

Skills Gap

Despite the popularity of tertiary education compared to technical training – a total of 1.7m students were enrolled in vocational training in 2013/14 compared to over 3.4m tertiary-level students – attaining tertiary education does not guarantee better labour market outcomes. In fact, the OECD reported that in 2012 unemployment was higher among adults with tertiary education (4.6%) compared with those who had post-secondary schooling (3.5%), indicative of the gap between the academic offer and labour market needs. Labour market absorption of young adults is also problematic, as the OECD reports the proportion of young adults who are neither employed nor in school or training has remained above 20% from 2002 to 2012.

Enrique A González Álvarez, director at University LaSalle, told OBG, “There needs to be more dialogue between the private sector and universities in order to understand their needs, create specific programmes aimed at satisfying those needs, and incentivise students to engage in such careers.” The National Development Plan 2013-18 does recognise the need to increase the pertinence of Mexico’s education by strengthening the link between academia and the corresponding sector. Efforts to increase pertinence are likely to intensify, particularly in the context of the recent structural reforms, which are expected to boost demand for technical training across different sectors, opening further opportunities for the private sector. The reform of the energy sector, which opened up the oil and gas industries to foreign investment, is expected to increase the need for skilled workers, while English language, educational technology and online learning will continue to present further opportunities.


The success of Mexico’s education reform is undoubtedly tied to the government’s ability to resist pressure from teachers’ unions. Implementation of more contentious issues has so far been riddled with obstacles, and the temporary cancellation of teacher evaluations represented a significant step-back. Nonetheless, the implementation of such measures is expected to continue more smoothly. The second census of the education system, this time for post-secondary schooling, is under way and will provide a diagnostic tool that could help bridge the labour market gaps and ultimately support the further professionalisation of the Mexican labour force. Furthermore, SEP told OBG in April 2015 that a new pilot programme for curriculum reform would be announced later in the year.

“This is a long-term investment for our country and up to now we can see positive results even though it will take some years to appreciate its full potential,” Treviño told OBG. “The reform’s legal basis will carry it to implementation, despite certain opposition. Most importantly, SEP has a clear roadmap, and this will be key to ensure quality improvements in the long term.”

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The Report: Mexico 2015

Education chapter from The Report: Mexico 2015

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