• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, bloggingsbyboz.com. The views expressed are the author's own.
One of the announcements that the US and Mexican governments want to highlight from President Obama's trip is the creation of the United States-Mexico Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation, and Research. The vaguely worded announcement promises to "encourage broader access to quality post-secondary education for traditionally underserved demographic groups, especially in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. They will also expand educational exchanges, increase joint research on education and learning, and share best practices in higher education and innovation."
This is important as education exchanges between the US and Mexico have stagnated or fallen for the past decade. What the presidents didn't say [last week] is that this is something that needs to be fixed because it is a real problem. The numbers and quality of student exchanges between the two countries are quite poor and have been for some time.
The number of Mexican university students in the US holds steady around 13,000 to 14,000, and that number has barely increased over the last decade (it was 12,500 in 2002). The opposite direction is worse. The number of US students studying in Mexico peaked in 2006 over 10,000. However, security concerns caused numerous US university programs to pull out of the country. By 2011, the number was only 4,100 US students in Mexico. That's less than the number of US students studying in Costa Rica and Argentina and is only slightly above Brazil, Chile and Ecuador.
To reach President Obama's goal to double the number of student exchanges in the hemisphere, including 100,000 US students in Latin America, the numbers for US-Mexico student exchanges will need to be at least 20,000 and probably 25,000, students traveling in each direction. We're nowhere near that number and the trend lines are not looking good, thus the need for this initiative.
There are at least four areas where this forum can help improve the numbers: admissions, tuition, credit transfer, and security.
On admissions, universities need confidence that the exchange students are qualified and students need relief from burdensome paperwork that some of these programs demand. Usually, this is fixed by one-off agreements between individual universities. This forum could help create a larger system agreed to by multiple universities that could ease this process and open up additional opportunities for students in both directions.
Tuition needs to be more transparent for students, so they know how much they are spending and where that money goes when they enter an exchange program. Government encouragement and regulations can help empower students on this front and make exchange programs more affordable.
Students can't go on exchange programs if the credits don't transfer and it requires an additional semester of university to graduate. Universities need to communicate and collaborate to better understand how classes and prerequisites overlap and how they can count towards credits. This is one area that should be easier in STEM than it is in the social sciences and humanities.
On security, US universities need encouragement to allow their students to travel to Mexico. Unlike the media, universities should be able to look beyond the hype and recognize that some areas of the country, including the capital, are relatively safe. Even a city that is less safe, like Monterrey, has some great universities and students should be able to make informed decisions about whether they would like to attend. Perhaps surprising to some US citizens, Mexican universities also need a bit of encouragement on the security issue after all the coverage of school shootings in the US. This is a dialogue that needs to go in both directions.
Of course, governments can only encourage these goals. The reason this is a "forum" is that it needs the voluntary cooperation of public and private universities to be a success. Governments [...] cannot force students to study abroad, nor are they going to provide significant additional resources. The hope is that the forum can get universities, civil society, and the private sector talking.