The Good and the Bad of North America Summit
The Good and the Bad of North America Summit
(Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

by Andres Oppenheimer

The summit of President Barack Obama with his counterparts from Mexico and Canada was a missed opportunity to relaunch the 20-year-old free trade agreement among the three countries, but it produced a little-noticed plan that may have a big impact on North America's economic and cultural integration in coming years.

While much of the media coverage of Wednesday's summit in Toluca, Mexico, focused on the presidents' agreements on energy and security issues, their most important talks may have centered on a dramatic increase of academic and student exchanges, as well as joint scientific research and innovation centers.

According to senior Mexican officials, at a U.S.-Mexico meeting during the summit, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto showed Obama a poster with a graphic explanation of a new Mexican plan to increase the number of Mexican students in U.S. colleges from the current 13,800 to 100,000 by 2018.

The poster, a copy of which was emailed to me, shows that Mexico plans to double its students in U.S. colleges to 27,000 this year, add an additional 46,000 by 2015, 64,500 by 2016, 82,000 by 2017 and 100,000 by 2018 - for a combined total of 319,500 students over the next four years.

The Mexican plan, known as "Proyecta 100,000" also contemplates increasing the number of U.S. students going to Mexico from the current 4,100 to 50,000 between now and 2018.

The plan is geared at turning Mexico into the second or third source of foreign college students in the United States, after China and India, says a background paper titled "Proyecta 100,000: Toward a Knowledge Economy."

Right now, the level of Mexico's student exchanges with the United States is pitiful. While China has 194,000 students in U.S. colleges, India 100,000, South Korea 72,000 and Saudi Arabia 34,000, Mexico's 13,800 students are way down the list, according to U.S. figures. Even tiny Taiwan, Japan and Vietnam have more students in U.S. universities than Mexico, or any other Latin American country.

But if Mexico's study-abroad plan is carried out as planned, it will be one of the most ambitious ones of its kind. Obama's "100,000 strong in the Americas" calls for increasing the number of U.S. students in all Latin American countries to 100,000 by 2020. Brazil has launched a "Science without borders" plan aimed at sending 100,000 Brazilian graduates to pursue advanced degrees mainly in science and engineering all over the world, and Chile has its own study-abroad program aimed at sending 6,000 students abroad annually.

Student mobility, especially that of foreign students to U.S. colleges, is considered a key issue in today's race for competitiveness, because all major world university rankings agree that U.S. universities continue to be by far the best in the world. They produce the bulk of scientific research and patents within the world's academic community.

Mexican officials say they plan to pay for the massive increase in student exchanges with public and private funds. The Mexican Congress has already earmarked an increase in funds for education exchanges this year, and the government will now ask Mexican and U.S. companies to contribute their share, as they will be the first to benefit from highly skilled scientists, engineers and technicians, officials say.

Sources close to the Obama-Pena Nieto meeting told me that, during the bilateral meeting, the Mexican president cited several areas in which the U.S. government could help speed up the student flow, including easing the U.S. visa paperwork and cost requirements for Mexican students. In coming months, Mexico will also ask several U.S. states to offer in-state tuition to Mexican students, in exchange for the same treatment to U.S. students in Mexican universities.

Also, to encourage an increase of U.S. students going to Mexican universities - there are now fewer U.S. students in Mexico than in Costa Rica, Brazil and Argentina - Mexico has asked the Obama administration to change the State Department travel advisories to make it clear that many areas of Mexico are violence-free, Mexican officials say.

My opinion: It's a real pity that Obama, Pena Nieto and Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn't use the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the three countries' North American Free Trade Agreement to relaunch the trade bloc.

They could have, for instance, announced plans to lift all remaining trade and services barriers across the board, to make multinational companies' supply chains more efficient, and compete more effectively with China. The Obama administration, however, has decided to focus its energies on creating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a much wider economic bloc that will include much of Asia, as well as Mexico, Chile, Peru and Canada.

But if Mexico carries out its massive student mobility program to U.S. universities over the next four years, it may mark the beginning of a cultural phenomenon that could have a big impact on U.S.-Mexico ties, and set the stage for a much more integrated North American community.


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"The Good and the Bad of North America Summit "