WHEN Javier Lopez joined the 270,000 other students enrolled at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) last year, he had dreams of becoming an accountant so he could help pull his family out of poverty. It seemed like a perfect plan. Undergraduate tuition was just 8 cents a year. Entrance requirements were nonexistent. And his parents, neither of whom had more than a grade-school education, were delighted.
Two months later, Mr. Lopez - shunted off to the economics department because the accounting classes were full - had long hair, a scraggly beard, and a new idol: Karl Marx. But with moonlighting professors rarely showing up for class, the 19-year-old couldn't explain to his parents exactly what Marxism was - or how it could get him a job.
Like hundreds of thousands of other students, Lopez (not his real name) had become first a victor, then a victim of the so-called ``massification'' of Mexico's once-revered university.
By opening its doors as wide for the poor as for the powerful, the 438-year-old UNAM - the largest and oldest university in the Western Hemisphere - has become a monument to egalitarianism. Its massive expansion over the past 20 years - from 95,000 to 270,000 students, on a sprawling campus at the edge of the city - has made higher education possible for an entire generation of Javier Lopezes.
But the monument is crumbling under the enormous weight.
The UNAM, long the center of Mexican politics and culture (every president during the last 30 years has been a graduate), has found it nearly impossible to balance mass education with academic excellence - especially in a period of economic crisis. Today, as the UNAM struggles with a budget only half the size of a decade ago, academic standards are plunging and the university's influence on national life is waning rapidly (see related story).
``The university constitutes a national fraud,'' says Gilberto Guevara Niebla, a UNAM professor who has written three books on higher education in Mexico. ``We're losing generations and generations of young people who come out of the university badly educated.''
The tension between the UNAM's two goals - quality and equality - emerged in the 1960s, when a massive student movement began demanding changes in what it saw as elitist political and educational systems.
On Oct. 2, 1968, police and army opened fire on thousands of students at a protest march, killing several hundred. But not long after the massacre, the government took surprising steps to shape a ``university of the masses'' similar to the one the students had demanded.
Government resources flowed into the UNAM. The student population tripled in 12 years. And ``the nation's alma mater'' finally accepted everyone from the president's son to the children of day laborers.
But the boom was too explosive to control, creating some ugly side effects: a bloated bureaucracy, a corrupt workers' union, an unqualified faculty, and an ill-prepared student body.
According to a university-backed study published two years ago, less than 8 percent of the students admitted to the UNAM system passed the entrance examination. The reason: UNAM-affiliated high schools entitled most of them to an ``automatic pass,'' regardless of their competence.
Once enrolled, only one-fourth of all undergraduates earn a degree, taking an average of eight years to complete their studies, the study found. Because of overcrowding, students often find themselves sitting on the floors in their classrooms, straining to hear the professor.
Among the 29,000 faculty members themselves, only 30 percent have postgraduate degrees, and 10 percent have no degree at all. Faculty salaries have dropped 70 percent over the past eight years, forcing 90 percent of the professors to find second jobs and neglect their UNAM teaching duties.
One leading political-science professor, for example, earns $530 a month today compared with $1,700 a month when he was a beginning instructor in 1978. ``I can't afford to put all my energy into the UNAM,'' he says.
Such conditions make it difficult to keep quality teachers from leaving for more lucrative spots in the government, the private sector, and abroad.
To combat this ``brain drain,'' some departments have begun competing for nongovernmental funding for the first time in the university's history. The School of Philosophy and Letters, for example, has been able to match its $1.2 million budget with grants from other countries and foundations, according to Arturo Azuela, the school's dean.
The UNAM's new president, biologist Jose Sarukhan Kermez, has promised to ``academicize'' the campus by improving teaching standards. His fledgling ``Academic Leadership'' program has focused mainly on giving monetary awards and incentives to promising young professors.
``The problem is that this university was subjected to a growth that didn't have the correlative planning and teacher development,'' says David Pantoja, a top aide to Mr. Sarukhan. ``Even if you put all your money into the university, there are limits to its growth,'' he says. ``You can't make a professor overnight. It takes time, like a fine English pastry.''
Critics say turning the university around will take more than time and money - but more rigorous academic discipline as well. At present, few requirements exist. Mr. Guevara, for example, says that in his 20 years of teaching, nobody has ever evaluated the content of his classes.
``The absolute excess of freedom is doing grave damage to the UNAM,'' says Guevara, noting that it has led to dogmatism in some departments and anarchy in others. ``Better salaries are a necessary condition, but they aren't sufficient. To give more money without any orientation or evaluation would only contribute to this academic corruption.''
But until the UNAM can combine this focus with more funds, critics say, it will remain a place where thousands of students like Javier Lopez tread water, waiting out an uncertain future.