The Oppenheimer Report

Andres Oppenheimer: Obama’s big item in Mexico — student exchanges

 

Forget all the headlines about immigration, security and drug issues during President Barack Obama’s visit to Mexico last week: the most important (and least noticed) result of his trip may have dealt with an entirely different topic — student exchanges.

Sounds boring, but it’s potentially the most exciting thing that came out of Obama’s visit: If the bilateral plan to dramatically increase student exchanges becomes a reality, it could mark a turning point in the history of U.S.-Mexican relations, and in the development of a vibrant North American economic bloc.

Right now, despite the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement among the United States, Mexico and Canada, the level of U.S.-Mexico academic exchanges is pathetic.

Only 13,700 Mexican students are enrolled in U.S. colleges, compared with 194,000 from China, 100,000 from India and 72,000 from South Korea, according to the “Open Doors’’ study of the Institute of International Education.

Even Vietnam, a poor Communist country with a smaller population than Mexico’s, has more students in U.S. colleges (15,000) than Mexico, the IIE figures show.

Likewise, the number of U.S. students in Mexican colleges is ridiculously low — only 4,000 compared with 33,000 U.S. students who are studying in the United Kingdom, 30,000 in Italy, 26,000 in Spain and 15,000 in China, the IIE figures show.

Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto agreed to create a Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation, and Research, led by the U.S. National Science Foundation and Mexico’s CONACYT Commission, to rapidly accelerate student and academic exchanges.

“We want more Mexicans studying in the United States, and more American students studying in Mexico,” Obama said. “And we’re going to focus on science, technology, engineering and math.”

Perhaps more importantly, Mexican officials say Mexico will unilaterally launch a plan before the end of the year to quadruple its current number of students in U.S. colleges over the next five years.

Mexico’s under-secretary of Upper Education Fernando Serrano told me in a telephone interview that the planned public and privately funded scholarship program will raise to “between 40,000 and 50,000” the number of Mexican students in U.S. universities by 2017.

“The current number of student exchanges is very small, and has remained virtually unchanged for the past fifteen years,” Serrano said. “We will correct that.”

In Mexico, Obama said he will also find ways to increase the number of U.S. students in Mexico as part of his 100,000 Strong in the Americas plan to more than double the number of U.S. college students in Latin America over the next 10 years.

The idea behind all of these plans — as well as a similarly massive study-abroad plan recently announced by Brazil — is to replicate the European Union’s highly successful Erasmus scholarship program, whereby more than 1 million European college students have been able to earn university credits in other European countries since the program started in the late 1980s.

As Guillermo Hirschfeld, a professor at Spain’s Rey Juan Carlos University reminded me last week, the Erasmus program in Europe did much more than allow students to get a more globalized education — it played a big role in helping cement the idea of Europe as an economic bloc.

“The most important thing about the Erasmus program was that it helped forge human relationships, to bring down nationalist dogmas, and to destroy prejudices in a region that had been plagued by conflicts during much of the past century,” says Hirschfield, the author of a study calling for an Erasmus program for the Americas.

My opinion: I totally agree. It’s time to give a new push to the two-decade-old NAFTA agreement, and one of the best ways of doing that will be to increase student exchanges and bringing down nationalist prejudices that have prevented North America from becoming a more economically-integrated region.

If Washington and Mexico meet their promises to hugely increase student and academic exchanges — granted, a dose of skepticism is warranted here, since the two countries launched a similar plan two decades ago that didn’t go too far — it could be their most far-reaching agreement since their 1994 free trade agreement.

They should carry it out, and simultaneously launch a plan to allow U.S. and Mexican universities to offer joint and dual degrees. The European Union has been way ahead of the curve on this, too, with its decade-old Bologna Plan that allows students from most European countries to automatically validate their degrees in each country.

All of this could have a much bigger impact on the future of U.S.-Mexican relations — and on North America’s prosperity — than all the current headlines about other issues of the day. And it may happen.

Read more Andres Oppenheimer stories from the Miami Herald

  • In My Opinion

    Andres Oppenheimer: Costa Rica’s new leader says he’s a “moderate” leftist

    Seeking to calm anxiety in business circles about his election as his country's first left-of-center leader in recent history, Costa Rica's President-elect Luis Guillermo Solis says he won't join the Venezuelan-led ALBA bloc of radical leftist countries, and that he sees himself as a “moderate” who is “not unlike many recent European and U.S. leaders.”

  • In My Opinion

    Andres Oppenheimer: Maduro’s first year, and what’s next

    Now that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has finished his first year in power, it’s time to take a dispassionate look at what has happened in oil-rich Venezuela since he took office on April 19, 2013, and what lies ahead. Let’s start with the facts.

  • In My Opinion

    Andres Oppenheimer: Latin America’s forecasts may be too rosy

    What's most interesting about the World Bank and International Monetary Fund economic projections released last week was not that they forecast a slower-than-expected growth in Latin America for 2014 — we already knew that — but that they foresee a rebound in 2015 and 2016.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category