Effects of 15 Years of Neoliberal Policies on Public Education in the Americas

IDEA Conference Document, Quito, Ecuador, September-October 1999 Social Network for Public Education in the Americas

Carlos Mauricio López
Tegucigalpa, Honduras

The New Landscape and Context of Decentralized Development

According to a study carried out by Dr. Jose Antonio Morales Erlich, a Salvadoran politician, the world today is characterized by three main trends in development:

  • 1.1  – A marked tendency toward unipolar politics, represented by the United States and reinforced by the Cold War
  • 1.2  – A tendency toward economic multipolarity in different parts of the world, promoting a rupture in national markets in order to give way to globalization of the economy
  • 1.3  – A generalized tendency toward “modernization” of the state characterised by a reduction in the size of the bureaucratic apparatus, “rationalization” of public resources and efficiency in the distribution of public services. A pivotal axis of modernization of the state is the decentralization of territorial political administration.

Let us take a closer look at some elements of these three trends.
1.1 The Tendency Toward Unipolar Politics
Over the last few decades, the world has experienced very significant economic, social and political changes, the most important of which has been the consolidation of one single economic and political system, which is capitalism. These changes are reinforced by recent events in Eastern Europe, which have served to feed the idea that “In light of the total failure of socialism, capitalism has shown itself to be effective.” As a political power whose military strength is without rival, the US has placed itself in a vulnerable economic and social situation. In this world-wide repositioning, it will have to defend foreign investment and foreign-made products in its attractive internal. market. That is why the US has had to force an alliance with Canada and Mexico in an attempt to form an economic bloc that permits it to compensate for the deficiencies of it obsolete and costly productive apparatus. Due to its great scientific and technical capacity, the US is now the only high level world atomic power, and because of its advantage in this area, it fills the key, dangerous role of “sheriff” of the universal metropolis.
1.2 Economic Multipolarity
With the implantation of the New World Order, the economy has undergone more changes in the last fifteen years than in the eighty years that preceded them. A new industrial/technological revolution is taking place which is manifest in the areas of informatics, robotics and bio-engineering. Globalization is characterized by profound technological changes which have implications at the infrastructure level for such factors as production, the circulation of goods and the political economy of states.
Today, this is referred to as “globalization of the economy”, which in reality, means regionalization of the economy on a world scale. Within this emerging framework, national economic borders are being drastically reorganized, giving way to the formation of large regional economic blocs, which actually work against free trade, since they are actually protective and highly aggressive trade zones.
Latin America with Mexico and Chile at the Forefront
The concept of national economies has practically been supplanted by the concept of regional economies or “the world economy”, which no longer produce in order to satisfy domestic needs but for export. To this end, we must transform ourselves into competitive, “total quality” economies.
The result of all this is that today we are living in a world that is increasingly economically integrated and which grows ever closer to realizing the notion of the “global village”. But this integration is accompanied by a situation of economic and social inequality between North and South.
In other words, this process is leading to a reduction of economic activity in the underdeveloped world while, as we grow more superfluous, the distance between Us and Them increases. In order to really be considered international, this New Order should benefit the majority of the world’s peoples. On the contrary, however, it is not even an “order” in terms of respect and imposition, but is more like a series of “orders” that are being emitted. It is interesting to note that, etymologically, the concept of “order” can be used to imply “peace” while “orders” are something that contain the seeds of war.
Neoliberalism: A Story of the End of the Century
The 1990s witnessed the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the socialist system. Agreements between blocs that were previously in conflict have produced changes in our world, many of which were unthinkable twenty years ago.
Certainly in a unipolar world, capitalism thinks it has won the fight and the concept of the paternalistic welfare state has disappeared. In our countries, this dream was held up as a necessity in order to offset “terrorist subversion”, and as a means of keeping social conflict at bay. However, with the majority of social groups disbanded or immobilized, pressure was no longer applied to keep it in place. In Latin America, the dominant groups perceived that it was necessary to dump the paternalistic state and supplant it with a state that would guarantee private investment and private profit.
It is for this reason that neoliberalism (or “new” liberalism) has become an economic trend in our countries that has gained strength through the its association with the University of Chicago with its intellectuals and Latin American pupils, and which has received much support from the developed countries. For neoliberalism, the market exists in perfect equilibrium and is self-regulating. Private property is equally self-regulating, based on sales contracts. The state should modify itself, limiting its capabilities and functions and become apolitical, efficient and specialized.
The state should privatize and delink itself from its previous activities, handing them over to private enterprise. This new state should not disappear, but it should become the motor of macroeconomic policies and the infrastructure while guaranteeing investment and capital and some social programs. This last area should take the form of ensuring that the workforce that industry needs will have adequate education, training and technical preparation.
The neoliberals claim that the crisis in education is the product of the welfare state and those that support it: the unions, teachers’ organizations and social organizations that defend the right of all to quality public education. Neoliberals also claim that teachers don’t work very hard, that they don’t keep their knowledge and methodology up-to-date and that they waste a lot of time on holidays and strikes.

The Social Impact of Economic Adjustment Policies

Economic adjustment policies have had an effect that is perceived by the powerful sectors as dangerous but necessary: They have increased the number of poor people who are unable to resolve their basic subsistence needs. For this reason, the Latin American governments have started up social compensation programs in order to try to try to prevent a social explosion among the destitute population. Many of these programs are financed by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or regional banks like the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Most of them are aid programs that cover basic necessities, such as building schools, contracting non-professional people for pre-school programs, highway repairs, street cleaning, stipends for students, etc.
Neoliberalism vs. the People
As a social process, education is directly affected, but the evolution of this educational component is still taking place slowly. Many different efforts are being made in the search to “modernize” and “adapt” education to the new times. These adaptations are being produced within the framework of heavy economic adjustment programs which have a negative effect on the majority of the population through decentralization, modernization, municipalization, regionalization, deconcentration. Many different names are being used, but whatever label is applied, most of these so-called reforms are not responses to real diagnostic processes or serious proposals for education. They are, rather, responses to the effects of globalization programs. Within this framework, governments make commitments, apparently with good intentions, but without any real desire to fulfil them because they are very difficult to achieve.
In this sense, governments are in a double bind situation. On the one hand, they agree to education proposals that show a lot of vision. On the other, they have committed themselves to demanding programs of economic adjustment, modernization and globalization that make it impossible to really carry out the education programs.
Economic Adjustment Measures
In the framework of the neoliberal process that has been implemented for all of Latin America, economic adjustment measures have been being developed since the 1980s with the goal of improving the income of the states so that they will be able to fulfil commitments they have made to the international organizations. These measures seek to increase economic possibilities while making changes in the institutional and production structures which permit the following:

  • Greater diversification of the economy;
  • Greater economic efficiency in order to compete with other countries on the world market;
  • Floating credit rates with the state no longer fixing the rate of interest;
  • The cost of labour should be lowered and the state should no longer set a minimum wage;
  • Elimination of controls over the costs of goods and services, with the result that they become unattainable for the poor and working sectors of the population;
  • The state should not set the rate of exchange with the US dollar;
  • Trade liberalization (free trade);
  • Privatization of the banks;
  • Privatization of public services (water, electricity, telephone system, education, health care, highways, national parks, forests, etc.)
  • Privatization of state companies and of the interest earned on transnational capital.

Neoliberal Recipes for Education in America

When we begin to talk about education policies for the region, we should recognize that they are being proposed as a central point of the economic policies with the goal of maintaining a close relationship between education and the labour market (in reality, the problems of unemployment in the current context).
The policies being carried forward for Latin America by the IMF and the World Bank promote privatization of the state. The state is supposed to be subordinate to other interests and foster a free market. The education reforms the governments are promoting operate within this framework, and follow the orders of the international lending organizations.
The educational model for the region provides the same prescription for all countries: Hand over real control of the economy and the benefits derived from it to a small “financial” group. Within this same logic, the changes that are being proposed arise from the new plan for workers: “modernization”, “efficiency”, “total quality”, “free market”, and “deregulation”.
In this way, we are forming a new type of person in society. We are facing an enormous social change, in which the parameters outlined above will not only apply to workers, but to every individual that makes up a society. Even rules as to how we are to relate to each other will be imposed, and to lock the system in place, education must be adapted to new needs. The World Bank, the IDB and the IMF have all worked at identifying the different categories within the workforce that the market demands in the areas of production of goods and providers of services, and the “education supply” is being designed with this in mind. No longer is education to be designed under the principal of developing human capacities to a maximum, but rather with the idea of limiting human capacity to the “possibilities” of the market. In other words, the education and preparation of people and citizens will be subjected to the rules of the market which are imposed for the purpose of exploitation.
At the end of the 1970s, concerned by the enormous growth in the public systems (including education) that required them to continually ask for bigger budgets without being able to guarantee that they were economically viable, the international lending organizations began to study “education in developing countries” in order to recommend educational reforms for them to adopt that would be in keeping with a new plan.
In this context, the education system was seen as the ideal environment for forming the type of workforce that would be needed. Education should lead to an increase productivity with the introduction of cutting edge technology, which would go hand-in-hand with the reorganization of work. Increasing productivity does not mean increasing workers’ wages. Today, it means increasing exploitation, since wages have not gone up, but have, in fact, decreased considerably. Today the picture is the same for all the countries of the region: unemployment, an increase in informal labour and the informal market, closure of “non-competitive” companies with capital being transferred to the financial sector, often resulting in this capital ending up in the hands of large national or international companies.
The concept of education has changed considerably. No longer is education seen as a right of citizens. Today, it is an investment. And, like any investment that does not turn a profit, it does not deserve further investment. Education needs to adapt to the market and yield interest in economic terms. The areas of education that the market demands should be developed. Education should be looked on as a business that must demonstrate its efficiency, effectiveness, profit-making ability and quality.
As part of this objective, a set of measures have been proposed by the World Bank for the countries of the region that have the effect of increasingly decentralizing the education system, putting it in the hands of communities, municipalities or private companies. A clear example of this is the fact that nearly 80 percent of technical training in Chile is now in the hands of private companies, while in Brazil part of the technical formation of teachers is carried out by SENAI, SENAC or SENAR. If the education systems are to be compatible within the region, there should be general, basic compulsory education for at least ten years. In this way, the concepts will be nearly unified and “universal”.
Decentralization of the system is the first step toward privatization, and to dismantle it means nationalizing the service, all of which makes no sense for the market, which is supposed to be “rationalized” (although it does make sense socially).
Within this logic, the school would be viewed as a company or business that provides education. Professional training for teachers would mean forming a new elite that would then instruct future teachers, who would graduate with lower qualifications. Costs would then be lowered for the system: there would be fewer years of preparation for teachers with fewer courses offered, resulting in less-well-prepared teachers.
The neoliberal agenda is a perverse one. It takes the contractions and deficiencies of the system and changes and redirects them for it own purposes. Its attractive discourse is often the result of taking our own ideas–often our own words–and using them to communicate its own coded message. It also frequently makes reference to situations that we ourselves have denounced.
There is an education system identical to that being used in some other countries, which is being tested for the possibility of implanting it in others. Today, the Chilean educational model has shown that it has been unable to lower the number of students who fail to be promoted. Nor has the education reform in that country reached the neediest children. On the contrary, cases of non-school attendance have increased.
It would be good if the governments of the region could explain how they intend to balance economic plans that continue to generate growing rates of unemployment with a public school system that is supposed to favour social mobility. How do they intend to carry out plans for competition and efficiency when public education in many countries of America is still designed to protect the poorest people and foster solidarity…?
The neoliberal model has a vision of the region in which each individual will maintain and produce for him/herself. It seeks to increase the already-existing gap between the poor countries and the First World, between those who have nothing and those who own our peoples, between the “haves” and the great mass of “surplus” humanity, along with those who have ceased to be surplus by ceasing to exist. In the time it takes to read this paper, 300 of the world’s children under five years of age will have died of hunger.
We should begin with the fact that, in America, education has three levels of development, which correspond to the US and Canada, Latin America and Cuba.
a) The US and Canada: Many students in these countries have access to a broad, good-quality education in both the arts and sciences. The majority of youth finish high school and in Canada, the majority go on to some form of higher education. But within this abundance, there are many inequalities. In both countries, neoliberal policies have given rise to a growing inequality of income, to the extent that 20 percent of children now live in poverty.
In the United States, far more money is invested per capita in the children of the middle and upper classes than in those of the working class or the ethnic minorities that live in the inner cities. One analyst has described this situation as one of “savage inequality” within an opulent society.
Education in Canada also has it inequalities, although they are not as acute as in the US. Indigenous children face many more barriers to education than other children. Globalization, neoliberal policies and free trade agreements such as NAFTA have brought budget cuts to public programs, including education, and have encouraged privatization.
Despite the fact that Canada and the US have achieved more economic progress than the other countries of the American continent, growing sectors of the population have remained behind and marginalized, while those that direct the economy have increased their incomes.
b) Latin America: With the exception of Cuba, education in Latin America is truly backward, with profound inequalities among social classes, and between the urban and rural populations, and between mestizos [the mixed-race majority. Trans.] and the national minorities.
In Cuba, on the other hand, education is a universal right and is part of an overall project of society. In the English-speaking islands of the Caribbean, most countries have developed school systems based on the British public education model. Although these countries have succeeded in reaching high academic levels and a high rate of school enrolment, in recent years they have experienced economic adjustments similar to those taking place in the Latin American countries over the last two decades. These countries are also experiencing the problem of an increase in children and youth leaving school before completion.
With the exception of Cuba, the Latin American educational systems have not developed the along the lines of what was hoped for the modern public school. With profound social inequalities and with an anti-democratic and elitist style of education, they have, however, deepened the application of neoliberal policies.
As with all social areas, education is subordinate to the neoliberal measures, which are aimed at bringing about the following objectives:

  1. Privatization of public education, placing it in the hands of the popular sectors, the community, non-governmental organizations, private enterprise or multisectoral organizations, which will replace state responsibility in this area.
  2. It has been suggested that the need to improve the efficiency, the quality, the effectiveness and the productivity of educational systems is taking place in a general way, rather than with an eye to democratizing the systems. This is contrary to the way public education was visualized during the Nineteenth Century by such leaders as Bolivar in South America and Francisco Morazán in Central America.
  3. Flexibilization of education, changing the system and the professional profile of teachers, reforms to the curriculum ways that eliminate the humanist aspects and substitute a purely technical approach. People should be prepared to follow orders without questioning them.
  4. It has been proposed that internal competition be introduced and that a system be developed that is based on individual strength and that these should become mechanisms for guaranteeing the services offered among both students and teachers.
  5. Mechanisms for control and quality evaluation of education services are to be established.
  6. Schools should express and be subjected to the needs imposed by the national and international labour market.
  7. Private contribution to education should be promoted.
  8. Teachers’ contracts and salaries should be flexible, but social systems of evaluation should be developed.
  9. Education costs should be decreased through the establishment of measures that optimize resource use in order to increase efficiency in the education system.
  10. The number of students per classroom should be increased, in order to increase teachers’ productivity and lower the cost of paying new teachers.
  11. Contracting non-professional people to carry out work that was previously only done by qualified teachers.
  12. Moving toward educational models that rely on the purchase and use of imported technology.

The Implementation of Neoliberal Policies on the Education Sector

a) Less investment in education
The majority of Latin American governments, with the honourable exception of Cuba, are not investing in education, which they consider to be a non-productive expense without immediate benefit. They are not hiring more teachers and there is no money for teaching materials, school repairs or equipment or other needs that schools have. It has been suggested that teachers, parents and the community should, in fact, provide for these needs. They tell us that if we maximize our resources it will be possible to keep going.
b) More students per teacher
In promoting adjustment policies, the World Bank has suggested saving on education spending by increasing the number of students per classroom. The Bank claims that the quality of education the students receive will not be lowered if we add only a few students more, by for example, increasing class size from forty to forty-five. In Honduras, it is not considered good use of a teacher’s time if he or she has only twenty-five or thirty students in a class. It is considered easier to merge two groups and put one teacher in charge of fifty or sixty students.
One doesn’t need much imagination to see that a teacher with fewer students can provide them with more attention and better teaching. This is especially important in the early years of primary school.
To sum up, it appears that structural adjustment policies have produced a decline in teachers’ work. To cite some examples:

  • Fewer educational materials are available to students and teachers, and in some cases, are totally lacking.
  • Teachers are feeling the need to obtain extra income by holding down second jobs, either in private schools or by giving individual lessons.
  • Teachers are being blamed for the problems related to education.

c) The promotion of policies toward decentralization and privatization
Neoliberal policies are designed to reduce the state’s economic responsibility for education.
Decentralization, which may appear to be a positive measure, can also be a double-edged sword. In a progressive sense, it can be seen that a centralized government in any capital of Latin America has little or no real possibility of solving problems or resolving conflicts that take place thousands of kilometres away. It is also true that administrative activities that should only take a few days to complete sometimes take months or even years when the central administration is geographically distant.
Decentralization has made it possible to transfer administrative control of education to local or regional authorities, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the objective of all of these measures is to decentralize financial and political responsibility, which then falls on local governments, local associations or private institutions. In Latin America, decentralization, privatization and municipalization have, in practice, resulted in schools not having the resources they need to be able to function, and then being forced to go to the community to seek financial support. There are many examples of this. Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Mexico all put schools in the hands of municipalities at the beginning of the ’80s but have since had to reverse the policy because it was not working.
Chile began a process of municipalization in 1980. This reform, which put the administration of basic education in the hands of the central administrations of the municipalities, put in place a subsidy program that permitted families to enrol their children in private schools, where they paid the equivalent of the cost per student for public education. This policy resulted in the establishment of a number of subsidized private schools.
These measures, along with others employed by the Chilean government (privatization of the universities and secondary schools, reduction in teachers’ salaries) precisely followed the adjustment plan of the World Bank. Comparative studies of students’ school performance during the years 1982-1990 showed a slight improvement for students from the upper classes, while those from the poorer sectors did worse.
To conclude, we can say that poorer students–which are the great majority in countries with great social differences–were harmed by the reforms, and the social differences in society became even greater. This happened because the public resources destined for the more disadvantaged sectors of the population were greatly reduced. The heavy pressure that parents exercised over the municipal authorities and the competition that was established among the schools did not result in better quality teaching. In fact, teaching became worse in the public schools while the private schools improved. However, the cost of running the private schools did not go down, in spite of the fact that teachers earned less than in the public schools. In fact, many teachers were able to teach in both public and private schools since both the law and the school schedules permitted the practice.
We are definitely assisting a series of typical neoliberal measures designed to discredit the efficiency of public services by encouraging the gradual transfer of public resources to private enterprise while progressively reducing state presence in such basic social services as education, health care, public investment, and state pensions.
Curriculum Reform
Neoliberalism decentralizes responsibility for resources, but not for the content of education. For example, in Latin America reforms to the curriculum have been carried out in a rigid manner by the central authorities, without any participation from the schools or municipalities in the design of content and without involving teachers’ organizations. It is now obvious that the curriculum reforms have not been successful, since it impossible to carry out such a project unless it is based on collective work with the participation of teachers, parents and other social entities.
Repercussions of Structural Adjustment on Teachers
As I have previously pointed out, one of the proposed formulas for reaching the neoliberal objective of reducing the cost of public education is to reduce teachers’ salaries and increase their productivity by having them work longer hours and increasing the number of students per teacher. We will now take a look at the repercussions these reforms have had on teachers in the countries where they have been applied. We will do this by taking a look at the situation of teachers from both the quantitative and the qualitative perspectives:

a) Either there are too many teachers or there are not enough
According to some projections, in order to provide primary education for the world population in the year 2,000, we will need 1.8 million more teachers, assuming that circumstances don’t change. The countries with medium and high incomes predict that they will produce 6 million more teachers than they will need if the current trend continues. Nevertheless, it is somewhat difficult to talk about an excess of teachers since there could still be a deficit of teachers for some specialized areas. One cause of this is the drop in the birth-rate in the developed world. In some cases, the excess of teachers has been produced artificially by cutting the education budget, by transferring financial responsibility for education to the municipalities or by increasing the number of students per class.
In the Third World, the teacher shortage depends on the willingness of governments to invest in teacher education and in the existence of teaching conditions that are decent enough to attract young people into the profession.
The lack of qualified teaching personnel is a notable problem in many Latin American countries, where over 25 percent of primary school teachers and nearly 50 percent of secondary school teachers have not completed their qualifications. However, this is not a problem in countries where adjustment policies are being applied, since in their efforts to reduce the cost of paying teachers, less qualified people are being hired for teaching positions.
b) Teachers’ contracts and working conditions
In terms of teachers’ contracts and maintaining teachers’ jobs, structural adjustment policies are carried out by:

  • Reducing teachers’ salaries
  • Longer workdays
  • Introduction of changes in working conditions

In recent years in Latin America, teachers’ salaries have been greatly reduced. This has made it difficult to attract qualified people to teaching and to keep them in the profession. To cite a few examples, in Chile between 1982 and 1990, teachers’ salaries went down twice as much as wages in the industrial sector. In Mexico, teachers’ wages fell continually after 1981 until in 1988, they were 22 percent of what they were in 1981.
In Costa Rica, teachers salaries were greatly reduced between 1979 and 1983. From 1983 to 1988, the government tried to keep salaries low (giving teachers raises that were lower than those other workers received) as a structural adjustment measure and transferred the cost of school materials to parents. Although teachers’ organizations eventually managed to get salaries back up, the government’s attempt to keep them low and teachers’ reactions to this policy have had negative consequences for the education system.
Nevertheless, the World Bank proposes that teachers’ salaries should be delinked from the general pay scales for the public sector and that their earnings should be based on the results of their work rather than on the years they have spent preparing for their career. It has suggested as an alternative that teachers with less preparation be hired at lower salaries and that more incentives for teacher training be offered in the workplace with the intention of improving productivity.

In Latin America, the reduction of teachers’ salaries (which is a very marked tendency in Mexico and Argentina) has not caused a shortage of personnel with teaching certificates so it has not been necessary to resort to hiring non-qualified people. In Panama and Honduras, the surplus of certified teachers has meant that qualified teachers are being hired, but at lower salaries. Chile and Venezuela–two countries that are committed to reducing the cost of hiring teachers–have permitted the contracting of lower-waged, non-qualified personnel at a time when the number of university graduates has increased.
These adjustment policies have resulted in fewer jobs for teachers. In the high-income countries, where there are many university graduates, competition for jobs has increased, making it possible for authorities to demand higher qualifications. Since overall wages have not decreased, education has been able to compete with other professions and the number of qualified teachers who cannot work in their profession has inevitably increased.
An area in which the neoliberals have had considerable influence is in the need to intensify administrative control and inspection of teachers’ work with the objective of increasing their productivity.

Education: An Uncertain Future

Our governments continue to follow the “suggestions” of international organizations (if they may be referred to as such), which they implement with the idea of being in tune with changes taking place around the world. These include:
a. Introducing courses leading to new types of careers that are supposed to respond to the new global competitive reality, such as tourism, computers, clothing design and dressmaking, and aesthetics.
b. Projects are being created that do not respond to the economic situation of our countries but are instead a reflection of this economic tendency and a response to pressure from the financial organizations. For example:

  1. Changes in the curriculum of education systems
  2. Pre-primary education becoming generalized
  3. Expanding distance education for primary and middle grades
  4. Integration of the education system and communications media
  5. Modernization and consolidation of the teaching profession
  6. Systematization of the relationship between supply and demand in education in terms of production and employment
  7. Basic education and job training for youth and adults
  8. Training programs for self-employment and the creation of micro businesses
  9. Participation of business in the design and implementation of job training programs
  10. Preparation and specialization of people in the areas of science and technology applied to education
  11. Technical, pedagogical and administrative decentralization of the education system

Globalization requires us to take different approaches, since education is no longer viewed as something that should serve national interests, as can be seen from the following quote:

“For the state, the real problem lies in the new order of the global economy. National economies are definitely losing their ability to manage macroeconomics and are being replaced by international financial markets that are setting the pace and whose global investments are based on market criteria and profitability.”

Thus, the education system will be organized in order to respond to “…the growing demand for ongoing job training and retraining of adults, because people are the ‘raw materials’ of the future.”
This is why, in the reforms to the curriculum, technical aspects are more important than human ones. Education systems have resisted these necessary demands for change and this has caused even more problems for education in Latin America, to the extent that the number of academic failures is the highest in the world. Nearly one-third of primary school pupils have to repeat a course every year. The amount of money spent on re-teaching courses to those who have not been able to pass them has been estimated at about $4.2 billion dollars per year. Only half of the students complete primary school.
This operational dysfunction at different levels means that secondary schools do not prepare students for living in a modern society and that students are not well-prepared to enter university.
An Example of Neoliberalism in Education
As a result of neoliberal measures, the US has applied pressure to Canada and Mexico to form a free trade zone. For this reason, I am including some of the contributions of Dr. Hugo Aboites of Mexico, whom I met some months ago at a meeting of the IDEA network in Mexico. Dr. Aboites, who is a researcher at the Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana of Xochimilco, has carried out an analysis of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in which he looks at the impact it has had on education. He has analyzed the treaty, which is often assumed to be exclusively concerned with trade in goods, but which also plays a role in education.
Dr. Boites claims that some aspects of the agreement were kept secret in order to prevent the university councils from taking part in the discussions and influencing public opinion on what was being negotiated. Most people believed that the agreement is about the import and export of such items as tomatoes and auto parts. They did not realize that education was also part of the deal. The author claims that the exclusion of these sectors also excluded the idea of education as something that is part of a country’s cultural heritage which should be open to all and should be dedicated to building social agreement through the generation and sharing of knowledge.
Education and NAFTA
It has been pointed out that NAFTA does not prevent the Mexican government from offering public education, but it has been told not to inhibit investment in education and that certain areas should be reserved for public education. By including education in the discussion, it appears as yet another area of action for investors and becomes subject to the logic of profit.
Chapter XII of NAFTA, which covers cross-boarder trade in services, is one of the most important for education, since it stipulates that foreign providers of education services (schools, universities, providers of training and evaluation, etc.) should not be blocked from offering their services in Mexico and they do not have to reside in Mexico.
It is proposed that Mexican professionals will have to be evaluated and approved by a private trinational commission and that this entity will have responsibility for the curriculum and the education of Mexican students.
Privileging commercialization and marginalizing the public is a constant theme in NAFTA. It makes it possible for multinational companies to become involved in education by offering combined diplomas, aid and committees. It establishes obligatory university certification for university teachers.
NAFTA seeks to create a trinational education market in three principal areas:

  1. A market for educational services, which can compete for students from the three countries. Students will be able to switch from one institution to the other;
  2. An academic market that will make it possible for academics from one country to hold jobs in another;
  3. A trinational market in which the three countries will compete for funding for research.

This initiative has not advanced very far as yet, but it is obvious that the creation of these markets will mean that education will have to respond to market demand and will have to attract students able to pay the price.
Education will no longer be based on such values as solidarity, harmonious development of the person, building the nation, love of country, etc. In the future, education will be based on two principal characteristics: competition and uniformity.
Competition will be fundamental to the dynamics of education. Teachers are already competing among themselves for bonuses for productivity. Besides having to pay for their education, students compete for scholarships and grants, awards and high scores on national exams. Public schools (and now private ones as well) compete for state funding and the different levels of education compete among themselves for priority in the public budget.
Homogeneity is another feature that education is now supposed to have. However, this presents problems for the cultural, social and political pluralism of many countries, regions, and indigenous groups.
Under NAFTA, Mexican students will no longer focus on their country’s concrete and specific problems, but will have to concern themselves with more general, non-specific themes.

New Roles for Public and Private Education

In the first place, reducing the public role of the state is leaving more territory open for private education. Not only are there more spaces available in private schools, but public schools are no longer free, causing education to become a closed circuit for the poorer sectors of the population.
Second, a profound reorganization is taking place within education today. From being a system that existed for the purpose of offering educational opportunities to all, it has become a system in which large sectors of the population have pre-set limits to what they can achieve while those that manage to stay in the system are obliged to follow educational options that the central authorities have defined as necessary for generating the economic development that the country needs.
The changes presented in NAFTA are crucial ones since once the state removes itself from its responsibility to provide more than a basic level of education, it becomes legal for the majority of people to not have access to higher levels of education. This state of affairs is congruent and complementary to the ideology generated by such entities as the World Bank, which says that, in terms of income, the value of education lies in the basic level and that public investment in higher levels of education should not increase. This ideology also says that schools should charge fees and that preference should be given to those areas of study that are more “efficient”, such as technical and professional studies that are supposed to yield an economic return.
Dr. Boites’ study shows that the NAFTA agreement is being applied in the state universities in order to disqualify thousands of students who want to enrol. Students are being required to pass an exam designed by a private institution, and those who don’t score high are being pushed aside. Meanwhile those who do fairly well are being channelled into technical studies which many do not find interesting, with the result that they eventually drop out.
The promises NAFTA makes are contradictory. They include such statements as:

  1. Reforms should greatly improve the quality of education;
  2. Social participation should be broadened and strengthened so that education will be revitalized; and
  3. There should be a more intense and meaningful relationship between education and society.

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My dear Colleagues: This paper, which was originally somewhat longer, was discussed in June of this year at a meeting of the IDEA network that took place in Quito, Ecuador. I have tried to include the suggestions made at that meeting in this improved version of the paper, but if I have left anything out, please let me know.
I hope that the participants of this meeting will share their opinions and provide feedback as well.
Finally, I have not included proposals because they will be provided in another paper to be discussed at this meeting.
Carlos López
September 1999
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  • (Unidad de Desarrollo Social y Educación)

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  • Federación Magisterial Canadiense

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