The Challenges and Opportunities of Higher Education in Mexico


Remarks by Angel Gurría

OECD Secretary-General

Mexico City, Mexico - 9 January 2020

(As prepared for delivery) 




Rector, Director of the School of Economics, Secretary of Public Education, Ambassador of Mexico to the OECD, representatives of the academic body, dear students and alumni, ladies and gentlemen,

It is with great emotion and much pride that I return to my alma mater, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), a continual source of social mobility in our country.

We are here for two important reasons:

Firstly, to present two OECD reports about higher education in Mexico (in their Spanish versions): “The Future of Mexican Higher Education: Promoting Quality and Equity” and “Higher Education in Mexico: Labour Market Relevance and Outcomes”.

And secondly, to celebrate the launch of the first UNAM-OECD Chair, which will allow experts from the OECD to come and share their experiences and knowledge with UNAM students. We have just signed an agreement with the Rector to launch this Chair and to strengthen the relationship between the OECD and UNAM, which I am very pleased about, as we are two institutions with shared missions and objectives, and therefore we must give each other more and more support. We hope that this Chair will also enable us to help prepare UNAM students to collaborate with the OECD in designing, developing and implementing better policies for better lives.

Let us look at the higher education studies that we have come to present.


Higher education is essential for development

Higher education is one of the drivers of inclusive growth. Investments in, access to, and the quality of higher education translate into direct benefits for our societies, our economies, our countries. Especially in this age of the knowledge economy, which is so competitive and so complex.

Accessible, good-quality higher education systems bring enormous benefits to our nations: among other things, they increase social awareness, strengthen democratic participation, increase tax revenues, reduce spending on social transfers, reduce inequality, informality and criminality, and raise levels of innovation and productivity.

It is an area in which Mexico has a lot of work. 82% of Mexicans between the ages of 25 and 64 do not have any higher education, (compared to an OECD average of 63%).

We therefore hope that these reports can make significant contributions to informing the debate on higher education reform in Mexico. Let me share some of their main conclusions and recommendations.


Quality and equity in higher education

The report entitled “The Future of Mexican Higher Education: Promoting Quality and Equity” recognises that Mexico has taken major steps to promote the quality and accessibility of higher education.

In the academic year 2017-18, there were 4.5 million students enrolled in higher education in Mexico, 2.4 million more than in 2000.

Another important achievement is that public state universities, in which more than a quarter of all students are enrolled, now have more than 80% of their undergraduate students enrolled in programmes whose quality has been externally accredited. In addition, the creation and expansion of technological universities and polytechnics over the last two decades, and the recent development of distance education, means that the supply of higher education is now more diverse and better aligned to different student profiles and labour market needs.

These are substantial achievements. Significant challenges, however, still exist.

First, Mexico has yet to build an effective system of governance for its higher education system. This requires clear objectives for higher education institutions, and clearly assigned and co-ordinated responsibilities for federal and state authorities. To this end, Mexico should implement a new Higher Education Act establishing a legal framework that provides clarity and certainty.

It is also important to have accurate information for strategy and policy-making. While key elements of a comprehensive data system for higher education are in place in Mexico, reliable data on funding per student and true cohort data on student progression and graduate outcomes are not available. Mexico should develop a comprehensive and integrated data collection system for higher education.

It is also essential to consolidate and strengthen the coherence of the education system. In Mexico, there are 13 relatively fragmented subsystems. There is no efficient credit transfer procedure, no single student identifier, and the national qualifications framework has not yet been implemented.

Ensuring quality and equity also requires adequate and properly distributed financial resources. The OECD report proposes increasing public investment in higher education to further expand the coverage and quality of teaching staff. We also note the need to improve public financial support for students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In addition, the report reveals that there is a lack of transparency in the budget allocation mechanism for resources for public higher education institutions. It also shows that there are large disparities in the funding per student between institutions, even within the same subsystem.

An external quality accreditation system is also required, as exists in most OECD countries.

There is also a lot of room for improvement in terms of equity. Between 2007 and 2017 tertiary attainment among 25-34 year-olds rose from 16% to 23%, although this is still far below the OECD average (44%) and below countries such as Colombia and Chile (30%). There is also huge inequality along ethnic lines. In 2015, only 6.6% of indigenous 25-64 year-olds had completed tertiary education, compared with almost 19% in the rest of the population.

To promote equity in higher education, the report recommends stepping up efforts to improve secondary education and continuing to strengthen technical higher education, including the associate technical degree (Técnico Superior Universitario, TSU) programmes. This should be accompanied by efforts to improve and streamline public financial support for students.

These are just some snippets of a very substantive report that I invite you all to read.

Let us move on to the second report.


Higher education and the labour market

The report “Higher Education in Mexico: Labour Market Relevance and Outcomes” highlights the rapid expansion of higher education in Mexico. In the past 15 years, the higher education attainment rate of the labour force across all states has increased by an average of 40%. In three states (Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Yucatan), this increase has been almost two-fold.

However, Mexico still faces significant challenges in matching its higher education system to the labour market.

In Mexico, the potential benefits of higher education are still limited. There remains a significant degree of frustration for both graduates and employers. Nearly every second graduate works in a job for which no higher education qualification is required and more than one in four ends up in informal jobs. Meanwhile, paradoxically, more than half of businesses report difficulties in filling job vacancies.

Young women are particularly disadvantaged: while they outnumber young men when graduating from higher education, their employment rate is 14 percentage points lower, one of the highest employment gaps across OECD countries.

It is also necessary to ensure that higher education responds to future labour market needs. New technologies, such as robotics and artificial intelligence, are changing people’s jobs and, as in many countries, could have a large impact on the Mexican labour market.

Raising productivity in the Mexican labour market will require higher-level competencies, skills and abilities. Increasing specialisation and innovation in medium and high-tech industries will require a greater involvement of researchers and specialised professionals, and higher education graduates from different disciplines.

To equip young people with the skills needed for the future labour market, the report recommends fostering close collaboration between the government and higher education institutions in four key areas:


  1. Aligning higher education with the changing needs of the labour market. In many cases, students' career choices are not linked to current or future labour market demand. The report highlights the need to engage more with employers more in order to listen to their needs. Employers could also be involved in the design and delivery of programmes.

  2. Better support for students. Students need more support, both to succeed in their studies and to better connect with the labour market. The report recommends giving all teachers access to professional training, including the use of innovative student-focused approaches. It also recommends that teachers be officially recognised and rewarded for the quality of their teaching, just as research quality is currently rewarded.

  3. Greater flexibility in education and more emphasis on lifelong learning. It is not easy for Mexican students to combine studies and work, to switch to another career or to another institution. For this reason, this report recommends providing better pathways for students to move around the system more easily, adjust the pace and mode of study to their needs and return to higher education at a later stage in life to complete or continue studies.

  4. Better co-ordination between the relevant actors. It is very important that governments and stakeholders - as well as higher education associations and business associations - work together to better co-ordinate and inform evidence-based policy and planning.


The OECD is ready to continue to help Mexico implement these recommendations, as well as to expand this review.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Mexico must continue to promote the quality, equity and relevance of its higher education system. This is a joint task that needs to involve political leaders, higher education institutions, students and the private sector.

As in other OECD countries, our aim in Mexico is to help all students, all teachers and all education policy-makers realise that higher education can be improved, by providing independent analysis, producing evidence for debate, and encouraging informed internal discussion among stakeholders. We are confident that these OECD reports will be useful for informing the ongoing reform of higher education. Thank you.



See also:

OECD work on Education

OECD work with Mexico



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