Fighting Back at Mexico's Poli

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Thousands of students from Mexico's respected National Polytechnic Institute (IPN)—known as the "Poli"—marched on September 25 in northern Mexico City to demand the repeal of a neoliberal education reform. Students blocked boulevards and camped out in front of the IPN's administration building to protest the decision by Yoloxóchitl Bustamante, the university's director general, to ratify the new 2014 Internal Bylaws.

The spontaneous explosion of the Poli's student movement took the administration by surprise, and they have begun to backtrack on their initial decision. If the students are successful in getting the 2014 Internal Bylaws repealed, this could spell trouble for Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto and the neoliberal education reform agenda of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The IPN is Mexico's most prestigious institution of science and engineering, and it constantly ranks among Latin America's best schools. The school operates a nationally broadcast television channel Canal Once, and its robotics team has won several international competitions. It has 14 higher-education campuses and 16 technical high schools across Mexico City. Together with 17 satellite campuses throughout Mexico, the institution serves more than 170,000 students.

The school was established in 1936 during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas on the appropriated grounds of an old hacienda. Its founding during the height of Mexico's nationalist transformation has always marked the institution as a university of the people. Like the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), tuition at the Poli is practically free, and getting into one of its programs is an important accomplishment for working-class Mexicans.

Like at other public universities around the world, neoliberal education reforms have threatened the IPN's public character for the past three decades. But the latest round of reforms would mark an especially drastic change to the university and its quality of education.

In effect, the students argue, the new academic plan contains more than 80 new amendments that will mean the restructuring of the entire university system. Among the most-hated reform measures, extracurricular activities such as sports or workshops would incur new fees for students, and a leave of absence from school could nullify a student's academic record.

The most important changes, however, will restructure the current curriculum and university governance. For example, the new administrative structure would centralize more power in the hands of the administration and allow those who didn't graduate from Poli to join the board of directors. Furthermore, the voice of students would be severely limited within the new representative bodies.

As for the curriculum, the reforms would lower educational standards by reducing the number of credits needed to obtain a degree. With these changes, students would no longer graduate as engineers, but as technicians. This is a major concern for students because the salary of an engineer is five times greater than that of a technician.

In addition to changes in the curriculum, fees and university governance, the new reforms also have a repressive element, giving the university the right to criminalize protests, public gatherings and other activities "that threaten the peace or the name of the institution."

For some time now, the quality of education and academic resources at the IPN has been in decline. Library service fees are common at several campuses, for example. However, despite an extensive set of fees across the university system, students complain that laboratories are always in poor condition. Furthermore, curriculum changes will force students to look to private universities in order to pursue some majors.

But not everyone at IPN is hurting. The budget for the university's police force has grown dramatically in the last eight years, according to a series of reports. In 2001, for example, the university's budget for its 300 police officers was approximately $115,000. By 2009, the budget had increased to more than $7.7 million. That's a huge price tag for a police force that is regularly abusive and disrespectful to students.

The attacks on public education at the IPN are part and parcel of the PRI's structural reforms that aim to open up Mexico to foreign corporations. Last year, the PRI's educational reforms targeted K-12 education, but the reforms at the Poli are the first to be aimed at the system of higher education.

As technicians, students would earn considerably less than engineers, which fits nicely with the PRI's strategy of seeking to provide cheap labor for multinational technology firms and manufacturers. Meanwhile, "talented students" would be encouraged to study abroad through work-study internships that would contribute to the already significant phenomenon of "brain drain" in Mexico.

These series of reforms would continue to undermine public education as well as the quality of education itself since they would tailor curricula to the needs and interests of the private sector.

Before the semester even began, students and faculty at various schools had complained that the administration had not presented the new reforms for review and that most students and faculty were in the dark about the proposed changes. Despite these concerns, the administration went ahead and approved the new reforms without releasing them to the public.

Once the administration approved the reforms, students at the School of Engineering and Architecture (ESIA) occupied the campus, organized protests and went on a hunger strike. By September 22, students across the university system were publicizing the struggle with the hashtag #TodosSomosPolitécnico (We are all Poli).

Student assemblies in one school after another began calling for a student strike, and by September 24, the School of Engineering, Administrative and Social Sciences (UPIICSA)--the largest school in the system--voted unanimously to go on an indefinite strike until the new reform was repealed.

By the afternoon of September 25, more than 13,000 students were blocking streets in northern Mexico City and had taken over several boulevards as they made their way toward the IPN's administration building. The impressive size of the march made national headlines, and under pressure from students, parents, faculty and university workers, the Director General Yoloxóchitl Bustamante announced that the new reforms would be postponed until the next school year.

However, protests at the IPN continued through the weekend, and students at several other campuses have organized occupations at their own school--with solidarity pouring in from all over the city in the form of food, flyers and money.

In a radio interview, an ESIA student representative argued that students want the reform repealed, not postponed. In its place, the students want a more democratic and participatory process established to redesign the curriculum and the university governance charter so that the voices of faculty and students can be incorporated.

The scale of the protests and the support for them is impressive. Students have occupied almost all of the campuses and restricted police access to the university, and broad sectors of Mexico City have expressed solidarity with the struggle at the IPN. General assemblies have been collecting donations for the occupiers and organizing night patrols to prevent police from taking back the campuses.

Nevertheless, the movement faces serious challenges since most students are politically inexperienced, and there are real threats of cooptation by more experienced and conservative elements within the movement.

On September 28, student representatives from all the occupied schools met to discuss the next steps in the fight against education reform at the IPN. Among the votes taken, the assembly decided to join university students from across the country on October 2 to commemorate the Mexican army's 1968 massacre of students at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco.

This is a positive step since it will be an opportunity for students to show solidarity with the IPN strike and because the IPN's struggle has the potential to galvanize social movements across Mexico City.

The movement has also developed a set of firm demands, including the immediate repeal of the 2014 Internal Bylaws, the dismissal of Director General Yoloxóchitl Bustamante, and the democratization and autonomy of the IPN. Bustamante, however, has publicly stated that the 2014 bylaws will be postponed but not revised, since they have already been approved--a position that direct contravenes the students' demands.

The upcoming protests will be crucial for the IPN, but also for the student movement as a whole. The defeat of the IPN movement could embolden the ruling class to push through neoliberal reforms against UNAM--Mexico's largest university system. On the other hand, a victory at the IPN could inspire others to fight against the neoliberal reforms that the PRI has passed since Peña Nieto took power.

All out for October 2!


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