Students smiling (Credit - Image by SDI Productions at iStock)

Looking beyond the alumni: reflections on the institutional legacy of IFP in Mexico

Published on 19 July 2017
David Navarrete

David Navarrete is a historian with 15 years of experience in international scholarships. He is Professor-Researcher at the Centre for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS, Mexico). He received his PhD from the University of Warwick, UK. He was the director in Mexico of the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program (2001-2013).

One of his current research projects frames IFP's key propositions and outcomes about access and equity in higher education within the broader context of policies and actions implemented in Mexico in the 21st century to reduce social exclusion, particularly of the Indigenous population.

Social inclusion and equity in higher education are high on Mexico's educational agenda. Within this framework, guaranteeing indigenous students access to, and successful conclusion of, a university education is an urgent undertaking that is being addressed – although there is still much to do. The purpose of this post is to highlight some contributions of the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program in Mexico (IFP Mexico) in this field, particularly at the institutional level.

Social inclusion at university level, and its associated themes (e.g. its linkages to social change), is a recent and dynamic field of knowledge in Mexico. New questions, research findings, and interpretations are still just being proposed. There is much research to be done, such as gathering data on members of the indigenous population with a university education, including their educational interests and needs; and a rigorous evaluation of the programmes conducted to date, both at the individual level and as a whole. The results of these analyses and reviews should be used, among other purposes, to improve the planning of public policy in the coming years.

The IFP in Mexico

In the spring of 2001, the International Fellowships Program (IFP) was launched in Mexico. The programme formed part of the IFP, the single largest programme ever supported by the Ford Foundation. In addition to Mexico, the IFP operated in 22 countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and in Russia between 2000 and 2013. The programme supported academically talented and socially committed individuals from marginalised social groups to undertake postgraduate studies. In Mexico, it was directed at the indigenous population, the most marginalised social group in the country. The Ford Foundation invited the Centre for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS, a Mexican public institution) to administer the programme and adapt it to the context and needs of the local target population.

In selections held between 2001 and 2010, IFP Mexico awarded a total of 226 fellowships for master's (84%) and doctoral degrees (16%). Of the 226 fellows, 91 were women and 135 men. Thirty-six ethnic groups were represented, 58% of the national total. Fellows undertook studies in a variety of fields in the social and behavioural sciences, arts and humanities, and environment, health, and applied sciences. The fellows completed their fellowships at over 20 universities in 14 host countries.

Formal evaluations on the achievement of the strategic objectives of IFP Mexico were carried out in 2011 and 2012, shortly before the end of the programme. These studies showed that positive outcomes had already been accomplished in several areas, such as the fellows' academic achievement, degree completion, return rates, and employment. The assessment results also furnished valuable information that was used for the implementation of a new programme based on the IFP model, as will be seen below. Currently, as part of a larger tracking study to measure the impact of the IFP fellowship worldwide, an evaluation is being carried out on its effects on Mexican alumni and the collective contribution they have made to social change.

In contrast, very little has been said about the contribution of IFP in Mexico at the institutional level, which was another important aim for its designers and administrators, and which is also relevant to understanding the outcomes of the programme. Together with other programmes and actions taken in Mexico during the course of this century aimed at democratising and diversifying higher education, IFP helped lay the groundwork for better informed and effective responses for the development of similar programmes.

The case study of Mexico, and of the implementation and outcomes of IFP in the country, are of particular interest for several reasons:

  1. Because of the importance of the indigenous population in all facets of Mexican life;
  2. Because the Mexican higher education system is among the most well-established in the Latin American region; and
  3. Because a series of key social inclusion programmes, some of them pioneering, like IFP, have been introduced that have been closely observed throughout the rest of the sub-continent.

A new century, a new programme, an arduous start

The underrepresentation and overall conditions affecting the Mexican indigenous population in higher education became a subject of concern and study only recently. The IFP was an innovative, unconventional, fellowship programme: the first postgraduate fellowship programme in the country's history to be exclusively targeted at the indigenous population, and hence there were no previous specialised programmes or studies to which the IFP staff could to refer to. By recognising the incremental impacts of social disadvantage, which manifests itself in different ways throughout the educational careers of indigenous students, the IFP Mexico staff were able to come up with specific strategies and procedures to:

  1. Recruit candidates and select fellowship students by taking into consideration their level of social exclusion and marginalisation.
  2. Advise them on choosing the postgraduate course most suited to their own academic and professional interests.
  3. Reinforce relevant academic skills and knowledge before commencing postgraduate studies.
  4. Support and accompany them during their studies.

Accurate and timely knowledge of the specific social group with which – and for which – the programme would be working was critically important in ensuring the efficiency of each of these aspects of the programme..

Yet when the 21st century began, there was only a vague understanding of the factors and circumstances that restricted indigenous access at university level. At the outset of IFP Mexico, the information available on the indigenous university population was insufficient, scattered, and fragmented. For example, only broad and often contradictory estimates could be found for the number of indigenous university graduates – information that was of particular relevance for gauging the demand the programme could expect. Neither was there any consistent information to be found on indigenous graduates' geographical whereabouts or the jobs they did: both necessary to come up with strategies to promote the programme and recruit potential fellowship candidates.

Understanding within the academic system was also very limited, both within the federal and state-run public higher education institutions and within organisations responsible for addressing the pressing needs of indigenous peoples. Apart from a handful of courses that had always been traditionally associated with the indigenous population, there was no mapping of the courses and universities where they studied, and virtually nothing was known about these students' academic needs and interests. Nor did any systematic information exist on postgraduate courses in Mexico or abroad that might be attractive and more suitable to the students. There was also a lack of information about whether institutions were interested in the training of indigenous students.

The information gaps were filled gradually, mainly thanks to the information produced by IFP Mexico itself. This programme was not alone, however. The IFP Coordinating Office at CIESAS worked closely with the local partner, PATHWAYS, another programme of the Ford Foundation launched in 2001 that was aimed at supporting indigenous undergraduate students. Other ethnic-based programmes financed with national funds followed soon after (2002-2004), forming a set of converging educational measures that substantially enriched the country's social and educational agenda during the first decade of the 21st century, and from which useful experiences and relevant information was soon gathered. Although we do not yet know enough about the indigenous university community, and there are still improvements to be made to the scholarship programmes for this population, the situation we currently find ourselves in is very different to that of 16 years ago.


IFP Mexico helped lay the groundwork for a new stage in the public planning and operation of scholarship programmes aimed at indigenous students, which could then be extended to other marginalised groups. As in other countries where IFP operated, 12 years of uninterrupted operation enabled the programme in Mexico to progress far beyond the experimental stage, producing experiences and results that may be used to improve the policies, investment, and actions to be implemented in the coming years. Beyond the IFP alumni themselves, some of the most significant legacies of IFP in the country are informational and institutional.

IFP acted as a pathfinder programme, producing a wealth of quantitative and qualitative information that gave the means to study and profile the segment of the indigenous population that has completed a university education. Much has been learned about the geographical and institutional origins of indigenous students, their ethnic background, their sex and age, the subjects they hope to study, their educational background, interests, academic strengths and needs, and the job and reintegration opportunities awaiting them when they finish their studies. This information is particularly useful when it comes, for example, to improving the recruitment strategy for applicants and fellowship recipients, strengthening the planning and content of advisory groups and collective remedial courses, and building on the various measures that aim to make sure they complete their education. Focusing on measures to help indigenous students succeed in their studies, rather than simply helping them gain access to postgraduate education, is an important legacy of IFP.

IFP Mexico worked together with more than 100 Master's degrees and PhD programmes in Mexico and the rest of Latin America, Europe, and the USA. As a result, we have garnered key data on the quality and relevance of the postgraduate options on offer to indigenous students at Mexican and foreign conventional universities. The scholarship programme also helped develop institutional capabilities, infrastructure, and human resources that were underpinned by inter-agency collaborations at local, national, and international levels.

Perhaps the most visible institutional legacy of IFP, however, is the adoption of the IFP model. Shortly before IFP Mexico concluded in 2012, a new programme called Programa de Becas de Posgrado para Indigenas (PROBEPI) was introduced based on the model and results of IFP Mexico. This programme is also run by the CIESAS in partnership with, and funded by, the federal government through the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACYT). Together these programmes have awarded fellowships to 322 indigenous men and women to undertake postgraduate studies in Mexico and abroad. Viewed as a single scheme, with a focus on the graduate level, this programme stands out as unique in Mexico and Latin America.

In conclusion, IFP has made substantial and wide-ranging contributions to Mexico's institutional setting, alongside other educational, ethnic-based programmes that have been implemented during the course of this century. Unlike the situation prevailing at the beginning of this century, the country now has a set of options and institutional procedures in place to promote greater access and equity in higher education which, in turn, can lead to broader and deeper social changes. While much focus is understandably given over to studying the pathways of IFP alumni, the institutional legacy of IFP Mexico also runs deep.

Image by SDI Productions at iStock

The Measuring Success blog series draws from the ACU's experience in scholarship design, administration, and analysis, and our connections in the sector, to explore the outcomes of international scholarship schemes for higher education.