UNTIL recently, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) was known as the nation's political greenhouse. At the venerable, 438-year-old institution, aspiring politicians were nurtured, government programs were incubated, and influential networks of political contacts took first root.
``The university before was the key to the whole political system,'' says Roderic A. Camp, a Mexico expert at Central University of Iowa in Pella, Iowa, and author of a book on the education of the political elite.
``For the recruitment of political leadership, the university has always been more important than the Party itself,'' says Mr. Camp, referring to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has dominated Mexican politics for the past 60 years. ``People are not promoted up from the party ranks. They come from contacts in the university.''
Most high-level government officials - including President Carlos Salinas de Gortari - are UNAM graduates. The university still supplies nearly all of the country's doctors and engineers.
But the UNAM's influence on national life is flagging.
With the ``massification'' of the university in the 1970s, combined with the slashed budgets of the 1980s, the UNAM's graduate schools of law and political science - the traditional breeding grounds for political leaders - have lost both quality and credibility.
Today, Mexico's cabinet is controlled by United States Ivy League economists.
President Salinas received his undergraduate degree in economics at the UNAM, but went to Harvard University for two master's degrees. Several other powerful cabinet members, including Treasury Minister Pedro Aspe Armella and Commerce Minister Jaime Serra Puche, finished their graduate studies at Yale University.
Future Mexican leaders, however, will probably form their political circles at the increasingly influential private universities.
Private universities now account for 14 percent of all university students and half of Mexico's institutes of higher education. According to Camp, the number of mid-level bureaucrats educated in private schools has climbed from 1 percent to 10 percent in the past six years.