The move towards digitalisation and ongoing efforts to close the gap between urban and rural access to education could provide greater opportunities for Mexican youths. As part of the Fourth Transformation (4T), President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) redesigned the education reform that was introduced by the previous administration. Consequently, significant changes are expected to be introduced to the country’s education system. Mexico and a number of other countries are committed to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, aiming for the widespread provision of quality education by 2030. Accordingly, the government has made school attendance mandatory for everyone between the ages of three and 17.


The education system in Mexico is split into four parts: pre-school, for children between three and five years old; primary education, for ages six to 12; secondary education, for those between 12 and 15; and preparatory education, for youths from 16 to 18 years of age. While enrolment rates at the primary level have improved, maintaining a stable attendance rate in early education and secondary school remains challenging. For every 100 students that enrol in primary school, just 53 go on to graduate from preparatory school. Meanwhile, the dropout rate sits at about 1.1% in primary schools, but rises to 5.3% and 15.2% in secondary and preparatory schools, respectively. Furthermore, difficulties in access for rural areas can result in even higher dropout rates – a challenge that the new administration is facing head-on.

Sector Breakdown

Mexico’s literacy rate is well above the 86% worldwide average, reaching 95.8% in 2018, up from 95% in 2015. While the improvements are promising, the country must work to close the gap between urban and rural access to education. Almost one in 10 indigenous children between six and 11 do not regularly attend school. For indigenous children from 12 to 14 that figure reaches 35% and for 15-to-17-yearold children it climbs to 90%. This is due in large part to the fact that 8% of indigenous primary schools lack teachers who speak a relevant indigenous language. AMLO’s new reform strives to tackle the barriers to access in rural zones and indigenous communities.

Thanks to Mexico’s strong manufacturing industry, there is ample demand for technically skilled graduates. However, as few programmes offer vocational or technical training, particularly at the tertiary level, the current education system is unable to meet this demand. With recent graduates facing job shortages, a move towards science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects and vocation-focused training could enhance employment prospects.

4T & New Reform

As part of the 4T strategy, AMLO has proposed multiple changes to the education system. In April 2019 the Chamber of Deputies agreed to overturn the previous educational reform, originally established by former President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2013. In doing so, AMLO introduced a new reform, highlighting his intention to alter the national curriculum and dissolve the National Institute for the Evaluation of Education (Instituto Nacional para la Evaluación de la Educación, INEE). However, as of September 2019 Congress had not yet voted on the three central laws of the reform, effectively putting a halt to its implementation.

The new reform is set to leave behind the previous system for teacher evaluation, which permitted punitive action for poor performance as well as merit-based pay and promotion. It will also move away from standardised testing, instead adopting a regional approach to teaching and evaluation. The new administration aims to introduce a broader curriculum that includes art, music, culture and physical education, instead of focusing mainly on STEM and humanities-related subjects.

The government’s fight against corruption extends to education, with the new reforms focusing on making public spending on education more transparent. In addition, AMLO has stated his intention to build education around regional and community needs. However, many sector players remain uncertain of what to expect, as the administration has not provided a clearly defined strategy to achieve these goals.

Approximately 4.5% of Mexico’s GDP is invested in education, down 0.4% from 2016. Upon coming into power, AMLO stated his intention to invest more in education, but emphasised the need to do “more with less” under his austerity policy. In 2018 annual spending per student came to MXN17,600 ($910) at the primary level, MXN27,000 ($1430) for secondary students and MXN36,900 ($1910) for preparatory students. Spending at the tertiary level increased to MXN82,700 ($4280) per student. The austerity programme aims to free up resources to help less affluent students, targeting scholarships and paid internships towards those who come from low-income backgrounds. Nevertheless, many are concerned about the uncertainty of the plan and the probable cuts to funding.


According to the Ministry of Public Education, in the 2017/18 academic year there were 25.5m students registered in 244,000 schools, colleges and universities. Of those registered, 86% were enrolled in public schools and 14% at private institutions. Roughly 4.9m were registered in pre-schools, 14m in primary and 6.5m in secondary institutions. While the government’s goal of universal education has been successful at the primary level, with 95.4% of three-to-14-year-old children enrolled in the 2017/18 academic year, there is room for improvement at secondary level, where 84.6% of 15-to-17-year-old students were enrolled. Lastly, 38.4% of 18-to-22-year-old students were enrolled in tertiary education at that time.

The enrolment rate in public schools continues to be significantly higher than in private schools across the country. In 2018 nearly 226,200 of 258,000 public and private institutions were primary schools, 20,800 secondary, 5500 higher education and 5000 vocational schools. Early education attendance is steadily improving, but remains slightly lower than in the OECD overall. In 2015 pre-school attendance was 83%, compared to the OECD average of 86%, representing a significant increase from the 2005 attendance rate of 64%. Despite improvements in enrolment rates, dropout rates are an ongoing challenge. Of those who drop out, about 50% of males and 36% of females between 15 and 17 blame lack of interest or aptitude. Other deciding factors include lack of economic means, leaving school for work, and pregnancy or family commitments.

Private Sector Education

Around 14% of threeto-17-year-old students are enrolled in private schools. Studying at a private institution in Mexico is both expensive and competitive; thus, enrolment has remained relatively stable, increasing by just over 1% from 2012 to 2018. In 2018 there were 9164 private primary schools, 5396 private secondary schools and 5791 private preparatory schools. Although these numbers are smaller than those seen in public schools, private spending represented 24.2% of total education expenditure in 2018. Of the 5.1m students attending private school, 2.6m are enrolled at primary school, 1m at secondary, and approximately 1.2m at the preparatory level.


The Secretariat of Education employed more than 2m teachers in public and private schools in the 2017/18 academic year, with roughly one teacher for every 25 students at the primary level, one to 17.2 at lower secondary and one to 21.1 at upper secondary. This ratio is lower in private institutions, where there is an average of one teacher to every 16 students across all levels. Significant changes to the teaching system are expected under the new reform. INEE, which was established under the previous administration’s 2013 education reform, was disbanded by AMLO in 2019. Under INEE, a merit-based pay system and punitive actions were used to improve teacher performance. However, INEE’s evaluation system was widely criticised by teachers unions because of its requirement for teachers to take regular examinations over the course of their career. These changes in evaluation methods led many to leave the profession.

Under the reform many who left their positions will be reinstated. Previously, the decision to create new teaching initiatives involved unions putting pressure on the government to open more teaching positions or fulfil other expectations. Fernando Ruiz, researcher at education NGO Mexicanos Primero, is concerned that involving unions in educational decision-making could mean a step backwards. “If you let the unions intervene in these decisions, the only thing they are going to do is create delays and increase costs,” he told OBG.

Higher Education

The number of students enrolling in higher education is increasing year-on-year, from 1.9m students in 2000 to 4.4m in 2017. Furthermore, public spending on higher education rose from MXN177.4bn ($9.2bn) in 2015 to MXN182.4bn ($9.4bn) in 2018, representing an average annual expenditure of MXN82,700 ($4280) per student. A higher percentage of university students attend institutions in the private sector than at any other level of education, at a rate of around 30%, showing a notable willingness to invest in tertiary education. While in 2016 the proportion of young adults who completed higher education sat at 22%, in 2018 roughly 21% of the population entering the job market had a university degree, marking a total increase of 2% over the previous 10 year period.

According to Times Higher Education Magazine, Mexico’s largest university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, ranks highly when compared to other universities, placing first in Mexico for the fourth year in a row, and reaching fourth place in Latin America and 103rd worldwide. The Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education, a private university, ranked second in the country, 158th worldwide and 52nd in terms of employability. Both schools have their main campuses in Mexico City, with several other campuses across the country. AMLO’s administration has detailed a bold plan to open 100 new public universities in smaller towns across Mexico, increasing coverage and offering less-advantaged communities greater access to higher education. The state is expected to invest MXN1bn ($51.7m) in the project. Meanwhile, a grant of MXN2400 ($124) will be awarded to 300,000 students to help support their university expenses.

While low demand for humanities graduates in the job market continues, STEM-related courses are becoming more attractive, with 31.3%, or 1.3m students, enrolled in 2019. Although the number of STEM-related subjects in Mexico are growing, they are largely dominated by men, with women representing just 30.2% of admitted students. Pablo Clark, a researcher at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, explained that there is a need to address the challenge of gender segregation in university degrees. “For the last 20 years public education in Mexico has focused on growing STEM degrees,” Clark told OBG. “However, we still have many cultural obstacles to allowing a greater number of women to enter these careers,” he said. Clark explained that these obstacles have contributed to the economic marginalisation of women, and that there is a need to encourage greater participation in STEM subjects.

Professional Training

The OECD recommends tertiary education in Mexico be improved through greater partnerships between universities and industry. Several education sector experts told OBG that there is a need for more technical courses in order to meet growing demand in a range of industries.

One of the biggest challenges facing the technical education sector is poor public perception. There is a social stigma surrounding technical education, Clark told OBG. He highlighted lower labour market outcomes for those who study at technical schools as a result of the poorer-quality technical options that are usually available. However, higher demand for technical rather than academic backgrounds means improvements must be made. Through their Compare Careers programme, the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness found income prospects for those graduating from two-year technical degrees were often higher than for those undertaking traditional academic degrees. However, due to the social stigma surrounding technical education, the majority of youths continue to pursue their education in more traditional subjects.

AMLO’s internship programme, Jóvenes Construyendo el Futuro (“Youths Building the Future”), combats the lack of demand for young graduates by offering grants for vocational training. Youths between the ages of 18 and 29 are paid a monthly wage of MXN3600 ($186) to complete an internship in the programme, providing them with work experience during their studies to make them more attractive to employers.


In Mexico ICT in schools is growing alongside the telecoms industry, and approximately 49% of primary schools and 68% of secondary schools now have access to digital teaching materials. The introduction of online teaching and digital educational resources was expected to boost access in rural areas, but many teachers have not yet received sufficient training to effectively use these technologies.

The government originally introduced the Telesecundaria programme in the 1960s to enhance the learning opportunities of students living in rural communities. Since then it has been regularly adapted to modern technology, broadcasting lessons via satellite and internet connection. However, there is still a significant gap in access due to the lack of telecoms infrastructure across rural areas. In 2018 52.9% of the population over the age of six had access to fixed or mobile internet. Moreover, the OECD’s 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment study showed that around 70% of socially advantaged students had access to a computer, while only 40% of disadvantaged students had the same access.


Many industry players are waiting to observe the outcome of the most recent change in political administration and the introduction of the new education reform. AMLO has promised to continue working towards universal access to quality, free education at all levels. Moreover, increased investment in STEM-related subjects and greater vocational training opportunities offer bright prospects for young graduates entering the job market. However, it is unclear how effectively AMLO’s reform will increase investment in education, and whether the challenges that face education quality will be addressed in urban and rural areas.