The Mexican government will begin offering online college-degree programs this month to its citizens living abroad, many of whom are suffering the effects of tighter immigration controls in the United States.
The project is being implemented by the Secretariat of Public Education of Mexico, which opened its own virtual university in August 2009. Since then, 33,000 students are enrolled in 15 different degrees at the National Open and Distance University of Mexico, said Rodolfo Tuiran, the country’s higher education secretary.
He said the decision to extend the online-degree opportunity Mexicans living abroad is in part a response to the raft of anti-immigration legislation recently approved in the United States. The most punitive legislation, which is Arizona SB 1070, which criminalizes illegal immigration in that state, has made it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to attend college in the United States.
Mexicans make up more than half of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., according to estimates by the U.S. government.
“Mexico has to take care of its citizens abroad, it is very natural,” said Tuiran, a sociologist who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. “The goal is to improve their ability to compete, to have better conditions there or if they eventually return home.”
The Education Secretariat, Mexico’s equivalent of the U.S. Department of Education, began receiving requests from expatriates in July. It will initially offer spots to 1,000 students, who can choose between five degrees: tourism management, community development, small and medium-size business administration, engineering and the environment, and international marketing.
The programs were chosen based on a combination of demand and support for online learning models, said Mr. Tuirán. He added that Mexico had requested the advice of the Colombian government, which has its own online university serving thousands of students living in the United States.
A small beginning
The first 1,000 spots in the Mexican program represent an offer “symbolic, given the magnitude of the problem,” said Tuiran, in an interview. But he added that the government plans to expand the program beyond the pilot phase. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Mexicans living abroad could be interested in earning college degrees online.
“While we expect that the situation of our fellow citizens to be resolved, we must make a greater effort” to meet their educational needs, said Tuirán, former research professor of demography at the College of Mexico, one of Mexico’s most prestigious institutions of higher education.
He said several immigration bills are making their way through the U.S. state legislatures, many of which are prohibited illegal immigrants who attend institutions of higher education in the United States.
However, the chief of Mexico’s higher education was optimistic that many of these potential laws, along with which came into effect in Arizona last month, would be declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Sooner or later, the U.S. will have to tackle this huge problem,” he said. “You cannot ignore the 12 million undocumented workers, of which seven million are Mexican.”
The Mexican government argued, “must not only to guarantee their rights, but also ensure they have the best possible conditions, and providing distance education is an appropriate response.”
Crushing of demand at home
The Mexican government also faces growing pressure to expand the spots of public universities in the country. Mexico’s gross enrollment rate of college-a measure used by Unesco, which is calculated by dividing the total number of university students by the number of college-age students, is among the lowest in Latin America.
Since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006, Mexico has seen the creation of over 75 public institutions of higher education and 33 new campuses and extension programs at state universities. Another 23 institutions of higher education, mostly technological institutes, are scheduled to open this year.
Mr. Tuirán acknowledged that efforts are still insufficient to meet demand for places in traditional universities. The National Autonomous University of Mexico, the country’s largest public institution of higher education, accepted a record low of 9 percent of applicants last spring, according to university officials. The university, known as the UNAM, has about 150,000 students.
Meanwhile, hundreds of high school graduates who were rejected by the UNAM and the other two major public universities in the capital have been holding daily protests outside the Education Secretariat in hope of admission.
Mr. Tuirán argued that technological institutes and the government’s new online university could absorb many of the new applicants. Open University’s budget for 2010 is $ 21 billion. But the government hopes to increase that figure to $ 34-million for next year and to enroll a total of 40,000 students in online programs.
“No other virtual university in Mexico can match that growth in its first year,” said Tuiran.
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