A new research project involving academics in the University's Department of Education with international colleagues at Universidad Veracruzana and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) has launched aiming to better understand how higher education impacts indigenous peoples, in the social domains of community, work-place, and peer-group – in Mexico and across Latin America.

With most indigenous peoples living in developing countries, the research is set against a backdrop where poverty rates for such groups are significantly higher than for non-Indigenous groups, with health and education outcomes much worse. In Mexico, as in many other countries, Indigenous peoples share a colonial and postcolonial legacy of social, ethnic and racial discrimination, of economic marginalisation and of exclusion from national institutions, legal and political structures. In Mexico, 95% of Indigenous peoples are considered poor or vulnerable, compared to 43% of the rest of the population.

The topic is timely in Mexico in view of the radical and progressive, left-wing agenda proposed by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador who, in 2018, won on a ticket of providing better support for Indigenous peoples in the country. Although the research will focus on Mexico, it is hoped the findings will be relevant across the wider Latin American region and beyond. It is also relevant in the UK in view of increased efforts in many institutions to decolonise curricula.

In education, whilst there has been progress in access for Indigenous peoples at secondary level, they remain largely excluded from higher education in Mexico. Estimates from 2000 suggest that only 4% of the Indigenous population were in higher education; in 2012, this figured had dropped to 3%. Indigenous women in particular face particular challenges in accessing educational and labour market opportunities, and are less represented in their communities’ leadership. Often, for indigenous and rural women, gender-based roles can place limits on the kinds of educational and labour market opportunities open to them, especially in terms of the chance to live away from home for their studies.

In addressing the significant disadvantage faced by indigenous communities, Mexico has been a pioneer in the development of new educational policies directed to Indigenous groups, both through assimilation (affirmative action programmes in mainstream universities) and separation (with the creation of new types of university). The country has also pioneered a new kind of university – so-called ‘intercultural universities’ which teach Indigenous language, culture and have an intake that is at least 70% indigenous.

The core of the new research will be to develop a longitudinal, qualitative cohort study tracking indigenous youth as they progress through different kinds of higher education institutions – examining encounters, experiences, and processes of change in how they come to identify with community peer group and labour markets as a result of attending their particular university.

The research team consists of Dr Judith Perez-Castro (UNAM), Dr Michael Donnelly (Bath), Professor Gunther Dietz (Veracruzana), Dr Ana Cecilia Dinerstein (Bath), Dr Andres Sandoval Hernandez (Bath), and Professor Hugh Lauder (Bath). The three-year project has been funded by a £600k UKRI ESRC Research Grant (through the open-competition scheme, award no. ES/S016473/1).

Principal Investigator, Dr Michael Donnelly from Bath’s Department of Education commented: “Universities are one lens to observe the ways in which dominant social groups exert and reproduce their advantage through the privileging of certain tastes, dispositions, worldviews, languages, cultures and ways of ‘knowing’ that exist within society. For those individuals and groups who do not hold these forms of identity, university can be impossible, challenging, painful, as well as being potentially disruptive.

"This project is the first of its kind to trace a single cohort of Indigenous youth over a three-year period as they progress through different university types across Mexico, capturing moments of challenge, disruption and continuation of the self. It speaks to this crucial research agenda and will produce knowledge about the impact of new forms of university specially designed for indigenous peoples. At a time when issues of colonialism and indigenous knowledges face renewed attention, it addresses how different types of university can result in the continuation or disruption of identifications with Indigenous communities, peers and intended labour market destinations."

Dr Judith Perez-Castro from UNAM added: “Higher education is considered an important means of upward social mobility. However, there are still different forms of exclusion or exclusionary inclusion, that affect students’ academic success; this is especially true in those people who, as a result of their social conditions, collective practices or, even, individual traits, are vulnerable.

“In the case of indigenous peoples, they have been repeatedly underrepresented in higher education, despite Mexico having been a pioneer in developing policies for Indigenous and intercultural education, ranging from the distribution of financial support to the opening of focused educational programs. The impacts of these policies have also been questioned, particularly regarding the expansion of educational opportunities for indigenous peoples, not only in terms of their possibilities of entering the labour market, but also with regard to the recognition of their traditional knowledge, their identity, and the relationship with their communities.

"This is especially relevant at a time when the Mexican federal government seeks to universalise higher education access in order to widen opportunities for the most disadvantaged social groups. The project will provide valuable insights for the analysis of indigenous and intercultural education in Mexico, which can serve as a basis for studying the situation of other Latin American countries."

Professor Gunther Dietz of the Universidad Veracruzana explained: "In the last decade, indigenous youth have increasingly accessed Mexican higher education, but they are nearly invisible, their languages are not recognized academically, and their knowledge is only treated as folklore, not as part of an academic canon.

"In order to provide both access and relevance, since 2003 intercultural universities have been created in indigenous regions of Mexico, but their impact on indigenous students’ skills, trajectories and identities has never been compared with the impact conventional, non-intercultural universities have on their indigenous students’ lives.

"Our project will provide a first and exploratory study on the kind of impacts different higher education institutions and programmes have on contemporary indigenous students and graduates, who are going to be the new generation of indigenous professionals, community representatives and indigenous organisations’ leaders.”

Read this piece in Spanish: Investigadores recopilarán experiencias de pueblos indígenas con la educación superior en AL.