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Market-Friendly Changes at Mexico's Top Technical School Spark Massive Protests

Reforms at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City prompted normally straight-laced students to take to the streets in huge numbers.
October 2, 2014, 4:35pm
Photo by Andalusia Knoll

It was your family's dream: One day you would go to a top-tier college, opening paths that they never had.

You make it in. You're on the road to becoming an engineer, enrolled in Mexico's most prestigious public technical college. Then one day, the school's director announces new regulations that would transform your professional degree into a technical degree, devaluing your academic work and leaving you vulnerable in a tight job market.

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This is what is happening in Mexico, where students at the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN), Mexico's historic flagship school of engineering and technical fields, woke up on September 24 to find that the rules of the game had been changed on them.

"If they already don't pay us well when we are engineers, what will they pay us when we are only considered technicians?" asked Alejandra Saldaña, 18, who studies construction in one of the vocational schools of the IPN or Poli, as the institute is known in Spanish.

Saldaña's parents are merchants who never attained higher education. She told VICE News that her education at the IPN is helping her grasp for better opportunities than they had.

On Tuesday, she joined a massive column of fellow students, professors, alumni, and their families who marched from the main IPN campus to Mexico's interior ministry in central Mexico City in rejection of the new rules presented by IPN director Yoloxóchitl Bustamante — which they said will "cheapen their education."

Unlike their more politically active counterparts at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, known as UNAM, IPN students are not traditionally known to take the streets en masse. Police said 25,000 people demonstrated, but student organizers counted 60,000.

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Medical students at the IPN march on Tuesday. (Photo by Andalusia Knoll)

Either way it was an unprecedented march for the Poli community, whose graduates usually go into straight-laced fields like industrial engineering, robotics, chemistry, and tourism. Over 150,000 Poli students are dispersed over dozens of schools, including designated feeder high schools that are integral to the Mexican higher education system.

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IPN students began gathering for protests and sit-ins at various campuses since the announcement of the academic changes. Yet Tuesday's march rattled authorities enough to prompt Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong to step outside the ministry's heavily guarded building and unexpectedly address the students, wearing only shirt sleeves.

Adding to the stakes, the march came just before today's annual October 2 demonstration recalling the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, in which an unknown number of students and civilians calling for government reform were slaughtered by security forces. Year after year, the October 2 march results in confrontations between protesters, masked groups, and police.

Osorio Chong received the students' demands — which include a call for Bustamante's resignation — and said he would meet them again to answer them formally on Friday afternoon.

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A demonstrator rests with an IPN flag during the massive march down Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City. (Photo by Andalusia Knoll)

"The new rules break with the objectives with which institution was founded," Hilario Montenegro, an engineering professor and Poli graduate, told VICE News. He said he was appalled by a rule that reduces the central role of basic chemistry, mathematics, and engineering coursework from the IPN core curriculum, turning the subjects into specialty courses.

Like others who entertained various explanations for the changes, Professor Montenegro said he believed the reforms at the IPN are related to the larger market-friendly structural reforms passed so far by President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration.

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Mexico's state oil monopoly is now open to private and foreign investment. Montenegro argued that due to this expected expansion, led largely by foreign investors, the oil industry sees a large pool of Mexican technicians as better for profits than a large pool of Mexican engineers. The IPN sends many of its graduates to careers at Mexico's state oil monopoly Pemex.

"This will serve the investors who are expropriating natural resources in this country and just want to arrive and look for cheap labor, not professionals," Montenegro said.

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Anti-riot police stand behind police barricades, blocking protestors' access to the interior ministry. (Photo by Andalusia Knoll)

Bustamante, the IPN director, has defended the changes, saying they will help make the university and its graduates more competitive in the global market. The same sort of arguments were made before the 1999 student strike at UNAM, which crippled the university for nine months and led to widespread criticism of the school's administration and government's handling of the dispute.

On Tuesday, IPN student leaders checked the IDs of all the students trying to enter the protest march and said they were working to avoid any "infiltrators" that would provoke riot police into confrontation, as is common at such demonstrations.

"Often people that are not students come to our events just to engage in violent criminal acts and disrupt," one student said. "We have to be careful to not let these infiltrators get in."

Mónica Cabrera, 18, held a sign with fellow student Saldaña that proclaimed — citing a traditional Poli joke — that "They wanted to catch us asleep, but they forgot that a Polytechnic student never sleeps."

"They wanted to pass this behind our backs," Cabrera said. "But they should know we are always studying, and on the alert."

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