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Educational Woes: Mexico’s need for investment in human capital

The 2018 Mexican Federal Election proved to be a critical juncture for Mexico, as the left-wing candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known as AMLO), secured a historic win with his left-wing coalition “MORENA” (The National Regeneration Movement). For AMLO, who experienced a controversial loss in 2006 and a disappointing defeat in 2012, the third time proved to be a charm. He has not only gathered attention because of his astonishing victory, but also for his grand agenda and promise to create a great “fourth transformation” for Mexico. Currently, the Mexican public is fed up with the former political domination of National Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the National Action Party (PAN) and now view AMLO as an alternative champion for the average citizen. While his agenda has noble and promising changes, many criticize its vagueness, broad scope, and lack of justification for funding to meet reforms. While it is hopeful to witness an agenda that strives to modernize a developing country like Mexico, it is imperative that his focus not be on physical capital and attention-grabbing projects, but rather on human capital. AMLO’s administration has barely started its term, but a shift in focus towards primarily providing quality education to those less fortunate can be the key to yielding satisfying socio-economic results.

Three major tenets of AMLO’s agenda are to finally end corruption in the political system, remove benefits that were abused by public officials in previous administrations, and offer massive projects and funding to resolve major socioeconomic issues. While on paper his ideas are attractive, it’s tempting to “laugh off” many of the promises he has made, such as free internet for all, two million acres with newly planted trees, and a train linking the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez, a political scientist at the Tecnológico de Monterrey University, emphasizes that such promises satisfy the desire of a public that is frustrated by the lack of innovation and major changes in the country.

However, true socioeconomic change comes from consecutive small changes that can create momentum. Economists are concerned that AMLO’s decision to simultaneously carry out many massive projects will mean that they cannot be funded just by cutting the salaries of public officials, and will require additional funding. While his agenda may be more ambitious than his predecessors, there is a recurring theme of improving education, without first addressing inherent systemic issues.

Ex-President Nieto had to exit his term in 2018 amidst accusations of corruption and major criticisms of failing to deliver on his campaign promises of economic and educational reform. Even his agenda included education reform, not much progress was made. The grave reality is that many students in Mexico do not have access to resources, tools or materials to continue their education. The major dissonance is that there is a continual interest in innovating and improving both the classroom and how students learn, but no focus on the capacity of the education system or equal access for all students across geographic regions. The Mexican government continues to make bold promises, but in reality schools face dropping enrollment and lack of support for students facing the harsh reality of sustaining their family, leading to a conundrum of no desire or access to learning.

AMLO plans on creating 100 public universities, eliminating entrance exams, and providing a monthly payment to students in 10th to 12th grades to lower the dropout rate. But what stands as a barrier is that Mexico has been running budget deficits since 2010 and spends a considerable amount on education already. Corruption and mismanagement, exacerbated by tax evasion, is too common in Mexico and can be an obstacle increasing taxes to allow for more social spending. While the newly approved budget is 24 billion pesos higher than the one from last year, it can be easily spread thin if paired with an agenda that attempts major reforms across the board.

It is necessary to educate a public that continues to increase in size. Mexico is projected to become one of the top 10 economies by 2050, but its workforce and current professional generation lag behind in education and skill attainment. The number of students enrolled in the public school system has soared from 3 million in 1950 to 32 million today. Such pressure is visible, as the lack of resources, materials, and properly trained teachers has contributed to only 62 percent of students advancing from primary to secondary school. What is more shocking is that only 45 percent of students graduate from secondary school.  In the last study conducted by the OECD, Mexico ranked 46th in reading, 49th in mathematics and 51st in science in the world.

With such a lack of support, it comes as no surprise that students in Mexico have shown to be less motivated, miss more school, and lack ambition.  The solution to such a multi-layered issue is to create an environment that is demanding and interactive, proportionately fund areas that lack materials, provide training for teachers and offer special programs to indigenous people and other marginalized minorities. The solution isn’t simply to increase spending but to ensure that such funding is managed well in a system that currently lacks incentives for instructors, gives pensions to “ghost teachers,” and has structurally forgotten indigenous students. These three components are especially detrimental, as disparities increase when comparing rural to urban areas and average students to those of indigenous descent, as 80 percent of indigenous students do not have the basic skills to advance a grade level. Balance and emphasis on management can prove to be essential, as AMLO’s predecessor Nieto received major criticism from teacher unions and officials from the Department of Education of Mexico for his controversial education reforms that silenced teachers and forced adoption of certain unattainable standards.

Reforming the educational system is no easy task, yet AMLO has the potential to deliver great results if he focuses on the rigid and extensively complex problems of the current education system rather than grand infrastructure projects. Changes appear to be on the horizon: Two months ago, AMLO promised to end controversial reforms by Pena Nieto that resulted in 150,000 teachers retiring or retiring early as a form of protest. A fair and rigid structure is needed and laying the foundation of a demanding and fair educational environment is necessary, because such reforms coupled with special attention to marginalized groups can close disparities and ensure socioeconomic mobility for all citizens. Currently, the educational system is a “double-edged sword”, as it reflects and creates inequality. Even though the OECD currently ranks Mexico as the second most unequal country, if AMLO makes education the primary tenet of his agenda, Mexico can witness true change.

With such a daunting task, it is noble to see that AMLO places education as one of his priorities, but with a plethora of issues and criticism from different groups, true cooperation and investment of time and funding must be monitored and his sole central focus. Mexico does not need large infrastructure projects to show the international community that it is modernizing, it simply needs to prove that it can meet the educational needs of its people.  Not only will this allow future generations to be properly prepared to enter the labor market, but it will also allow them to be competitive and able to shift from basic to more advanced and demanding economic sectors. It is evident that with a lagging educational system, true economic growth does not lie with an emphasis on physical capital but rather on human capital.

Photo: “Students in AMLO

About the Author

Leonardo Moraveg '22 is a Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Leonardo can be reached at