Educating the Continent

Jennifer Jeffs on why Canada needs to forge educational ties with Mexico or risk being cut out of further North American integration.
By: /
September 30, 2013

In recent weeks, Mexico City has been repeatedly under siege by teachers protesting against the government’s education reform program, part of a package of reforms that the Pena Nieto administration is determined will help fulfill the potential of Mexico, a country whose emerging middle-class now exceeds 40 million people. The current protests are against reforms that would professionalize the Mexican teaching profession, instituting teacher evaluations and ending the inheritance and sale of teaching positions.

Reform is essential. Mexico’s public education system comes last in OECD rankings in terms of results relative to cost. For a comparatively recent newcomer to the OECD club, this is not a surprising ranking, and a benefit of OECD membership is attention to members’ economic performance factors. Mexico’s poor score here has prompted the Pena Nieto government to act on education reform, a tough political battle, but an important one for Mexico, and for Canada.

Education reform is crucial for the future of Mexico, but it is also essential for future prosperity in Canada. Regional competitiveness relies on an educated and skilled labour force. Mexico should be more than a source of low-cost labour; the exigencies of regional competitiveness and high-value production chains demand that it also be a source of skilled and technical expertise.

During U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Mexico last week – one that remained on his schedule despite many cancellations in the wake of various international developments – he stressed the potential of the hemisphere. “From Canada to the tip of Argentina, there is no reason why in the 21st century the hemisphere will not be the most potent economic engine in the world.” But his repeated references to North America included only the U.S. and Mexico. Canada is a partner of each and a partner of both, and needs to watch the U.S.-Mexico bilateral relationship closely to ensure that it does not get pulled away from Canadian interests.

In post-secondary education – the most fundamental building block for the future – the U.S. and Mexico are forging partnerships and agreements. Both countries were alarmed by the fact that last year the number of Mexican students studying in the U.S. was roughly equal to the number of Turkish students; slightly less than the number of Vietnamese students; and slightly more than the number of students from Nepal; yet Mexico is right next door. They are now moving quickly to raise Mexico from 10th place in terms of international students studying in the U.S., and produced a joint plan just in time for the first U.S.-Mexico High Level Economic Dialogue, which took place last week in Mexico City. A bilateral group worked through the summer to issue the report, the Proposal of the Mexican Consultation Group of the Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation and Research, “Proyecta 100,000.” The goal of this proposal is for 100,000 Mexicans to be studying in the U.S. – focusing on the STEM areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – in the next five years. This goal complements Obama’s “100,000 Strong” initiative, that aims to have 100,000 Americans studying in Latin America by 2020.

In Mexico City, Vice President Biden called education the “cognitive currency of the 21st Century,” pointing out that a “strong, integrated North American economy, grounded on respect and 21st-century rules of the road, is going to attract investment and make us both better in the global economy.” Canada cannot afford to be omitted from references to North America being “better in the global economy.” Today, this means Canada needs to pay more attention to the building blocs of educational co-operation, collaboration, and partnership with Mexico.

Canada’s plan to receive 12,000 of 100,000 students that Brazil plans to send abroad in the coming years, also focusing on the STEM areas, is a terrific bridge-building initiative, applauded by many. But it is ironic – and sad – that we have not created a similar plan for Mexico, our NAFTA partner and a country with deep economic ties to us. We need to support Mexican reforms and use this moment to forge the educational ties and networks that are so crucial for the economic future of our region.