Juan Ramón de la Fuente
"Education, Competitiveness and Reforms in Mexico"

April 7, 2005

Juan Ramón de la Fuente, the Rector of UNAM, speaking on April 7.

Education, Demography and Competitiveness in Mexico
By Adam Raney

How can Mexico’s burgeoning population provide a boost rather than a drag to its stagnating economy? The answer, according to Juan Ramón de la Fuente, Rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM by its Spanish acronym), Latin America’s largest institution of higher learning, is simple: education.

As Mexico’s demographic pyramid broadens, with working age generations comprising a larger proportion of the national population, better primary, secondary and higher education will allow the country to pull out of its current cycle of inefficiency and unemployment. However, to take advantage of this historic opportunity will require an act of vision and commitment from Mexico’s political class, de la Fuente warned during his CLAS talk on April 7. “It is impossible to think of competing without thinking of education,” he said.

Demographic Shift

De la Fuente, a medical doctor and former minister of health during Ernesto Zedillo’s presidency, presented a compelling picture of the perils and, above all, opportunities of Mexico’s changing demographics. For years, the country’s growing population has meant that there was a relatively high proportion of children and teenagers compared to the pool of working age adults. In other words, only a relatively small proportion of the population was able to contribute rather than receive value from the national economy.

“In coming years Mexico’s demographic pyramid will narrow at younger ages and the working age population will expand,” he said. Over the next 30 years, he argued, Mexico’s working age population will increase by nearly 50 percent. The country must capitalize on this population shift in order to become more competitive in the global economy. The key to meeting this challenge is to educate more of the young people who will soon be part of the working age population. The number of students in high school will have increased by a magnitude of five in 20 years. Meanwhile, higher education enrollments will increase as much 150 percent. “We are not ready to meet that demand,” said de la Fuente.

Competing on the World Stage

According to the United Nations, a country should achieve a 40–50 percent level of enrollment in higher education. However, Mexico has a national average of only 22.5 percent of university-age citizens enrolled in higher education programs, de la Fuente noted. That is higher than the Latin American average of 19 percent. But it does not stand comparison with the U.S, which sends nearly 75 percent of 19-to-24 year-olds to college or university, as do most European countries.

Only in Mexico City does Mexico meet the UN mark, with 47 percent of people between 19 and 24 years of age attending college or university. “The problem with Latin America is that we are moving at such a slow rate that we are never going to be able to catch up,” said de la Fuente.

R & D Deficit

Another crucial set of the jigsaw will be for Mexico to hang on to the brightest and best trained minds, effectively reversing the “brain drain,” and replacing it with a “brain gain.” Thus, in addition to building new primary and secondary schools, de La Fuente said the government also needs to improve the performance of its higher education institutions and foster innovation and technological advances in Mexico.

“To be competitive, we need to conduct research here,” he said. “We have not acknowledged the importance of technology and research in Mexico.” The U.S. and European Union spend more than 3 percent of their GDP on research and development. Mexico, however, spends just one-third of 1 percent on such programs.

Political Climate

However, implementing such major educational reforms will require a change in Mexico’s political climate and new ideas and commitments from all of Mexico’s major political parties. De la Fuente also made it clear that Mexico’s current government, led by President Vicente Fox, is failing to prepare Mexico to capitalize on its forthcoming demographic transition.

As de la Fuente sees it, there are many unpredictable social factors which affect education. Although the government cannot plan for such unknown variables, the changing demographic situation is something that is highly predictable. “We are allowing inertia to guide us rather than being proactive,” said de la Fuente. He expressed doubt that necessary structural reforms could take place in the current political climate adding, “If we do not create a new political climate I don’t think we are going to get some of these reforms.”

Outlining some of the structural reforms needed to pave the way for the necessary shake-up of the education system, de la Fuente said Mexico needs a “new legal framework” at the interface of the executive and legislative branches of government. The current system, he said, stifles reform and encourages inertia. In the long term, de la Fuente is optimistic but believes there is unlikely to be any major developments before the next political cycle, commencing with the presidential elections of 2006. “I don’t think there is a chance of reform with the current government,” he added. “The following government will have a better opportunity regardless who wins.”


Mexico faces many challenges including widespread emigration, public health problems and unemployment, to name but a few. All of these can be traced, at least in part, to the education deficit, de la Fuente said. Reforming the education system is key, both to improving Mexico’s competitiveness and to achieving social justice. “There are thousands and thousands of young people in Mexico who are left out of the education system, and we cannot imagine a way for the country to be more competitive without more capable people,” he concluded.

Juan Ramón de la Fuente is Rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). He was also Health Secretary under President Ernesto Zedillo.

Adam Raney is a graduate student in the Latin American Studies and Journalism MA program.

Original Event Description

Juan Ramón de la Fuente
"Education, Competitiveness and Reforms in Mexico"

Dr. de la Fuente is the rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) where he is responsible for a community of more than 250,000 students and 30,000 faculty and administrative workers. Previously, he has been appointed to key international positions: Vice President of the World Health Assembly, President of the Board of the United Nations Program on AIDS, and President of the Net of Macro-Universities of Latin America and the Caribbean


Dr. de la Fuente addressed the coming demographic shifts in Mexico that could both allow and call for substantial investment in higher education.

Dr. de la Fuente talking with students and other audience members after the event.


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