by Andres Oppenheimer
Forget all the headlines about immigration, security and drug issues during President Barack Obama's recent
visit to Mexico: the most important (and least noticed) result of his trip may have dealt with an entirely different topic - student exchanges.
Sounds boring, but it's potentially the most exciting thing that came out of Obama's visit: If the bilateral plan to dramatically increase student exchanges becomes a reality, it could mark a turning point in the history of U.S.-Mexican relations, and in the development of a vibrant North American economic bloc.
Right now, despite the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement among the United States, Mexico and Canada, the level of U.S.-Mexico academic exchanges is pathetic.
Only 13,700 Mexican students are enrolled in U.S. colleges, compared with 194,000 from China, 100,000 from India and 72,000 from South Korea, according to the "Open Doors" study of the Institute of International Education.
Even Vietnam, a poor Communist country with a smaller population than Mexico's, has more students in U.S. colleges (15,000) than Mexico, the IIE figures show.
Likewise, the number of U.S. students in Mexican colleges is ridiculously low - only 4,000 compared with 33,000 U.S. students who are studying in the United Kingdom, 30,000 in Italy, 26,000 in Spain and 15,000 in China, the IIE figures show.
Obama and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto agreed to create a Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation, and Research, led by the U.S. National Science Foundation and Mexico's CONACYT Commission, to rapidly accelerate student and academic exchanges.
"We want more Mexicans studying in the United States, and more American students studying in Mexico," Obama said. "And we're going to focus on science, technology, engineering and math."
Perhaps more importantly, Mexican officials say Mexico will unilaterally launch a plan before the end of the year to quadruple its current number of students in U.S. colleges over the next five years.
Mexico's under-secretary of Upper Education Fernando Serrano told me in a telephone interview that the planned public and privately funded scholarship program will raise to "between 40,000 and 50,000" the number of Mexican students in U.S. universities by 2017.
"The current number of student exchanges is very small, and has remained virtually unchanged for the past 15 years," Serrano said. "We will correct that."
In Mexico, Obama said he will also find ways to increase the number of U.S. students in Mexico as part of his 100,000 Strong in the Americas plan to more than double the number of U.S. college students in Latin America over the next 10 years.
The idea behind all of these plans - as well as a similarly massive study-abroad plan recently announced by Brazil - is to replicate the European Union's highly successful Erasmus scholarship program, whereby more than 1 million European college students have been able to earn university credits in other European countries since the program started in the late 1980s.
As Guillermo Hirschfeld, a professor at Spain's Rey Juan Carlos University reminded me last week, the Erasmus program in Europe did much more than allow students to get a more globalized education - it played a big role in helping cement the idea of Europe as an economic bloc.
"The most important thing about the Erasmus program was that it helped forge human relationships, to bring down nationalist dogmas, and to destroy prejudices in a region that had been plagued by conflicts during much of the past century," says Hirschfield, the author of a study calling for an Erasmus program for the Americas.
My opinion: I totally agree. It's time to give a new push to the two-decade-old NAFTA agreement, and one of the best ways of doing that will be to increase student exchanges and bringing down nationalist prejudices that have prevented North America from becoming a more economically-integrated region.
If Washington and Mexico meet their promises to hugely increase student and academic exchanges - granted, a dose of skepticism is warranted here, since the two countries launched a similar plan two decades ago that didn't go too far - it could be their most far-reaching agreement since their 1994 free trade agreement.
They should carry it out, and simultaneously launch a plan to allow U.S. and Mexican universities to offer joint and dual degrees. The European Union has been way ahead of the curve on this, too, with its decade-old Bologna Plan that allows students from most European countries to automatically validate their degrees in each country.
All of this could have a much bigger impact on the future of U.S.-Mexican relations - and on North America's prosperity - than all the current headlines about other issues of the day. And it may happen.
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