The PIE: How did your career begin?
FM: I didn’t study abroad. For me, being international back in those years was going from my home town of Ojuelos de Jalisco, a rural town in the Mexican state of Jalisco, to the city. I was a student in the university from 1977 to 1981, so international in those days was totally unthinkable.
But over the years, by accident, I became involved in international education. In 1994, I was honoured to become the first Mexican fellow of the American Council on Education. As part of my fellowship I spent a year at the University of Massachusetts. In the middle of the year I lost my lecturer job in my home university in Mexico, in the middle of the big financial crisis in the country. Thankfully I had an offer from the University of Arizona for a six month funded project. So I moved to Tuscon and began the activities of connecting US and Mexican institutions. The project later became CONAHEC, so those six months have turned into 20 years.
The PIE: Tell me about your work at the World Bank.
FM: Well the World Bank, as you know, is probably the largest development agency in the world, which is devoted to reducing and eventually eliminating extreme poverty by enabling shared prosperity. So over the years the bank has been conducting both lending activities and technical assistance activities in a variety of fields, including education.
“Higher education has become an increasingly important activity in the educational portfolio of the World Bank”
Last year about 30% of the lending funding that the bank provided in education was dedicated to higher education and my job is precisely to coordinate activities associated with that component of the educational sector, as providing technical assistance to my colleagues that are working on the field in different countries, and serving as a focal point of the bank for those things.
The PIE: And where did the majority of that 30% go?
FM: Well, it’s a variety of activities. First of all, it goes mostly to the client countries – about 80 countries, we have projects with currently. This year, for instance, an important component of the activity is in Latin America, due to a very specific project in Costa Rica. We have projects in Vietnam, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, you name it – all over the world. Most of the projects in higher education are either issues related to quality assurance or to increasing access to higher education.
The PIE: Is there one in particular that you’re especially excited about?
FM: There are many – the African Centres of Excellence, the ACE project, in my opinion is a very good initiative, because among other things, it changes the traditional paradigm of North-South engagement. Basically, it is an initiative pushing the government and the institutions in the region to collaborate more among themselves, to define in which country they want to establish a centre of excellence in a particular field, which could be biotechnology or agriculture or computer sciences, and then having all the countries in the region recognising that centre as ‘their centre’.
The PIE: What are the biggest challenges in global higher education?
FM: There are many, but in my opinion still the issue of access – I might say equitable access to higher education – continues to be a huge challenge, especially in some societies where most demographic growth happens.
But that challenge of equitable access is connected to other challenges. It’s just a partial approach just to put a lot of emphasis on access if we don’t take into consideration that we need to make sure students not only arrive, especially those coming from underprivileged sectors, but stay, and finish on time. And more importantly, when they finish they will have productive lives. So the triangle of access, retention and success in higher education is critical.
There are, as you can imagine, many biases connected to higher education. For instance, saying that the only choice for higher education should be universities. We need to change that paradigm, because that is not true.
“Research shows very clearly that the highest returns of investment per years of schooling all over the world are much higher in the higher education sector, about 17%”
The other kind of traditional bias in higher education is that higher education pays back. That’s true. Research that we have conducted shows very clearly that the highest returns of investment per years of schooling all over the world are much higher in the higher education sector, about 17%. But having said that, there are countries where there is a huge challenge of a lot of people graduating from higher education institutions and so employability is a critical problem.
I keep saying it is a shared problem: certainly of higher education, but also of the employer sector. It is a problem of societies in general. Who can tell us in advance what type of graduates are going to be required 15 or 20 years from now?
The PIE: So there’s a dis-coordination between governments, universities and the business sector to create these qualified graduates?