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  • Writer's pictureClara Richards

The possibilities of research uptake in public policy: the case of education for young people and ad

According to the General Census of 2000 and the Population Count of 2005, a third of Mexico’s population has not completed primary education. By lacking basic literacy skills, these people are more prone to poverty and discrimination, and find themselves at the bottom of income percentiles. In light of this situation, Carlos Vargas Tames has analyzed how research on education and public policy intersect in the field of education for young people and adults in Mexico, by looking at the contexts in which both research and public policy are developed. It examines how research makes an impact on education policy at the micro level (e.g. curriculums, evaluations, materials for teaching and learning) and at the macro level (national policy and goals, educational planning and decision making).

The author outlines four different scenarios in which research and public policy on education may or may not come together.First ScenarioSecond ScenarioThird ScenarioFourth ScenarioPublic policy is formulated without basing itself on solid evidence. Evidence isn’t taken into consideration or is methodologically faulty.Research is done by non state actors like academics, civil society groups, etc. Its impact on public policy can vary according to the different characteristics of the actors, the research, its results and the political context.Research uptake is determined by what level of government carries out research. For instance, uptake is made more difficult when research is done by local government like municipalities.Public policy is greatly determined by international agreements and conventions, which have more impact on policy than local research.

In the first scenario, public policy is formulated without basing itself on any sort of evidence or research – the most common situation – because there isn’t any research available on a particular issue about education for young people or adults, or because the results of said research are not well known or taken into consideration. In the second scenario, research is done by non state actors like academics, civil society groups, etc. and its impact on public policy can vary according to the different characteristics of the actors, the research, its results and the political context. There are pros and cons for evidence-based policy to this second scenario, such as the independence of the research and the distance between researchers and the government, which in turn makes impact difficult.

The third scenario involves research done by the government, who at the same time is in charge of public policy. Finally, the fourth scenario deals with public policy based on intergovernmental meetings which result in political and legislative commitments for the Mexican state.

The first and second scenario both illustrate that there is limited production of research on education for young people and adults in Mexico, thus making research uptake difficult. In the first scenario there are two tendencies regarding the lack of use of research in public policy for education. Either policymakers do not reflect on the benefits or consequences of the policy they are implementing, or they use as evidence the information that is more readily available, such as statistics.  For instance, the state has used the Armed Forces as a way to deliver education: young people who enlisted were given primary and secondary education. Mexican policy programs such as Jóvenes Por México (Youth for Mexico), which was about social work done by middle and upper level students in poor communities, established that said social work should preferably be about teaching young people and adults how to read and write. These programs suggest that the state partly thinks of literacy programs as charity work and not necessarily a governmental duty, particularly when there aren’t any evaluation processes in place to analyze the impact of these programs.

The use of statistics may also be problematic due to errors in the way data is interpreted – in Mexico, the government defines literacy as being able to “read and write a note”, a very different definition from internationally accepted ones that place emphasis not only on cognitive skills acquired from literacy but also on using these skills in a way that contributes to individuals’ social and economical development. Statistics may also serve political functions and hinder good policy, for instance by implementing programs that aim to reach certain literacy percentages, leaving aside the quality of what people are taught and how they learn.

Another problem is that Mexico produces little academic research on themes related to education for young people and adults. According to a study by Raul Osorio, which consisted of counting works published in the Revista Mexicana de Investigación Educativa (Mexican Review on Education Research), only two out of 113 works published between 1996 and 2004 were about adult education. Logically, there cannot be significant academic impact on public policy if there is scarce research to begin with. Vargas Tames believes that the lack of academic interest on adult education is due to a generalized under-appreciation of scientific research in general and research on education in particular.

The idea of education for young people and adults as a remedial, compensatory field for which there is no sufficient budget assigned, nor sufficient spaces for professionalization, has invaded the collective imaginary and has infiltrated into educational and academic institutions.

Another explanation lies in the differences in the work dynamics of researchers and policymakers. The latter may consider research to be too slow or difficult to interpret, while the former may be too focused on getting published in scientific magazines and may not be too inclined to discuss their socio-political impact on education. Research findings are not communicated and policymakers do not attempt to familiarize themselves with them.

In the third scenario, in which the government carries out the research, the likelihood of research uptake depends on the size and scope of the government agency. Since education policy in Mexico is centralized, municipal governments, for instance, do not have much autonomy when formulating public policy. A study done by a municipality in the state of Guanajato states as much: due to the structure of government, municipalities have very little attributions when it comes to education, which limits their capacity to make an impact in issues like school desertion. The fact that education policy is centralized can be a strong deterrent against governmental research on education, particularly at the local and state level, since state and municipal governments can only carry out what is decided by the central government.

On the other hand, the fourth scenario indicates that regional or international agreements on education for young people and adults have made a significant impact on public policy in Mexico. For instance, the Fifth International Conference on Adult Education “greatly influenced public policy in our country from 1997 to 2997”.  Other international and regional conferences which have also had impact are the World Education Forum of 2000 and the Education for All meeting of 1990, both by UNESCO. These conferences resulted in modifications to public policy on education in terms of their orientation, content and financing.

Both political interests and the way the Mexican state is structured makes research uptake difficult. The paper concludes that public policy on education in Mexico is more interested in adopting measures that are visible and under public scrutiny, like international agreements, than in including evidence-based research produced locally, possibly due to political benefits. The distance between research and policy increases as research becomes more local, and even when research is taken into consideration when formulating policy, it does not translate so easily into real practices in educational institutions. Also, research is more likely to be used when its findings are in agreement with current governmental policy.

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