Mexico outlines clear areas of focus for education sector


Since enacting a constitutional change defining the right to education in 2013, Mexico has been working to implement sector reforms to enhance the national school system. As the domestic economy is primarily focused on technical export manufacturing, the reforms aim to strengthen the primary and secondary education system to increase the flow of skilled candidates to university and into the workforce. The overhaul of hiring and assessment practices for teachers initially faced opposition from strong unions, but by the end of 2017 most national and state groups had adopted the regulations that included a new teacher evaluation system. However, other obstacles remain in ensuring that the labour pool remains competitive in a globalised economy increasingly focused on the automation and digitalisation of Industry 4.0 manufacturing.

Basic Indicators

According to the report “Education at a Glance 2017” by the OECD, Mexico spent 5.4% of GDP on primary, secondary and tertiary education in 2014 – slightly above the OECD average of 5.2%. This equated to an annual expenditure of $3703 per student that year, against the OECD average of $10,759.

The Ministry of Public Education (Secretaría de Educación Pública, SEP) recorded 257,425 schools in the country during the 2016/17 academic year. Of these, 87.7% were primary schools, 8% were schools for the secondary level, 2.1% were high schools and 2.2% were facilities for workforce training. The student body totalled 36.6m that year, of which 87% attended public schools. Reflecting the share of facilities, 73% students were in primary school, 13% were enrolled in secondary school, 8.5% attended high school and 5.5% were in training. The private system followed the same trend, with enrolment concentrated at the primary level (53% of a total 4.9m students) and decreasing up the chain.

Progress Updates

The 2013 reform process prioritised local budget discrepancies and teacher absenteeism. According to a report by Mexicanos Primero, a Mexico City-based non-profit organisation focused on education, in 2010 nearly 10% of paid public teachers were not teaching classes when they should have been: 100,000 cashed pay cheques without showing up for work. An internal audit conducted by the SEP in 2017 reflects progress in this regard, as the body detected around 44,000 union and teaching positions that were “irregular” and not fulfilling their duties. Budget transparency and salary payment has also improved somewhat, with the 2013 reform centralising the payment of teachers under federal control. The authorities now use a side-by-side list to identify teaching positions that need to be filled and budgeted for at the local and state levels. Furthermore, annual conversations are held between federal and state officials to set the local budgets for the next academic year to cut down on end-of-year requests for additional funding. Local and state entities are also being held to stricter and more transparent spending controls.

Early Instruction

Another major focus of the overhaul is to reinforce the teaching of key skills at the primary and secondary levels. This is crucial to give students a solid base as they continue onto higher education and enter the labour pool, where skilled workers are needed for the burgeoning industrial and service sectors. English-language education is an obstacle to increasing global competitiveness, which continues to reach few students at the primary and secondary levels. Mexico ranked sixth among 15 Latin American countries and 44th out of a total of 80 nations in the 2017 English proficiency index by Education First.

Another challenge in supporting early education is geography, as schools in marginalised communities around the country see little investment in education infrastructure, despite the implementation of several federal government programmes. These communities are not aligned with the urban education systems, particularly when it comes to technical education, resulting in missed opportunities to fill labour gaps and contribute to economic success in their regions.

“Cultivating qualified human capital is a key national challenge, and more long-term investment in education is necessary to raise standards,” Rodrigo de León Segovia, CEO of real estate firm Vidusa, told OBG. “Combining practical and technical training would give students appropriate knowledge and preparation for the job market.” The lack of a coordinated national system for basic education has led to an insufficient number of skilled workers in certain states. According to Carlos Noriega, president of the education commission at the National Confederation of Industry Chambers (Confederación Nacional de Cámaras de la Industria, CONCAMIN), in 2017 there were shortages of skills in the automotive industry in the manufacturing regions of Guanajuato and Querétaro, and workers needed to be brought in from other areas of the country.

Rural Education Gap

As many as 35,000 Mexican schools have been identified as rural facilities with little to no infrastructure support. One of the biggest worries expressed by education analysts is that if this gap is not closed, underdeveloped regions – including southern states such as Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas – will continue to lag behind in economic development. At present, special education schools and marginalised communities are separate categories in the eyes of the school system and the budget, a distinction that often leaves these facilities with insufficient funding.

“No government body has been able to form a concrete policy to close the gap faced by marginalised communities, and until a successful policy is put in place, little progress will be made in terms of economic empowerment and advancement,” Fernando Ruiz Ruiz, a researcher at Mexicanos Primero, told OBG.

Moreover, researchers are not seeing as much success as was hoped with the telesecundaria programme that allows students to take classes via TV linked to schools in more populated areas nearby. “Instead of taking precarious measures to help these communities, a better solution would be to create an inclusive policy and distribute funding more equally to rural and marginalised schools,” Ruiz told OBG. “Programmes like CONAFE [the National Council for Educational Promotion], telesecundaria and community service projects came about just to stretch the budget.”


Some sector stakeholders are seeking out models in advanced economies to use locally, optimistic that structural reforms can close the gap. “Finland has a system many countries model themselves after; they send their best teachers to the worst schools,” Noriega told OBG. The public education system has also implemented pilot programmes to transport students from remote areas to schools in more populated districts.

In addition, an increased focus on pre-school education in rural areas is being looked at as a way to improve access and outcomes. Studies by the Rutgers National Institute for Early Education Research, based in the US, show that pre-school learning is a fundamental development period that sets the stage for an individual’s educational growth. Establishing a robust pre-school system in rural areas over the coming years would be a major step towards closing the gap between rural and urban education in Mexico. One issue that most experts agree on is that under-qualified teachers are being sent to schools in remote areas, and even those instructors are in short supply. In some areas, staffing can be as low as one teacher for an entire primary school comprising up to six grades, and that teacher may only have passed the basic levels of high school.

Private Prestige

Private education expenditure as a share of the total sector budget at all levels below tertiary education was 17.5% in 2017. This placed Mexico fourth out of the 38 countries of the OECD.

Private education is generally perceived more positively than public, stemming from society’s views on class, professionalism and issues with the public teachers’ unions. Stakeholders hope that with a greater presence of qualified teachers across all educational programmes, increased professionalism in the public school sector will be assured and public opinion will improve. Before the reform was implemented in 2013, all public school teachers had to come from the union teaching academy. Now, stricter requirements are being implemented for teacher qualification tests, and there are calls to disband the union by state and international organisations to ensure higher teaching standards.

Foreign Investment

Increased foreign investment has been crucial in bringing competition to the market, lowering the price of tertiary provision. A prime example of this is Laureate International, a US-based provider of affordable higher education operating in a number of global markets. In 2000 it purchased several campuses of the Universidad del Valle de México and the technical school Universidad Tecnológica de México (UNITEC), implementing a US-style private university system tweaked for the local market. With a focus on providing professional-oriented programmes, students at the institutions Laureate has invested in usually secure work quicker than other graduates. According to the April 2015 report “Affordable Higher Education in Mexico: Implications for Career Advancement and Social Mobility”, on average, Laureate graduates found a job 1.3 months quicker after graduation than the control group comprising students from public and private universities; the rate was 2.6 months quicker when solely compared to graduates of other private schools.

According to Noriega at CONCAMIN, there is ample room for further foreign investment in Mexico’s education sector. Another prime area for investment is in online and distance education, which has slowly been gaining traction in the country. “Distance and online education has shown the ability to achieve positive results. New subjects like design, IT and technological conversion are areas where online and distance education are burgeoning,” Ruiz told OBG. Still, the offering of online education as part of more traditional programmes at universities is not yet at its full potential.

Technical Skills

While foreign education models and online provision indeed have room to grow their presence, perhaps the most promising area for increasing economic competitiveness is the provision of technical skills at the upper secondary and tertiary levels. However, according to the OECD, some schools have been slow to incorporate certain specialised skill sets into curricula, either due to the tradition of education being based on rote memorisation or a lack of training for instructors to learn the technical skills themselves.

For this reason, private schools with employability models like the University of Arkansas and the Universidad Aeronáutica de Querétaro have an edge in teaching the technical skills often sought after by local industry. However, they typically charge higher tuition fees than public institutions, creating access barriers. This hurdle alone can limit the model to areas where industrial activity is high and incomes have driven up the size and purchasing power of the middle class. This may contribute to widening the gap of private education available in more developed regions of Mexico compared to those states lagging behind economically.

To meet the economy’s demand for technical workers, certain obstacles need to be overcome. According to the OECD, recent reforms have boosted technical education in Mexico, allowing young people to train while completing their studies. In 2015, 15% of Mexican students aged 15-19 were enrolled in vocational upper secondary education programmes, representing over one-third of the total enrolment at the upper secondary level. Yet enrolment in technical studies is still below the OECD average of 25% for this age group.

If reform of the education system succeeds in better preparing students at the primary and secondary levels, it will sustain the number of students graduating at the technical and superior levels and entering the skilled industry jobs economic growth demands, according to Ruiz. However, the number of students in Mexico graduating from the upper secondary level versus figures from other OECD countries reveals a gap. The proportion of upper secondary attainment among adults aged 25 to 34 is one of the lowest among OECD countries with available data, showing a 46.7% graduation rate to rank Mexico 43rd out of 45.

There are, however, several examples of successful programmes. The National College of Technical Professional Education (Colegio Nacional de Educación Profesional Técnica, CONALEP) and the Japanese International Air Transport Association formed a collaboration that has brought Japanese instructors to teach mid-level factory technician certifications over recent years. The 307 CONALEP councils have enabled technical secondary schools to align skills taught at each campus with what is needed in the regional economy.

English is another subject that needs to be targeted at the tertiary level. “Due to it being the default language of innovation, even small improvements in the English skills of university students could boost Mexico’s innovation scene,” Francisco Garza, dean of Universidad Pedro de Gante, a university in Nuevo León, told OBG.


Education reform continues taking the first basic steps towards advances to modernise curricula and reduce bureaucratic inefficiencies. Successes include securing the long-awaited support of the teachers’ unions for the integration of a testing system that will hold public school teachers to a higher standard. Experts agree, however, that continuity and support for the reform process must be maintained if these steps are going to be reflected as lasting gains in the system.

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The Report: Mexico 2018

Education chapter from The Report: Mexico 2018

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