From the field: Trends in study abroad for Mexican students

If all goes according to plan, Mexico may soon send more students to the US than any other country in the world besides China (currently 274,439) and India (currently 102,673).

In 2013, US President Barack Obama launched the 100,000 Strong in the Americas programme with a goal of more than doubling the number of US exchange students in the Americas by 2020. Soon after, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced Proyecta 100,000, an initiative designed to send 100,000 Mexican students to US universities and to enrol 50,000 US students at Mexican institutions by 2018.

These goals are ambitious, since Mexico sent only 14,779 students to US higher education institutions in 2013/14 according to IIE Open Doors data. This makes Mexico the ninth-largest sending market for US institutions, behind obvious front-runners China and India but also markets such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

ICEF Monitor checks in on Proyecta 100,000’s progress to date, and shares an exclusive video interview with Joshua Tripp, executive director of LAMAT, a non-profit international education organisation based in Mexico, to hear his thoughts on how the project can meet its goals.

A refresher and update on Proyecta 100,000

Proyecta 100,000 is the result of joint efforts between Mexican stakeholders and experts from the academic, public, private, and non-governmental sectors.

At a NAFSA 2015 session, Dr Martha Navarro-Albo, Director General for Technical and Scientific Cooperation, Agencia Mexicana de Cooperación Internacional para el Desarrollo (AMEXCID), pointed out that the 100,000 target includes undergraduate and graduate mobility, faculty mobility, internships, English language courses, and other academic short stays.

Distributed over those programmes, the project achieved its 2014 goal of 27,000 Mexicans participating as follows:

  • 14,779 students and approximately 1,500 faculty;
  • 7,500 scholarships for students and teachers, of US$4,264 per grantee, to study English as a second language (SEP-SRE Proyecta English Language Scholarships);
  • 2,900 Mexicans on international summer programmes and other student and academic mobility programmes;
  • 296 SEP-Bécalos-Santander Universidades international programme;
  • 1,212 IME-Becas scholarships for Mexican immigrants in the US.

The goal for this year is 46,000, including 300 Electronics and Telecommunications internships in 2015 (and 1,000 for 2016 FOBESII-CANIETI Internship and Training Programme) and 1,000 scholarships for short-term training announced in March 2015 (CONACYT-FOBESII Scientific Mobility Programme). However, thus far the project’s SEP-SRE programme has only announced 650 scholarships for students to complete short English language training programmes in the US and 650 scholarships for teachers to complete similar programmes.

Dr Navarro-Albo explained that in order to reach the goals of the Proyecta 100,000 programme, federal and state governments, private companies and individuals, and higher education institutions must invest. She would also like to see 18,000 scholarships towards boosting English language skills as follows:

  • 10,000 English as a second language;
  • 2,000 English teacher training;
  • 2,000 English for engineering;
  • 2,000 English for academic purposes;
  • 1,000 English for health professionals;
  • 1,000 English for lawyers.

Additionally, she would like to see another 14,000 grantees arising from:

  • 6,000 short-term research visits;
  • 3,500 pre-master/graduate pathways;
  • 3,500 certificates;
  • 1,000 professional stays.

Unleashing Mexico’s potential

In the following video, Mr Tripp provides more details on what it will take to see Proyecta 100,000 succeed. He notes that information dissemination is crucial. For example:

  • Students from all over Mexico need to be aware of the programme and what they would need to do to participate;
  • Interested students must understand such details as credit transfers and other issues around credentials and their recognition, and agents must be sure to convey this to them;
  • Institutions should understand that students from areas other than Mexico’s big cities are interested in study abroad.

Mr Tripp shared a presentation with an eager audience at the ICEF Berlin Workshop last fall in which the potential for Mexico to boost its outbound student mobility was made clear via facts like these:

  • Mexico’s population: 120 million;
  • Population of 20+ year-olds studying in Mexico: 3.5 million;
  • Population aged 15-29: 26.8%.

As we reported earlier this year, 70 million Mexicans are now considered middle class, and total university enrolment has tripled in 30 years to almost three million students.

Studying for jobs

Mr Tripp emphasises the importance of recognising Mexico’s regional diversity. He points to the industrial base of the north, the artistic dynamism of the centre, the tourism focus in the Yucatán, and the business focus in Mexico City.

He says students are primarily focused on one thing when they consider study abroad: that their programme results in a good job when they return home, understanding that “good jobs” differ according to regional economies.

Mexicans are adventurous, he notes, and while the US is of course attractive for its proximity (Mexico is very family-oriented and parents like to be able to visit their children if possible), other countries will also be considered – especially if there are such draws as scholarships or programmes that specifically prepare them for jobs they want.

The UK steps up

The UK is compelling for graduate students, Mr Tripp notes, because it offers shorter master’s programmes relative to those in the US or Canada, and this often translates into more affordability as well. The UK is reacting quickly to capitalise on graduate interest from Mexico: when President Peña Nieto visited the UK in March, the Mutual Accreditation and Recognition of Awards agreement was signed.

This agreement will see the small numbers of Mexicans studying in the UK (roughly 2,000) grow rapidly, since when it is implemented in October 2015, it will:

“… allow up to 150,000 Mexican students, currently blocked from using their existing qualifications for further academic progress, to consider study in the UK.”

In addition, the agreement is meant to lead to a dramatic expansion of educational partnerships in general between the UK and Mexico, including “transnational education development, dual awards, in-course mobility and the opportunity for remote campus agreements and partnership delivery.”

Some areas simply won’t develop soon

In the video, Mr Tripp explains that two educational trends in particular likely won’t make inroads in Mexico: online programmes and foreign boarding schools. He says that the first is unlikely because of uneven Internet penetration rates in the country as well as a business culture in which employers are not ready yet to accept online degrees when they evaluate candidates.

As for boarding schools, Mr Tripp points to the huge value of family in Mexico, saying that if Mexican parents send their high-school-aged children abroad, they will want to see them housed with host families.

A region in need of educational reinvigoration

To put the 100,000 Strong in the Americas and Proyecta 100,000 in context, it is necessary to consider that, more broadly, Latin America is a region where educational capacity has fallen – and at the same time as educational investment has grown exponentially in Asia. A recent Financial Times article reports:

“There is … a dearth of academic talent in [Latin America], not just in mathematics but across most disciplines. There is not one university from Latin America in the top 100 institutions in the 2013/14 Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, the QS World University Rankings 2014/15 or China’s Academic Ranking of World Universities.”

THE’s rankings places The University of São Paulo in the top 250, which is behind universities from other markets such as China, Russia, South Africa, Taiwan, and Turkey. The article continues:

“Latin American academics are the first to admit the rankings also reflect the poor state not only of higher education but of education as whole in the region. Furthermore, Latin America’s poor showing poses a huge challenge for the region’s future, they say.”

Furthermore, as Dr Navarro-Albo explained, English language proficiency is a challenge for many in Mexico. According to the January 2013 Mitofsky Survey, Mexicanos y los Idiomas Extranjeros, 12.9% of the adult population (or 9.5 million Mexicans) claim to speak English, 12% claim to read it “perfectly fine,” and 9% (or 850,000 people) claim to speak it fluently.

This need for English language proficiency was one of the drivers behind the Proyecta 100,000 initiative. As such, 100,000 Strong in the Americas and Proyecta 100,000 are part of an ambitious race to catch up to other major global players, and they aren’t the only examples in the region. Brazil (Science Without Borders), Chile, and Colombia are all pushing ahead with initiatives to send their students abroad and partnering with foreign institutions to help them increase the level of English and quality of research in their universities.

Such educational investments are particularly urgent of late given the economic slowdown that began in Latin America in 2014 after years of growth. Mexico has remained stable during the slowdown, however, and financial experts are optimistic that the country is looking forward to continued growth in contrast to many of its neighbours.



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