Global Conversations Beyond Discipline

Indigeneity and Higher Education: The Rise of Intercultural Universities in Mexico

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Educational Inequality in Mexico

Mexico, as many know, is a country rich with indigenous cultural heritage, yet this beautiful and diverse country also boasts an extensive history of discrimination, subordination and disenfranchisement of its indigenous populations. From the time of the Spanish conquest through the height of colonialism and up until modern times, indigenous peoples within the country have faced systematic marginalization within virtually all aspects of society. The realm of education is no exception, with indigenous peoples being grossly underrepresented within educational institutions at every level. This post will primarily focus on indigenous enrollment and participation within the domain of higher education or rather the lack thereof.

According to Flores-Crespo, both “national statistics and independent research have shown clearly that people from ethnic groups are frequently excluded from educational opportunities”. ((Flores-Crespo, P. (2007) Ethnicity, Identity and Educational Achievement in Mexico, International Journal of Educational Development, 23(3), 331-339.)) This is evident when considering the fact that indigenous Mexicans only represent somewhere between 1-3% of enrolled university students. ((Schmelkes, S. (2009) Intercultural Universities in Mexico: Progress and Difficulties, Intercultural Education, 20(1), 5-17.)) Considering that indigenous peoples represent around 10% of the total Mexican population, such low levels of indigenous enrollment is a clear “indicator of educational inequality” within the country. ((Schmelkes (2009: 5-6).))

Limited access to lower levels of education, such as primary and secondary school, make it nearly impossible for many indigenous individuals to seek out higher education opportunities. And of those who do receive primary and secondary education, the schools that exist within rural indigenous communities are often of much lower quality than those in more developed and urban areas, and as a result students produce test scores much lower than the national averages. ((Flores-Crespo (2007: 334).)) This places limitations on indigenous students from an early age as they are less prepared for higher education and are not able to compete as effectively with their mestizo counterparts who benefit disproportionately from higher quality schools and educational resources. According to Flores-Crespo., this “poor quality education, at basic levels, constitutes a real handicap for any person’s academic and personal aspirations”. ((Flores-Crespo (2007: 334).))

These educational disparities is one issue that has been of great importance among indigenous rights movements and organizations. Beginning in the 1970s and 80s, a number of new indigenous movements and ideologies began sprouting up throughout Mexico in response to increasing neoliberal reforms by the national government which threatened to further solidify the marginal position of many indigenous peoples within the country. ((Jung C. (2003) The Politics of Indigenous Identity: Neoliberalism, Cultural Rights and the Mexican Zapatistas, Social Research: An International Quarterly, 70(2), 433-461.)) This resulted in the mass organization and mobilization of many indigenous rights groups, including the revolutionary Zapatistas of Chiapas and the Worker-Peasant-Student Coalition of Oaxaca (COCEO). A number of these indigenous organizations, as part of their larger platforms, have called for educational reform. According to Schmelkes, “indigenous peoples have articulated three main demands regarding national educational systems”, which include firstly, the right to bilingual and culturally relevant education; secondly, an increased emphasis on indigenous knowledge within mainstream education; and thirdly, the right to self-determination in regards to indigenous peoples making their own educational decisions. ((Schmelkes (2009: 8-9).))

The Rise of Intercultural Universities

It has only been in the last few decades that institutional measures have begun to emerge at the national level in an attempt to meet these demands and mitigate existing educational gaps along ethnic lines. One such measure that has been taken to improve indigenous inclusivity and participation in higher education within Mexico is the establishment of intercultural universities throughout the country. Seven of the ten intercultural universities operating as of 2009 were created directly by the Mexican government’s General Coordination of Intercultural and Bilingual Education (GCIBE), a department created in 2001 as part of the Mexican Ministry for Public Education. ((Schmelkes (2009: 10-11).)) The establishment of the GCIBE signified a commitment by the Mexican government to actively respond to the educational demands of indigenous communities and organizations by systematically integrating them into public education policy. Though the federal government has been a key player in the establishment of many of these institutions, a number of intercultural universities have also been initiated by international and local organizations or by already existing academic institutions. ((Mendoza Zuany, R. G. (2009). Building Hybrid Knowledge at the Intercultural University of Veracruz, Mexico: An Anthropological Study of Indigenous Contexts. Intercultural Education, 20(3), 211-218.)) For example the Intercultural University of Veracruz (UVI) was created as an extension of the existing University of Veracruz (UV).

What makes these institutions unique is that the universities are purposely located in close proximity to areas with large indigenous populations, specifically those states in the central and southern region of the country where 70% of the nation’s indigenous population reside, and though not exclusively indigenous, these universities are tailored to the needs of indigenous students. For example, indigenous students, rather than being pressured to speak Spanish, are urged to speak indigenous languages on the campuses of intercultural universities. ((Babb, F.E. (2011) The Tourism Encounter: Fashioning Latin American Nations and Histories. Stanford, CA: Standford University Press, 168.)) These universities seek to reach a proportion of around 70% indigenous enrollment, yet also emphasize the need for diversity and inclusivity and thus have established a quota system ensuring at least 20% mestizo enrollment. ((Schmelkes (2009: 8).))

Each university’s curriculum is influenced by regional and local factors with the mission of educating “intellectuals and professionals committed to the development of their peoples and regions”. ((Schmelkes (2009: 7).)) For example, the Intercultural University of Chiapas (UNICH) is located in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, an area that has become a hotbed of touristic activity since the 1970s. As a result of the thriving tourism industry in the region, particularly that of ethnic and ecotourism, UNICH specifically offers degree programs in alternative tourism, language and culture, and sustainable development. ((Universidad Intercultural de Chiapas (n.d.), last accessed 28 Mar 2015, <>.)) This is just one example of how intercultural universities seek to offer practical degrees which educate and empower local indigenous students and graduates to engage effectively and creatively in the region’s most dominant industries.

Along with the establishment of intercultural universities, there have also been some attempts made, by both the federal and state government, to increase indigenous enrollment and representation in conventional public universities. According to Schmelkes, some of these measures include “scholarships, affirmative action programs, programs that offer academic support to students in conventional universities, and processes that foster the interculturalization of these conventional institutions”. ((Schmelkes (2009: 7).)) Unlike earlier attempts to simply assimilate indigenous students into traditional educational institutions, these measures seek rather to make traditional institutions more inclusive and multicultural in nature. Unfortunately, despite these efforts, indigenous students are still far underrepresented within these institutions, and those who do attend conventional universities often experience a number of linguistic and cultural barriers and in some cases systematic discrimination and exclusion. ((Schmelkes (2009: 6).))

This process to indigenize education within the country is all part of a larger movement going on throughout Mexico as well as many other places within Latin America. Proponents of indigenous rights view education as a central issue in the fight for equality. A fight which not only plays a key role in the ability for indigenous peoples to fully engage and participate in modern Mexican society but also as a way to expand existing ideas and concepts of knowledge to include indigenous knowledge, ideology, and culture, as well as to recognize indigenous peoples’ unique and valuable contributions to society.


Education is not only an important measure of development and a crucial factor in regards to the social and economic success of individuals, communities and nations, it is also seen as a fundamental human right. In the case of Mexico, members of the indigenous rights movement have put significant pressure on the national government to deliver on their right to education, and as a result a number of significant institutional measures have been taken at the federal and state level to address existing educational inequality in the country. Because the establishment of these new intercultural institutions is still a fairly new phenomenon in the region, there is a lack of research in regards to whether these institutions are in fact meeting their desired goals to narrow the indigenous education gap. But as these universities multiply and expand in the next several years, there will be a great need for further examination of the strengths and limitations of these institutions and the ways in which their successes may be applied in other countries and contexts around the world.


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