An analysis of present and possible futures of public and private Mexican universities: perceptions and projections of current administrators.

Author:Gonzalez y Gonzalez, Elsa M.

Abstract: This study proposes to answer the question--What is and might be the present and future scenarios of higher education institutions in Mexico according to their leaders' perceptions? Special emphasis is placed on the differences between public and private institutions.

The study emphasized that leaders of private and public universities in Mexico look at their institutions as very different from one other. They recognize their own needs as well as their goals as particular to their own institutions. Both types of leaders identify the importance of their roles in the process of change and adaptation within their institutions. Getting close to the opinions of Mexican leaders in those institutions can help us to understand the present circumstances of higher education (HE) in Mexico, and get a deeper understanding of the complexity of HE in many developing countries, as well as begin to comprehend their future possible scenarios.


The study of the leaders' perceptions and projections of public and private Mexican higher education institutions and consequently the changes to those administrators' roles serves to illuminate how the differences between and within those institutions affect the way their leaders face changing situations in these contexts. Contextual situations such as conditions of rapid population growth, low overall average family income in the society, an increase in student demand, and other situations are explored for their implications in higher education system development.


The world is facing important and rapid changes with the advance of scientific and technological knowledge. Universities are recognized as both maintenance organizations because of their roles in the socialization of people and the transformation of culture, but also adaptive structures because of their roles in creation of knowledge (Katz & Kahn, 1978). In the case of Mexico, the university as well as other educational institutions can contribute to this scientific and technological transition, even though they are themselves in the process of change (Patlan, 1997).

The need for higher education institutions to better adapt to the demands of rapidly changing societies is recognized in many countries, especially in developing countries such as Mexico. Adaptation and change in higher education institutions could be facilitated by the presence of clear goals, where the assistance of higher education senior administrators can contribute enormously. Consequently, the achievement of organizational goals in higher education institutions depends greatly on the ability of administrators to work together effectively and professionally. Changes in society require a new type of professional higher education executive, one who is prepared to deal with rapid change.

This study is based on the perceptions, opinions, and interpretations of Mexican higher education senior administrators regarding how their institutions look and function in the present; what they will look like and how they will likely function in the future; and how their own roles have been affected by the changing situations they face in their own contexts. Special emphasis is placed on the differences between public and private institutions. Following the pattern of most of Latin America, the distinction between public and private higher education is more marked in Mexico than it is in the U.S. In Mexico, public universities are almost exclusively financed by subsidies from state and federal governments, whereas private universities are almost completely funded from private sources and tuition (SEP, 1995). In the past, and because of their institution's charter, the state governors appointed most of the presidents of public universities; that situation produced an immediate political link and fiscal dependency between the universities and the state government. With the increasing autonomy of the public universities, a trend that started with the National University of Mexico in 1933 and was followed for the rest of the public universities through the rest of the century, that regulation changed once they became more autonomous; but, the ties between the government and the university administration still persist, mainly because of the financial dependency of the public university.

Theoretical Framework

There is no certainty that Mexican higher education institutions are prepared to move as rapidly as they will need to, in order to help to prevent the country from being left behind in the global economy. Higher education executives play a key role in their institutions in attending to the current demands that their universities face.

The University Today: Some Theoretical Perspectives

Morsy (1996) calls higher education today a "kaleidoscopic reality." He explains:

Higher education throughout the world reveals a wide range of academic systems, from the highly centralized (China and France) to those which are almost completely decentralized (India and Canada); from federal systems (Germany and the United States) to systems where the private sector is in competition with the public sector (Latin America and Japan); from systems which, until quite recently--and even today--are fragmented, with numerous and overly specialized establishments (the former Communist countries of Europe) to systems that are virtually carbon copies of others (some countries in Africa and the Arab States). (p.ix) The diversity described above is increased because of the broad array of contrasts that each country presents. Universities are among the oldest organizations in the world and have proven resilient over several centuries of socioeconomic and political change. Nevertheless, institutions of higher education around the globe faced unprecedented challenges as the new millennium approached. Among those are the extraordinary growth in enrollments, present lately in most Third World countries; the sanctity of autonomy, in its many facets and claims; and the gap between the knowledge and skills produced by higher education and the needs of the societies around it (Morsy, 1996). Scholars and administrators have been cautioning about misfits between external demands and current responses to change (Sporn, 1999).

In her study, Sporn (1999) explains how successful organizational adaptation for college and universities requires new and innovative strategies to respond to the changing environment for higher education. She found a number of factors driving the requirement for change, such as:

(a) The increasing pervasiveness of technology in many different areas of public and private life. Throughout the world the use of computers is being extended for writing, accounting, learning, or playing; in addition, new patterns of communication and learning are emerging. (b) The economy of many countries has forced state governments to reconsider how to allocate funds to higher education. (c) Demographics are changing as well. The population entering universities and colleges now consists of increasing numbers of students from different age groups, ethnic backgrounds, and varied experiences prior to their entry into higher education. (d) Globalization has led to the increased mobility offaculty, students, and staff and to a stronger need to standardize services and performances. Consequently, these forces have led to an institutional environment dominated by claims for public accountability and more responsiveness on the part of institutions of higher education. These new environmental demands are triggering an internal response from universities around restructuring, because "a responsive campus is one where efforts at change are encouraged and implemented" (Tierney, 2000, p.20).

Higher education institutions recognize the urgent need for change, innovation, and reform; however, they keep facing barriers in this process. Five major obstacles for change are identified by Tierney (2000): (a) lack of agreement (on what changes are necessary); (b) unclear timeframes and structures; (c) lack of evaluative criteria; (d) inability to articulate changes to the rest of campus; and (e) cultural exhaustion and rigidification of the system. Tierney cautions us that not only is the identification of problems important, but also the understanding of how to overcome those obstacles, and how institutions with particular cultural realities plan to respond.

Higher education institutions around the world are facing these realities. Each has its own vision of how to address the problem. A broad explanation of the particularities of the higher education system in Mexico is presented next, to introduce an understanding of the system and how institutions are being affected.

The Mexican Higher Education System

Universities in many developing countries have usually been patterned on European models. The "eurocentric" system of university education has been hampering universities in these countries in releasing endogenous creativity and seeking their own cultural roots (Husen, 1996). Latin American higher education was organized during the period of independence mainly from Spain, in the early nineteenth century. Growing slowly for about 150 years, higher education went through a period of explosive growth in the 1960s and 1970s, and leveled off again in the 1980s. Those are the main stages in the development process of universities in Latin America (Schwartzman, 1996).

Historically, the Catholic Church was the founder of colleges in Mexico, as a part of the Spanish colonizing enterprise before independence in 1821. The struggle for political independence was manifested in ideals of secularism, appreciation for technical knowledge, and a general attack on the traditional university institutions (Schwartzman, 1996). Many of those colleges later were transformed into the current public universities in Mexico with the support of public money. The first colleges of Mexico were founded as an...

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