World Review | Mexico and US take spotlight off drugs and immigration and focus on education

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Mexico and US take spotlight off drugs and immigration and focus on education

Mexico and US take spotlight off drugs and immigration and focus on education
US President Barack Obama and Mexico President Enrique Pena Nieto shake hands after bilateral conference (photo:dpa)

MEXICO has, for decades, failed to put together an adequate fiscal or industrial policy to encourage development in technology and allow Mexican enterprises to become globally competitive.

But a shared initiative with the US aims to upgrade its development of science and technology programmes and see the nation reposition its economy in the world market.

US President Barack Obama and Mexico President Enrique Pena Nieto announced on May 2, 2013, the formation of a Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation, and Research. This initiative aims to offer greater educational and economic opportunities to citizens of both countries and create a workforce for mutual economic prosperity.

‘Mexico and the United States have one of the largest, most dynamic relationships of any two countries on earth,’ said President Obama. ‘Our success is shared. When one of us prospers, both of us prosper.’

The agreement is a clear indication of a change in the political agenda between the two countries.

Both presidents want to move away from the contentious topics of drugs, security, and immigration, and to pay greater attention to issues central to their concerns as major trading partners.

The United States and Mexico are becoming deeply integrated economically. They not only trade finished products; they build them together. Improvements in productivity in either country strengthen the global competitiveness of manufacturers throughout the whole region.

Trade and investment have expanded rapidly. But education and research collaboration has not.

However, President Pena Nieto has, since he was elected in 2012, indicated he wanted to drive technology and industrial learning to reposition the Mexican economy within global markets.

This move requires a skilled workforce and a stronger research capacity linked to industry. Mexico needs more and better engineers, computer scientists, and administrators. It needs to invest more in basic research.

President Obama plans to take a new direction in the federal agendas for higher education and research in the US. His administration has announced moves to tackle shortfalls in science education by supporting strategic research and setting a goal of producing one million university graduates in the sciences over the next decade.

In spite of its size and proximity, Mexico ranks only 10th among countries that send students to the US, below Vietnam and Saudi Arabia.

Mexican students prefer Western Europe to the US, where many feel discriminated against. The numbers for the reverse flow are even more disappointing, having declined from a high of 10,000 in 2005 to around 4,000 Americans studying in Mexico in 2012-2013.

The bilateral effort will focus on exchanges in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Partner organisations for the Forum are the science and technology agencies rather than education authorities.

Mexico, like other Latin American countries such as Brazil, now gives priority to STEM subjects when supporting students abroad. Exchange programmes emphasise public-private partnerships as the voice from industry becomes demanding.

Aerospace industries in border states are seen as an example to follow, with annual growth rates of 17 per cent creating thousands of skilled jobs.

Aerospace companies operating in Mexico exported a total of US$146 million worth of products in 2004, rising to US$3.5 billion in 2010. Universities in northern Mexico are rapidly developing technical and engineering programmes to meet the high demand set by these industries.

Science and business administration are already the major fields of study for Mexican students in the US. A larger proportion than in the past is now returning to Mexico after graduation for jobs that are increasingly competitive with those found in the US.

Enlarging the pool of internationally trained scientists and engineers is expected to attract further technology-oriented investments in the country.

In March 2011, President Obama launched ‘100,000 Strong in the Americas,’ an initiative to encourage 100,000 students from Latin America and the Caribbean to study in the US.

The implementation of educational reforms - including those pursued in collaboration with the US - requires a strong public/private partnership to mobilise resources and engage the knowledge economy sector around a common goal.

The coming years will be a test of the political capacity to move forward an agenda where previous administrations failed. The future of Mexico's positioning within the global economy depends on it.

Dr Jorge Balan

Dr Jorge Balan is a Senior Research Scholar at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, New York. He works in the Institute of Latin American Studies and the ...

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