Will a new president end Mexico’s stand-off over university policy?
Mexican president Andrés Manuel López-Obrador has expanded university access but is accused of ideological attacks on institutions, overly zealous corruption clampdowns and a misguided power grab over research policy. Ahead of next year’s election, Tom Williams assesses the mood in Mexico City
Driving south west out of Mexico City along the México-Toluca highway, you could be forgiven for confusing the Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics (Cide) with a multistorey car park. Yet Cide’s imposing, brutalist facade, identified as that of a higher education institution only by its faded green logo, belies a tranquil campus beyond. On the day Times Higher Education visits over the long summer vacation, the most salient sound is not the roar of traffic but the singing of birds.
Cath Andrews, a history professor and former academic dean of the institution, appears at the entrance to the history faculty building, apologising that she can’t speak in her usual office because it has been flooded. A Brit who has been in Mexico so long that it takes her a while to recall long-unused English words, Andrews explains that such disruption has become a fact of life at Cide over the tumultuous past few years.
The institution, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2024, has long been renowned as one of the most important social science research centres in Mexico. But it has also become emblematic of the disruption wrought in higher education by the leftist government of Andrés Manuel López-Obrador (popularly known as Amlo) since his landslide election victory in 2018’s general election.
To his supporters, López-Obrador is a strong president who has overseen an economic resurgence, pumped money into public infrastructure projects and championed the rights of the poor and working classes. The architect of a self-proclaimed “fourth transformation”, comparable in scale to the 1810 war that secured Mexico’s independence from Spain, López-Obrador retains a high popularity rating as he prepares to leave office next year, having served his one permitted six-year term.
But others see him as a Donald Trump of the left, a populist whose supposed battle against corruption has masked an ideological power grab that has seen him centralise control in a way that has undermined democracy and the autonomy of respected institutions.
“It is very clearly populism: the same as we’ve seen in the United States, in Brazil, in Venezuela, in Turkey, in Poland,” says Sergio López-Ayllón, who served as director of Cide for eight years until he was ousted in 2021. “Their speech is on the left, but if you see what they have done, their policies are much more of the right.”
The consensus is that López-Obrador will not be replaced by a like-for-like leader even if his own Movement for National Regeneration (Morena) party wins next June’s election. His last few months therefore represent a battle to secure his legacy and solidify reforms that are being repeatedly challenged in the courts, chief among them a controversial new science law that seeks to change how the country funds research.
For academics, many of whom voted for him, López-Obrador is theoretically an ally. He supports increasing access to higher education and campaigned on a promise to create 100 new public universities. However, relations with academics immediately soured when, as part of an austerity drive, he briefly introduced cuts to academic travel budgets that would have obliged academics to seek his personal permission to attend a conference abroad. A backlash forced him to backtrack, but academics’ anger was further stoked when he pushed through funding for university expansion rather than shore up declining funding for existing institutions.
His changes, he says, are intended to ensure that all Mexicans can benefit from the findings of science, but, according to Andrews, his time in power has been akin to “low-level warfare” against universities. And among the war’s most serious casualties is Cide.
“We have been made an example of,” Andrews says. “[López-Obrador] has called Cide a den of corruption and other disagreeable things because we have done research projects with the Supreme Court – which is one of his enemies just now – and the World Bank.”
As a result of speaking out against the targeting of Cide, Andrews briefly became a “household name”, as she puts it, enjoying the dubious honour of being featured by López-Obrador in his “mañanera” – a daily “diatribe”, broadcast every morning by the major channels ever since he was elected, in which he has taken aim at various academics, journalists and opposition figures.
“Academics have become enemies of the government unless they applaud him,” says Andrews. “People who have been vocal in their opposition are labelled as enemies because he doesn’t listen to different views.”
That view is endorsed by Alma Maldonado, a researcher at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (Cinvestav) and one of the fiercest critics of the current regime.
“You wake up and the president is on the TV saying academics are the worst [people] in this country; they don’t deserve anything; they spend money; they are privileged; they study abroad to ‘learn how to steal’,” she says. “It is this populist speech against science all the time. He never has a nice word to say about the importance of academia or even universities. This is why we feel scared and, if you talk to the [academic] community, a lot of people don’t want to say anything. The large majority are silent.”
Of course, life as a Mexican academic was always tough, Maldonado concedes. “It is not like before we had a lot of support from previous governments. Knowledge production in a country like Mexico takes a lot of effort: there is a lot of precarity, no resources, no infrastructure, but people are doing things. The problem now is that, added to this lack of resources, there is a narrative against what we do, which is creating more divisions.”
One of 26 public research centres directly managed by Mexico’s National Council for the Humanities, Sciences, Technologies and Innovation (Conahcyt), Cide has never been an autonomous body. Part university, part government thinktank, its academics used to enjoy freedom to conduct research that could, at times, be critical of those in power, according to former director López-Ayllón, a calm, softly spoken lawyer. He says Cide has suffered the most of all institutions under López-Obrador because of its size and dependence on the government for funding.
“I think we knew from the very beginning that this was going to be a very different government, with a very different attitude to research,” López-Ayllón says. In his view, Cide was targeted because it was seen as neoliberal, but he insists the label is unfair. In reality, the institute’s ideology was “a mix: there was no single line of thought. We had some left-wing professors; I would not say it was a mainly right-wing, conservative institution. We were liberal, concerned about inequality, with a strong emphasis on human rights and democracy.”
López-Ayllón says the cuts started with the immediate cessation of government money for specific projects as soon as López-Obrador came to power. More damage was done by new rules that restrict public institutions’ ability to use separate trust funds – known as fideicomisos, built up from private institutional earnings – to pay for specific projects that meagre state funding could not cover. López-Obrador claimed such spending was “not transparent” and that the trusts were a vehicle for corruption.
Cide’s fund “wasn’t that much – around 250 million pesos (£11 million) – but it helped. It made all the difference,” López-Ayllón says.
Andrews concurs. “It allowed us to have a yearly offer to the students for loans for computers [and to offer them] scholarships to go abroad,” she says. “Professors could also apply for small research grants – which, for a history department, are very important because [history research] doesn’t bring in any money, ever. [The trust fund] also provided easy access to cash if there were certain maintenance problems not covered by the budget, which was never enough to pay for everything.”
Nor is it merely Cide’s buildings that are suffering. “We can’t get access to periodical publications as we don’t have the money,” Andrews says. “It reduces our autonomy completely. We are now dependent for all money on the government.” Occasionally, Andrews says, the bureaucracy opens up and allows the money to be accessed, but only for short periods and its use is still tightly controlled.
That Cide’s fund still exists at all is thanks, in large part, to López-Ayllón, who fought to ensure that even if Cide could not spend its fund, the assets would not simply be swallowed up by the government. But his stance, and his opposition to the changes being implemented at Conahcyt more generally, undermined his directorship of Cide.
“There was a decision that they would ask me to leave the position,” he says. “I went to the presidential office to negotiate my resignation. I said, ‘I will go with no scandals, but replace me with an academic, not a politician’.”
Sure enough, he was replaced by José Antonio Romero-Tellaeche, an academic economist. However, the new leader soon clashed with faculty and students as he was seen as being accountable only to Conahcyt and the funder’s controversial director, María Elena Álvarez-Buylla, who was accused of appointing him without following the usual process.
Several prominent Cide academics, including Andrews, were sacked from their leadership positions, leading to long-running strikes and blockades and an exodus of faculty members. A recent report in the newspaper El Universal claimed that 40 academics – a third of the total faculty in 2021 – have left since the beginning of the crisis.
“He did not act as a leader of a community; he acted like someone who wanted to change everything because he saw everything as wrong,” says López-Ayllón.
Andrews, who had been appointed academic dean by López-Ayllón, knew that her position was under threat, but she was not prepared to let Romero-Tellaeche continue to “get rid of professors for ideological reasons. He wanted to cancel tenure committees, but he didn’t have the power to do that. I took the decision, to protect the institution from the risk of being subjected to a series of employment tribunals, to order them to take place. He sent two men to try to break up the meeting and I had to shout at them to go away. I was in no physical danger, but it was unpleasant. It was intimidation. Then the director arrived, and he proceeded to sack me.”
Cide, Conahcyt and the Mexican government all failed to respond to THE‘s requests for comment.
After being sacked as dean, Andrews went back to her role in the history department and has since tried to stay out of the limelight. But she says her role in the crisis has seen her targeted by the pro-Amlo press and accused of “taking bribes”.
Such claims are a routine part of the attacks on academia by a president who came to power vowing to rid Mexico of the corruption that has dogged it for decades. But while no one doubts that the country does have issues with corruption, academics allege that the zeal of Conahcyt’s Álvarez-Buylla is such that she has been intent on labelling scientists as corrupt regardless of whether it is true.
“Every time she appears on morning conference with the president, there has been some kind of accusation of corruption: that money is being used to support private institutions but not science,” says David Romero, a professor in molecular genetics at Mexico’s Autonomous National University (Unam).
This culminated in a legal case brought against 31 academics in 2021, who faced accusations of money laundering, organised crime and embezzlement. These were charges that could have seen the accused locked up in one of Mexico’s most high security prisons, Altiplano, where Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was held before he was extradited to the US in 2017 and which is still home to Miguel Ángel Félix-Gallardo, known as El Jefe De Jefes (boss of bosses) and widely considered to be the founder of the modern Mexican drugs trade.
The allegations focused on the academics’ involvement in a consultative forum set up by Conahcyt but independent of it. They were accused of siphoning off federal money meant for the running of the body and spending it on themselves. One of those accused, Gabriela Dutrénit, a professor at the Metropolitan Autonomous University, faced a near two-year battle to prove her innocence. By the time the charges were dropped in May, she had spent $40,000 (£32,000) on her defence. Others are still waiting to hear if they will be cleared.
Dutrénit says she never realistically believed she would end up in prison, but “in this country you don’t know. Justice sometimes operates and other days not.” She says the case was driven by a need to find corruption in science. “The president has taken on the fight against corruption, so it has to be found in this sector, as it was found in other cases. Maybe there is some, but not in this case.”
Cinvestav’s Maldonado says that some of the accused believe it was precisely the “ridiculous” nature of the organised crime charges and the severity of the threatened consequences that “saved” the academics because of the attention the case gained. A less extreme allegation could have resulted in a conviction, she believes.
López-Obrador’s reform programme culminated earlier this year in the tumultuous passage of a new science law, intended to direct how Conahcyt functions, how it spends its funding and the responsibilities for research of the various layers of Mexico’s government. While many of the reforms were already under way before the passing of the law, it has been seen as a way of solidifying López-Obrador’s changes.
“If you read it, it is not really a law, it is maybe a political manifesto; full of normative speech, principles, ideas: ‘You have to work for the benefit of the people of Mexico’, ‘respect cultures’, these kinds of concepts that are very broad,” says López-Ayllón, the former Cide director. “A lot of the ideas are contradictions. They say, for example, the law is based on the freedom of teaching and research, but, at the same time, it says every piece of research paid for with state money must be aligned with government priorities.”
This has proved to be one of the most controversial aspects of the law, affecting not just researchers and their projects but also students, who are at risk of losing their scholarships if they use them for studies not deemed a national priority. Private universities, too, face so many conditions that, for them, securing public money for research or scholarships is near impossible.
“The law is quite specific about how [the government] will control the research agenda,” says Unam’s Romero. “Topics covered will be the ones the government is concerned with: health, violence, gender, water contamination. They are very general topics, but lots of parts of science are excluded.” Moreover, those topics are not up for discussion since “the law doesn’t specify any mechanism of consultation with academic communities. We fear a very vertical system, where Conahcyt has all the control, telling us which topics have the support of the state, with not too much collaboration with the scientists or general public.”
Andrews says that this centralisation of control over what should and should not be part of the national agenda gives too much scope for that agenda to be shaped by the specific views of key individuals. For instance, “If you are interested in biotechnology, you are not going to receive any money because Álvarez-Buylla is a biologist and is against genetic modification. She sees it as a huge evil,” says Andrews.
Also of concern is the involvement of the army, which has grown steadily more powerful under López-Obrador and whose officials have been placed on key decision-making bodies within Conahcyt. And while the law has “humanities” in its title, the national priorities skew heavily towards the sciences, according to Andrews: “If your subject is history, anthropology or geography, it will be difficult to justify your existence. [Ministers] think the money is wasted on things that have no public use, and the humanities is not seen as contributing to public good.”
She says that such attacks on the humanities are occurring worldwide but have not previously been embraced by Conahcyt, which used to be “assiduous in financing humanities and social sciences”.
Researchers do not have a problem with the idea that the government is entitled to outline its priorities for research, Romero contends, but the law is having a narrowing effect on the research system when what the country needs is to encourage more innovation.
“We are heading in the wrong direction,” he says. “We need more students. We need to finance more researchers. The number of researchers in Mexico is, proportionally, quite low compared with other countries: 42,000 for a country of 90 million. We need to increase the size of the system, not to concentrate money on certain aspects.”
Given the science law’s focus on rhetoric over substance, the specific changes it will impose are somewhat contested. But researchers worry that Mexico’s longstanding commitment to spend 1 per cent of GDP on research has been removed and replaced with vaguer wording about the level of financing needing to be “adequate”.
“The way it is established is that [ministers] only have to add a little bit more money to the budget than the previous year, without considering inflation,” says Maldonado. “If you add two more pesos, you fulfil the law. There is no way to pressure the government to finance the sector more.”
The reforms also consolidate changes to the country’s National System of Researchers (SNI), a tiered structure administered by Conahcyt that is intended to top up the wages of the most productive academics, as judged by their articles, teaching and public engagement. López-Ayllón says that new criteria include “ethical behaviour”, which, he believes, is a euphemism for not challenging the government and its decisions. Romero adds that more weight is also being given to public activities, which is seen as a way of excluding those who work in private institutions, who tend to do less such work.
Despite some of Mexico’s best universities being private, including the Technological Institute of Monterrey (Tec), ranked in the top five in Times Higher Education’s latest Latin America University Rankings, the government’s reforms have tended to hit these institutions hardest. According to Marco Antonio Fernández-Martínez, a professor-researcher at the School of Government and Public Transformation at Tec, this shows that the government is ruled by its ideology when what it should be doing is using all types of education to fight inequality.
“There’s a prejudice that private equals business equals taking advantage of people,” he says. “There are different types of private universities. There are some that behave like that. We call them patitos (translated as lame duck universities). But the truth is that there are good and bad institutions in the private and the public sectors.”
Fernández-Martínez also believes that private universities’ ability to add capacity to Mexico’s higher education system is being ignored by the government. “Public universities do not have resources to provide more places for kids to study,” he says. “It is absurd, given the service the private sector has been doing, that you discriminate against their students because of the nature of the institutions they are studying in and deny them any support [such as publicly funded scholarships].”
The legality of the science law is being challenged from various quarters. Most observers expect Mexico’s Supreme Court eventually to deem it unconstitutional, not necessarily because of its substance but because of the chaotic way it was approved. However, it may be 18 months before that ruling is delivered. That, as well as the uncertainties arising from the presidential transition, means that the country’s research sector is likely to remain in a state of flux for some time, with many of the changes enshrined in the law already in place.
López-Obrador’s Morena party has selected as its next presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum. Ahead by some distance in the polls, she is a close ally of the outgoing president and a fellow former mayor of Mexico City. However, her background as an engineering academic at Unam and a member of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had led academics to hope that she might be more sympathetic to their cause.
Her biggest challenger is the senator Xóchitl Gálvez, who is representing a broad coalition of opposition parties. She has pledged to increase Conahcyt’s budget to ensure more postgraduate scholarships; develop strategic sectors and new technologies, such as artificial intelligence; and boost funding for the SNI reward scheme. She recently declared on X (formerly Twitter) that “a country without scientific research is a country without a future.”
For her part, Dutrénit, the researcher cleared of fraud, is “very optimistic about the future in the sense that all the most important candidates – those with more probability to win – have a different vision of science and technology innovation”.
The election will also see the replacement of Álvarez-Buylla at Conahcyt and researchers are hopeful that any new director will take a different path.
“We will not go back to the way it was, but there will be more sensitivity, better policies for science and technology and for Cide,” says López-Ayllón, who hopes he can return to teaching if the situation improves.
Maldonado agrees that Gálvez seems to better recognise the importance of science than the current president does. However, she is less optimistic about a Sheinbaum win, fearing that López-Obrador’s ongoing power within Morena will deprive her of the political power to undo his changes even if she wants to. And she fears that institutions such as Cide – and the country’s research system as a whole – are unlikely to get back to what they were in the post-Amlo era regardless of who becomes president.
“Cide was a good space to get a good training in social sciences and now it is destroyed,” she says. “Where are young people going to go now? If you think about how long it took to build these institutions and research system, what is the future in the next 20 years?”
Andrews says she has thought about leaving Cide, but she loves the institution “very much”. Moreover, it is “not easy to just to pick up everything and leave. History is not a profession where there are hundreds and thousands of jobs.” So although she may be forced, ultimately, to move elsewhere, “I am willing to wait and see. It is possible that in 18 months things will be looking a lot more positive, but it is hard to say.”
In November, Conahcyt announced that Cide’s campus in the city of Aguascalientes, 500 km north west of Mexico City, is to be merged into another centre because it is being underused. Academics argue that if this is true, it is because so many faculty have left and scholarships have been cancelled. Still, the sound of birdsong may continue to be more prominent than it ought to be even on Cide’s Mexico City campus for some time to come.
“The people who have left are not going to come back,” Andrews says. “The things that have been done to Cide will not be overturned. The clock will not go back. To see it being dismantled is extremely sad.”