Since 2013 the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto has been pushing for a major overhaul of the Mexican public education system. While opposition from powerful teachers’ unions has slowed progress on an education reform bill, a 2013 constitutional change has deepened the government’s commitment to improving the quality of Mexican schools, not just access to them. With the impetus for reform thus strengthened, progress towards a new curriculum and a final resolution with teachers’ unions are likely in 2017. In an economy reliant on its human capital for its manufacturing-for-export industry, improvements in primary and secondary education will feed through to skills and expertise at universities and in vocational training.

System Overview

Education in Mexico is now mandatory for children aged 3-17. Preschool, first made compulsory in the 2008/09 school year, accepts children aged 3-5, while primary schools take 6- to 12-year-olds, and secondary schools take those aged 12-15. In 2012 post-secondary education, or “preparatory”, for students aged 15-18 was also made compulsory. According to the Ministry of Public Education ( Secretaría de Educación Pública, SEP), in the 2015/16 academic year there were a total of 36.4m students in public and private schools, including universities and vocational schools. Within the public education system, this included 4.1m students enrolled in preschools, just under 13m in primary schools, 6.2m in secondary education and 4.1m at the preparatory level. In the same school year, there were 4.9m students studying at private institutions, including 687,714 in preschool, 1.3m at the primary level, 594,876 at secondary institutions and 927,853 at preparatory schools.

Providing education for such a roll call is a significant undertaking for the Mexican state. There are 246,681 schools across the country staffed by 1.6m teachers, according to SEP figures. Despite the scale of the challenge, the system has proved adept at ensuring broad access: 96.6% of children aged 3-14 were enrolled in schools during the 2015/16 academic year. However, Mexico is the only OECD country where less than 60% of 15- to 19-year-olds were enrolled in education. According to OECD figures, between 2005 and 2014 the proportion of Mexican youth attending upper-secondary education grew from 48% to 56%. Just under 10% of Mexican students attend private primary and secondary schools, according to SEP data. Standards can vary wildly. Jennifer O’Donoghue, director of research for Mexicanos Primero, a non-profit organisation dedicated to education reform and based in Mexico City, told OBG, “In our research, we found that the poorest 20% of Mexican students perform worse in private schools than they do in public schools.”


While increasing numbers of young Mexicans are enrolled, the quality of education can be lacking. One standard measure of students’ proficiency is the OECD’s Programme for International Assessment (PISA), which reviews the academic performance of 500,000 15-year-olds from more than 70 countries every three years; the most recent assessment was conducted in 2015. Of concern for Mexican educators is less that the country ranks behind other, more developed nations, but more so that relatively little progress has been made since 2006. In 2015 Mexico was below the OECD average in the 2015 PISA and on par with Colombia; however, the report highlighted that students’ performance has remained stable in the field of science since 2006, with a mean score of 416, and in reading since 2009, with a mean score of 423. In mathematics, however, Mexican students have improved noticeably since 2006, albeit from a low base, rising by five points to 408 in 2015.

Another cross-border yardstick is the “Global Competitiveness Report 2016-17” published by the World Economic Forum (WEF), on which Mexico ranked 114th out of 138 countries for the quality of primary education, though its ranking on maths and science education improved by six positions to 120th and the quality of the overall education system by five places to 112th.

There are significant regional variations in school performance, with the underdeveloped south-east of the country suffering most. A report by Mexicanos Primero ranked each state’s education system on a scale of 10 across six key criteria, including opportunities for learning, staffing and education infrastructure. While Aguascalientes state in the industrial Bajío region in central Mexico scored best, with an average mark of 7.4, the southern and south-western states of Michoacán, Oaxaca and Chiapas all scored under 4 on average. According to the study, approximately 40% of Mexican children from indigenous ethnic groups – a population concentrated in the country’s south – did not have a teacher who spoke their language.


The poor performance of students at Mexican schools cannot be put down to a lack of education spending alone. According to OECD data, spending on the sector as a proportion of GDP has remained stable at around 3.5% since 2005, in line with the OECD average, though behind several other Latin American countries, including Argentina (4.4%), and Colombia and Brazil (each with 4.3%). The 2015 PISA results included OECD data that showed Mexico spends $27,848 per student between the ages of 6 and 15, which is 31% of the OECD average, while the country’s GDP per capita of $17,315 is 44% of the OECD average.

Furthermore, given Mexico’s young population – with a median age of 27.4, according to UN data – spending per student is far lower than the average. According to the OECD’s “Education at A Glance 2016” country note for Mexico, between 2008 and 2013 average expenditure on public education from the primary to the tertiary level did increase by 20%, but its spending per student of $3400 in 2014 was still much lower than the OECD average of $10,500, and that of Latin American countries such as Brazil ($4300) and Chile ($5100).

In the 2016-17 WEF report, Mexico scored well on the quality of management of schools (65th), internet access (82nd) and the availability of specialised training services (68th). However, there is a clear difficulty in converting ample funding into academic improvements. “Funding for the Mexican education system represents more than 5% of GDP and 20% of public spending, but the money simply does not make it to the schools,” O’Donoghue told OBG. “More than 83% of funding is spent on teachers’ salaries. The education system was not designed with student learning in mind but as a way to employ teachers and form a large and powerful voting bloc through a single teachers’ union.”

In comparison, the OECD average spend on teachers’ salaries is 63% of the education budget. Attempts to reform the system face a major obstacle in the form of the National Union of Education Workers ( Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación, SNTE), which has over 1.5m members and is responsible for the recruitment, dismissal and promotion of teachers. Starting wages for teachers are low, but increase upon promotion to an amount above the OECD average, with those at the top of the salary scale earning 50% more than those at the bottom. Opposition from the SNTE, the union’s strong influence over members and disagreements over the nature of education reform have been the main reasons for the delay in Mexico’s efforts to transform the sector since 2013.


The education reform package, which President Peña Nieto presented as “a change in the foundation” of Mexico’s education system, included, at its heart, an amendment to Article 3 of the constitution, which deals with education. Where previously a Mexican citizen only had the right to a free education, he or she now also has the right to maximise his or her “achievement in learning”. This has important repercussions – not least, stricter standards for educators. “The constitutional change places learning at the centre of the education system,” O’Donoghue told OBG. “In the past, the right to education was often interpreted as the right for a student be in a school, and so coverage of schools expanded. Now it is understood as a right to learn, which means materials, methods and teachers have to be geared towards maximising learning opportunities for students.”

Sector Overhaul

The accompanying reform attempts put Mexican students, rather than teachers, at the centre of official policy. A National Institute for the Evaluation of Education was created to assess teachers through a testing process. A merit-based pay and promotion system for teachers was introduced, and SEP began the process of designing new curricula that focus on critical thinking rather than the traditional method of rote memorisation. However, implementation of these reforms would wrest control from teachers’ unions and has been paralysed by opposition, first from the SNTE and subsequently by a splinter group known as the National Coordinator of Education Workers, which organised prolonged strikes in southern states in 2015 and mid-2016. Above all, the unions are opposed to the implementation of the new system of teacher testing, and in July 2015 SEP suspended the teacher evaluations that were meant to take place in July of that year. Since then, teacher participation in the tests has remained low.

“Following the change to the constitution, the reform had to be introduced state by state and, given Mexico has one of the world’s largest public education systems, this process takes time, especially when it comes to evaluating and training teachers,” Carlos Noriega Arias, president of the education commission at the Confederation of Industrial Chambers, told OBG. “However, this reform is strongly supported by the private sector, which has played a strong role in identifying which skills, attributes and training must be taught in schools to equip Mexicans for the modern economy.”


The government has made progress in other key areas of education reform, and in July 2015 SEP presented the Education Model 2016, a new curriculum and study plan that aims to move Mexico away from rote learning methods. The plan states that “development of the abilities of critical thinking, analysis, rational argument and logic are indispensable for profound learning, which can be applied to diverse situations to resolve our problems”. Following a consultation period, the curriculum is scheduled to be finalised in the first half of 2017 and be put implemented from the 2018/19 academic year onwards.

A competitive entrance exam has also been introduced for newly hired teachers, and the promotion system has been overhauled to allow educators with a minimum of five years’ experience to reach senior school positions. “Over the course of 2016 we have seen a move away from a system of patronage towards one that is more merit-based,” O’Donoghue told OBG. “By January 2017 over half a million teachers had sat a competitive entry exam, and 133,000 new teachers joined the profession through this process. We have also seen the promotion of young motivated teachers to positions such as school principal and supervisor.”


With so much of the education budget directed towards teachers’ salaries, infrastructure has suffered from a lack of investment. In 2012 capital expenditure represented just 2.5% of the budget for primary and secondary schools. Upgrading schools was one of the key pillars of the 2013 education reform drive, and in October 2015 the Schools to 100” programme was created. Under the scheme, the government will issue MXN50bn ($3bn) in bonds for national education infrastructure certificates”, which will be spent on improving 33,000 school buildings between December 2015 and the end of 2018. In its first annual report for 2016, the programme announced that it had made improvements to 10,913 buildings, with MXN18.72bn ($1.1bn) invested thus far.

Tertiary Education

Mexico can boast North America’s first institution of higher education, the Royal and Pontifical University of Mexico, founded in 1551. However, it was in 1929 that the National Autonomous University of Mexico (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, UNAM) was given the right to determine its curriculum, and that expansion of tertiary education began in earnest through the establishment of public state universities and national polytechnic institutes. Higher education does not come under the control of the SEP, which limits itself to setting educational standards in this segment. Over the last two decades tertiary enrolment has increased steadily, and in 2014 it was nearly 30%, according to World Bank figures, an increase of more than seven percentage points since 2004. According to the OECD, 38% of young people are expected to enter higher education in the years ahead.

According to SEP data, there were 2180 public higher education institutions in Mexico in 2015, including 57 federal and state universities, 60 polytechnic universities and 112 technological institutes. Since 2000 the private sector has grown rapidly, and by the 2015/16 school year there were 3163 private tertiary education institutions, according to SEP. Nevertheless, some 70.6% of Mexican university students attend public institutions, the highest rate in Latin America after Argentina. During the 2015/16 academic year Mexico had 3.65m students enrolled in higher education, of which 2.58m attended public universities and 1.07m attended private universities.

Private Options

As entrance to public institutions is highly competitive, private universities provide an important alternative in extending tertiary education to new students. Universidad Humanitas, a private university with 10 campuses across the country, has focused on providing affordable bachelors- and masters-level courses to part-time enrolled students who lack the resources to study full time, as well as to professionals who need additional qualifications to advance their careers. “The government needs to push education for adults and encourage lifelong learning,” Enric Ferná ndez, director of advertisement and education drive at Corporativo Humanitas, which owns Universidad Humanitas, told OBG. “Private universities should provide flexible programmes that allow employed people to pursue education and gain better paid jobs.”

Such courses can be approved by obtaining a “recognition of official validation of studies” certification, which can be awarded by SEP or other state education authorities. The process of enrolling and approving new courses now requires both federal and state certificates, a process Fernández says could be made more efficient. “Education today is a globalised business, and it is constantly changing,” he told OBG. “We need to remove the obstacles to modernising and updating university curriculum in order to keep Mexican degrees competitive and relevant.”


On a regional basis, the country’s top universities perform well against their peers. International university ranking firm QS’s 2016 index for Latin America placed Mexico’s UNAM and Monterrey Institute of Technical and Higher Education (Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores, ITESM) in the top-10 Latin American universities. However, according to the Webometrics Ranking of World Universities, an initiative by Spanish research agency Cybermetrics Lab that covers global tertiary education standards, this performance must be put in context, as globally UNAM placed 120th in 2017 and ITESM 757th.

In an editorial for the Times Higher Education website, Carolina Gúzman-Valenzuela proposed that Latin American universities could improve their performance in global rankings if they invested more in research and development, attracted more academics with doctoral degrees by providing high-quality PhD programmes and improved the teacher-training process through more rigorous evaluations. A separate factor that could improve student learning and provide graduates with more relevant skills is internationalisation. According to February 2017 figures from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, over 29,700 Mexican students attended university abroad, around half of these in the US and another 8.3% in Spain, the second-most popular destination. Efforts to promote internationalisation at universities is a key focus of the Mexican Association for International Education.

Fit For Purpose

According to the OECD’s 2016 country note, in 2013 some 44% of students were enrolled in social sciences programmes, while 22% were studying for degrees in the fields of engineering, manufacturing and construction, the highest rate in the OECD. Even so, strong demand for engineers and technicians in the country’s booming manufacturing sector means shortages of trained labour still arise. “Studies show that the reform of the Mexican energy sector will create 385,000 new jobs in the coming five years,” Noriega told OBG. “Meanwhile, the automotive industry will increase by an estimated 70% over the same time period, and we have already seen manpower shortages in the car-building clusters in San Luís de Potosí and Nuevo León.” He added that in recent years partnerships have been developed between Mexican and Japanese universities whereby Mexican professors can learn from Japanese curricula that are relevant to the automotive industry with a view to adopting them.

Another example of educational institutions adapting to needs of the economy is the Aeronautical University in Querétaro. The school has grown in tandem with the development of the aerospace industry cluster in the state, and from its inception in 2007 to 2016 over 6000 technicians have graduated from its classrooms, many of them finding employment in aerospace firms located throughout the country. “The universal challenge is to prepare the new generation for the upcoming economic revolution,” Rafael Gómez Nava, dean at the private Pan-American University’s IPADE Business School, told OBG. “In one of the world’s leading and most open economies, the Mexican educational system needs to be constantly rethinking its position in the world, with strong input from the country’s key industries. The economic future of Mexico is centred on soft skills, such as innovative thinking and English fluency, that lead to an intellectually dynamic, technically flexible and an economically competitive population.”

Skills Pay Bills

According to SEP data, there were some 1.86m students enroled in vocational training courses during the 2015/16 academic year, of whom 1.57m studied in public institutions and less than 300,000 at private schools. Recognising that the existing system of professional training was not meeting the demand from industry, in June 2015 SEP established the Mexican Model for Dual Training (Modelo Mexicano de Formación Dual, MMFD). Working with the support of consultants from Germany, the country that first developed the “dual vocational” system of apprenticeships, the MMFD provides a two-part vocational education in which a proportion of a student’s time is spent in lectures and the rest in an apprenticeship at a private firm for a period of two years.

The gradual improvement of the education system is of great benefit to manufacturers. “The growth of dual education curricula in local universities should help produce high-quality engineers and technicians. Moreover, the quality of human capital in Mexico continues to attract foreign investment, and companies are now looking to establish their own research and development divisions in the country,” Bernd Schreiber, CEO of local automation firm Festo, told OBG.


The reform of public education in Mexico has been one of the thorniest political issues that have faced President Peña Nieto. However, as teacher assessment and training schemes gradually become standardised, the constitutional commitment to prioritising learning in schools is advancing a step closer to achieving its goals. Private sector and international support at the tertiary level and in vocational skills training will also be crucial to the development of one of Mexico’s key competitive advantages, its pool of skilled labour, and may help pave the way for greater productivity in the industrial sector. However, in 2017 the government will have to learn to do more with less, as education has not escaped the wide-scale cuts brought about by the country’s economic challenges.