As I prepare for my return to the States, I am looking at putting together my application package, all the while watching what President Obama is saying with regards to the cost of higher education. This fact coincides with the recent teachers’ movement here in Mexico. Hundreds of teachers went to protest in Mexico City, claiming to fight for education reform (mixing it with teachers’ salary reform) while they left their classrooms unattended and students without classes for weeks.
I am in a unique position in that I did my BA in California and my MA in Mexico City, the latter of which was interrupted by “la Huelga de la UNAM” (the UNAM Strike): a strike led by students protesting the rise in the cost of education. I make this point because when I was at the University of California, I started out paying $881 per quarter and left in four years with each quarter coming out to be something like $1450. I remember there was a protest on campus but I was blase then and couldn’t be bothered. Until I got to Mexico.
What happened in Mexico City was the following: in 1999, the rector of the UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) had announced that there would be raise in tuition from 20 centavos (about $0.02 USD) to something like $200 MXN (about $20 USD), depending on which major you decided to do (science majors were more expensive anyway). Students were in an uproar and a group, popularly headed by a master’s student known as “El Mosh”, closed down the university and barricaded the buildings so that no one could get in. This included the CEPE (Centro de Ensenanza Para Extranjeros; the Learning Center for Foreigners), whose students came from other countries and paid about $350 USD per mini-semester (six weeks), not privy to the $0.02 semester. In reality, there was no reason to close down the CEPE since it was not affected by the fee hike and were already paying a lot more. Those of the movement, however, argued differently. And so many foreign students lost their scholarships and had to return home.
There were people who supported the strike and others who did not and this erected walls between people, who refused to accept the other side’s validity. It reminded me a lot of how a lot of Democrats and Republicans view each other.
So fast-forward to the teachers’ strike of this year in Mexico: I was crossing a normally busy thoroughfare to get to my bus stop. That particular day, it was filled with marching teachers and I heard one of their chants. It went:
Educacion primero: hijo del plomero! Educacion despues: hijo del burgues! (Education first: son of the plumber! Education second: son of the bourgeois!)
I shook my head. Denying someone else their right to an education, regardless of their position in life, is to condemn the entire nation to a bitter fight and both sides losing the eyes to see with. And using the term “bourgeois” seemed like an insult to the same people who were chanting, as if they were saying they have resigned themselves to never being wealthy and always looking at an economic gap. What good would it do to give education to the plumber’s son and not the so-called “bourgeois'” if both live in a country where the President doesn’t even know that the Mexican city of Monterrey is the capital of Nuevo Leon, and not the other way around (President Enrique Pena Nieto stated this several days ago in an inauguration of an industrial plant in the city of Monterrey)?
And then to hear of people like Margaret Mary Vojtko, who was an adjunct professor, found dead on her front lawn on Sept 1 because she did not have the same rights as a full-fledged professor and therefore, no access to medical care. Vojtko never missed a day of classes, was 83 and had an ongoing battle with cancer.
So I look at this panorama that I am completely incapable of being comfortable with.
I am uncomfortable with the fact that millions of 18-year-olds are asked to choose what they want to do for the “rest of their lives” and get reamed up the ass with loans.
I am uncomfortable with the fact that there is a class war being waged over education and the wounded will invariably be the youth of the nation.
I am uncomfortable with the fact that education is moving further out of reach for most and that there are those who do not recognize that educating a nation is in the government’s best interest because those people will power the economy of the future.
I am troubled that in Mexico, higher education is paid for on a monthly basis in most private institutions, and not quarterly or semesterly. A higher education that is ridiculously expensive (akin to the rent of a small studio in San Francisco) and out of reach of a good percentage of people. And I wonder if that will happen in the US.
What I believe is this: a government has an obligation to educate its people. I don’t believe that higher education should be free but it shouldn’t take “the rest of your life” to pay it off. I realized from the UNAM strike that what I am paying for is not a name on a diploma but the security that at the time and day indicated on the course listing, that professor will be in that class.
I believe that the quality of education should be at the top of the agenda of any meeting any president, leader, prime minister or head of state is going to have. The future depends on it.