By Marion Lloyd | The Chronicle of Higher Education
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
The Mexican government will begin offering online college-degree programs this month to its citizens living abroad, many of whom are suffering the effects of stricter immigration controls in the United States.
The project is being run by Mexico's Public Education Secretariat, which opened its own virtual university in August 2009. Since then, 33,000 students have enrolled in 15 different undergraduate majors at the National Open and Distance University of Mexico, said Rodolfo Tuirán, the country's under secretary for higher education.
He said the decision to expand the online-degree opportunity to Mexicans living abroad is partly a response to the raft of anti-immigration laws recently passed in the United States. The legislation—the most punitive of which is Arizona's SB 1070, which criminalizes illegal immigration within that state—has made it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to attend college in the United States.
Mexicans account for more than half of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, according to U.S. government estimates.
"Mexico has to look after its citizens abroad; it's only natural," said Mr. Tuirán, a sociologist who has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. "The goal is to improve their ability to compete, so that they have better conditions there or if they eventually return home."
The Education Secretariat, Mexico's equivalent of the U.S. Department of Education, began receiving applications from expatriates in July. It will initially offer spots to 1,000 students, who can choose from among five undergraduate majors: tourism administration, community development, small and medium-size business administration, engineering and environmental technology, and international marketing.
The programs were chosen based on a combination of demand and compatibility with online teaching models, Mr. Tuirán said. He added that Mexico had sought advice from the Colombian government, which runs its own online university catering to thousands of students living in the United States.
A Small Beginning
The initial 1,000 spots in the Mexican program represent a "symbolic offering, given the scale of the problem," Mr. Tuirán said in an interview. But he added that the government planned to expand the program after the pilot phase. He estimated that hundreds of thousands of Mexicans living abroad might be interested in earning college degrees online.
"As we wait for the situation of our fellow citizens to be resolved, we must make an ever-greater effort" to attend to their educational needs, said Mr. Tuirán, a former research professor in demography at the College of Mexico, one of Mexico's most prestigious institutions of higher education.
He added that numerous immigration bills are making their way through U.S. state legislatures, many of which would prohibit illegal immigrants from attending institutions of higher education in the United States.
Still, Mexico's top higher-education official was optimistic that many of those potential laws, along with the one that took effect in Arizona last month, would be ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Sooner or later, the United States will have to face up to this massive problem," he said. "You can't do without the 12 million undocumented workers, of which seven million are Mexicans."
The Mexican government, he argued, "must not only guarantee their rights but also ensure that they have the best possible conditions, and offering distance education is an adequate response."
Crushing Demand at Home
The Mexican government is also facing increasing pressure to expand spots at public universities at home. Mexico's gross college enrollment rate—a measure used by Unesco, which is calculated by dividing the total number of college students by the number of college-age students—is among the lowest in Latin America.
Since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006, Mexico has seen the creation of more than 75 public institutions of higher education and 33 new campuses and extension programs at state universities. Another 23 institutions of higher education, mostly technological institutes, are scheduled to open this year.
Mr. Tuirán acknowledged that those efforts remain insufficient to meet demand for spots at traditional universities. The National Autonomous University of Mexico, the country's largest public institution of higher education, accepted a record low of 9 percent of applicants last spring, according to university officials. The university, known as UNAM, has some 150,000 students.
Meanwhile, hundreds of high-school graduates who were rejected from UNAM and the two other main public universities in the capital have been holding daily protests outside the Education Secretariat in hopes of gaining admission.
Mr. Tuirán argued that the technological institutes and the government's new online university could absorb many of those applicants. Open University's budget for 2010 is $21-million. But the government hopes to increase that figure to $34-million for next year and to enroll a total of 40,000 students in online programs.
"No other virtual university in Mexico can match that growth in its first year," Mr. Tuirán said.