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What’s Causing the Increase in U.S. and Mexico University Alliances?

What’s Causing the Increase in U.S. and Mexico University Alliances?

Partnerships between universities in the United States and Mexico are on the rise, and bode well for economic growth and enhanced cultural ties. This phenomenon involves more than simple exchanges or language programs, and includes cooperation for graduate degrees in a range of disciplines.

“There are different types of programs,” says Dr. David Pijawka, an urban planner at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, AZ. “Many are supported by foundations in Mexico that think it is really important to send graduate students to American universities.”

Pijawka was active in a three-year program in which ASU and the Instituto Tecnológico de Sonora (ITSON) partnered to support Mexican graduate students in their thesis and dissertation work. The model, which was built around research agendas within specific disciplines, helped formed the basis for other programs.

“The Mexican funders send people who are well-known in their subject areas,” says Pijawka. “Most return to Mexico and become professors. They also develop long-term partnerships with American universities that last well beyond their return to Mexico.”

Funding Challenges

On the U.S. side, funding can come from a range of sources. Pijawka’s program, as well as others at ASU, received funding from USAID. Support has also come from the Southwest Consortium for Environmental Research and Policy (SCERP). However, funding for such programs remains a challenge, Pijawka says.

“I just returned with six colleagues from a visit to Monterrey and Mexico City, and one of the topics under discussion was funding,” he says. “We visited the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, (ITESM),  and worked on a long-term partnership for research and teaching. We also have a proposal out with the University of Guadalajara.”

Pijawka says that American and Mexican universities approach the challenge in a number of different ways, but that one of the most effective is for researchers in the same discipline to pair up and go after foundation funding. As well, certain institutions in the United States have a strong focus on Mexican partnerships, and will have access to their own resources.

“Besides Arizona State, other active universities include the University of Utah, the University of Texas, and San Diego State,” Pijawka says. “These four colleges have formed a consortium of sorts with eight universities in Mexico – it’s been going on for over a decade.”

On the Mexican side, ITESM is one of the leaders in building partnerships with U.S. universities. A private university founded in 1943, ITESM officially became a research university in 1996 and has a long history of partnering with U.S institutions.  As early as 1950 ITESM received accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits educational institutions in 11 U.S. states. The result was exposure to peer-review evaluation and institutional best practices – something that continues to this day.

Help from the Top

Cooperation between American and Mexican Universities received a lift when President Obama visited Mexico in early May, announcing with Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto the creation of a new higher education forum. The stated objective is to increase access to learning, and for that to tie in with shared economic opportunities. Pena Nieto made a major push for educational improvement in his first six months in office.

Known officially as the Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation, and Research, the initiative has a specific focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, as well as underserved demographics. Among its goals: better access for the rural poor, the indigenous and for women. Achieving this goal will require new thinking, says Pijawka.

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“We did a lot of work with marginalized, poor communities in Sonora,” he says. “You have to be innovative as you go – there were a lot of obstacles to iron out at the beginning. We have different research cultures, and different types of academic recognition. But we got it to work. Each of our graduate students completed an applied thesis that directly affected communities.”

This could represent a shift for the growing number of private universities like ITESM, some of which have been accused of being elitist when compared to public institutions like the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City, one of the largest universities in the world. That said, Pijawka sees the private sector as being an important player in future partnerships.

“Private-sector funding for these partnerships is starting to pick up,” he says. “That has been a real strength for us; we have had our graduates find employment with private-sector partners; these are well-known firms.”

And private universities are clearly pulling their weight in this department. ITESM, which has 33 campuses at 25 sites across Mexico, reports that about 11 percent of the students at its Monterrey campus are studying abroad in any given year, with foreign students representing eight percent of total enrollment. As well, Webster University and Mexicali, Mexico-based CETYS University recently announced a partnership.

As it stands, data from 2010 indicates that more than 18,000 university students from the United States and Mexico study in each other’s countries on an annual basis. A big part of this story has been the Fulbright-Garcia Robles Scholarship Program, which is overseen by the Mexico-U.S. Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange (COMEXUS) and which has funded over 4,000 exchange students in the past 20 years.

Given all the attention being paid to STEM education and economic cooperation between the two neighboring countries, we can expect more activity in the years to come – good news for the economies on both sides of the border.

This story was first appeared in NSAM sister publication Global Delivery Report.

About Tim Wilson

Tim Wilson is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Canada and Mexico. He covers business and technology, as well as cultural and political news.
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