The Dallas Morning News
Thursday, October 27, 2005

Mexico City university is free with right number

By LAURENCE ILIFF / The Dallas Morning News

MEXICO CITY There are no entrance exams at the Autonomous University of Mexico City. No checking of school records. No interviews. No financial aid forms, since attendance is free.

Students at Autonomous University of Mexico City take a break between classes. Prospective students need only a high school diploma, proof of residency and a little luck. Applicants are assigned a number that is fed into a computer, which randomly selects the new freshman class. The fall term began in mid-October.

The university and its system of 16 feeder high schools were launched in 2001 by then-Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who resigned in July to run for president. Supporters say it is an example of his vision for Mexico, in which bad neighborhoods have good schools and poor kids go to university.

Critics see the university as a diploma mill and a return to the failed big-government policies of the past.

The city university, or UACM for its initials in Spanish, "is a factory producing the future unemployed," said Salvador Abascal, a former City Council member from the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, who opposed the debt-financed project.

"It is also an ideological factory of Marxism-Leninism," part of a plan to swing impressionable voters to Mr. López Obrador and his vision of big government, Mr. Abascal said.

"I think this is populism gone mad," said Peter Ward, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. "To open a university where you take a number and are admitted through a lottery makes no sense whatsoever."

The slogan for Mr. López Obrador's 2000 mayoral campaign was, "The poor come first." He established city pensions for the elderly and disabled and has promised 200 new high schools and 30 new universities should he become president in 2006. He is the leading candidate in early polling.

Supporters of the university project insist that, just like Mr. López Obrador's highly popular downtown renovation, double-decker highways and public transportation improvements, the UACM is well thought out.

"One of the policies of the university is to help those who need it the most rather than those who seem like they deserve it the most," said the university's director, Manuel Pérez Rocha. "That's the point of democracy."

Even for poor Latin America, he said, Mexico is seriously backward in sending its young people on for higher education. Just 20 percent of college-age students actually go to college, Mr. Pérez said, citing government figures. For decades, Mexico's official policy was to direct young people toward vocational and technical schools.

In his State of the Union report last month, President Vicente Fox said the percentage of 19- to 23-year-olds attending college has risen from 20 percent before his 2000 election to 23 percent today, or 2.4 million students.

Still the nation's biggest university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM, received 80,000 applications for this school year (along with an entrance exam for each). Only 9,000 places were available.

The UACM received 5,000 applications for 1,150 spots. Those who weren't picked in the latest lottery will be put, in order, on a waiting list. Meanwhile, construction of classrooms continues, and officials see, in a few years, a university of 10,000 nearly double its current enrollment.

In response to critics, UACM officials say their school is comparable to other public universities and better than many private ones. And the dropout rate at UACM is 39 percent, lower than the national average for all universities, public and private.

One of the university's four campuses was once a women's prison. It is in Iztapalapa, a sprawling borough of 2 million people that is dominated by graffiti, unpainted concrete buildings and the massive Reclusorio Oriente, a prison with compounds for men and women.

Living nearby is Gisela García Constantino, 26, who will be in the university's first graduating class in 2006, just as voters are casting presidential ballots. University critics will be watching how many students graduate on time and how many get jobs in their specialty.

For Ms. García, the UACM provides a life-changing opportunity to those who otherwise would not have one.

"In every school, there are people who do not take advantage of what they have been given, and that space should be given to someone else," said Ms. García, who has an 8-year-old daughter. "But many of us here have been rejected by other universities, and so we know how important it is not to waste an opportunity like this."

Her major is political science and administration, and she plans to work in government or the private sector on public-works projects to improve life in her city and her neighborhood.

That, in many ways, is exactly what the university was designed for, administrators said.

"The idea is that people formed in this university should affect the lives of those of us who live in this city," said Gerardo Landa Fonseca, academic coordinator of the Iztapalapa campus, called Freedom House. "There is something idealistic in this objective: to have a better city and a better country."

Freedom House used to be a jail that held political prisoners in the 1960s and 1970s, when the government cracked down on protesting students and leftist rebels in the countryside. Six prison cells have been preserved at the end of a hallway as a remembrance. Otherwise, the facility has been completely remodeled and, little by little, Mr. Landa said, the strange energy from the prison's past has dissipated.

Students at other public institutions, including the National Autonomous University, welcomed UACM as a needed option given the lack of spaces for young people who cannot afford private universities. But some questioned the admissions criteria.

"This country needs more educated, professional people, not more technical workers," said Carmen Barra, 26, a law student at UNAM. "I don't agree with the lottery system [for choosing applicants]. For higher education, people should be chosen for their abilities."

UACM student Carolina Pulido Sánchez, 25, expects to graduate next year in political science and work for the independent Federal Electoral Institute, improving Mexico's nascent democracy. That would not have been possible, she said, without someone taking a chance on her.

"The university is not forming new ranks for López Obrador," she said, but is rather a place for critical thought about all politicians and political parties.

"But personally, I like that fact that he is helping people with limited resources, and it will be a factor [when I vote]. He could push the creation of universities like this in every state and help young people who want to keep studying."


Autonomous University of Mexico City
Founded: April 26, 2001

Students: 5,600 undergraduate; 120 postgraduate

Majors: 11 undergraduate; four postgraduate

Budget: $35 million per year

Professors: 500

Professor's salary (minimum): $2,350 a month.

Number of campuses: four

SOURCE: Autonomous University of Mexico City