Since its emergence in late 2019, the COVID-19 disease has caused a profound crisis in the world’s health systems. At the same time, it has exposed the social inequalities and structural conflicts present in each of the affected countries. Among the fields in which COVID-19 has caused the most damage, in addition to health and economics, is education. These havocs take on alarming dimensions in Latin American countries, where there were already high indicators of dropout and educational lagging. In this chapter, we search to characterize the preliminary effects of the pandemic on Mexican public universities. We are especially interested in inquiring about the university authorities’ response to the needs of students and teachers, within the framework of a current that has become the hegemonic vision within the university discourse: educational humanism. With the above, we form a balance between the successes and mistakes in the university response, and the level of attachment to the humanist commitment promoted in the discourse. Regarding the approach, we start from an analysis of the literature generated in the last two years, both in specialized journals and in official health statistics. In general, the results show that universities have partially fulfilled their humanistic commitment to students, but have not been able to resolve the demands among the most vulnerable sectors of the teaching community.
Humanism, COVID-19, Higher Education
Despite their symmetries, there is at least one link between humanism and COVID-19: both are familiar phenomena, although deep down they are truly unknown. On the one hand, we have the virus that, in just two years, has caused the death of more than five million people (WHO, 2021). A virus of still uncertain origin (Frutos et al., 2021) and whose pathophysiology (Correale et al., 2021) and aftermath (Peramo-Álvarez et al., 2021) raise unknowns in the clinical spectrum. On the other hand, we have a nebulous concept, coined in Renaissance Europe, which seems transversal to the field of arts, education and psychology (Copson, 2015). Beyond space-temporal differences, the way we understand COVID-19 and humanism fails to transcend the sphere of provisional interpretations.
It is true, both COVID-19 and humanism escape a definitive answer about what it is, but both phenomena do it in opposite ways. In the case of COVID-19, what it is is displaced by what it has been; while humanism postpones what it is with what it will be. When, in medicine and biology, it is intended to characterize the disease of COVID-19, it is the norm to go to the national and international antecedents to identify correlations between the typical behavior of the disease and the clinical history of the patient (Vetter et al., 2020). No space remains, for now, for certainty.
Just the opposite happens with humanism: when trying to define it, we do not go to what it was, but to what it will be. Humanism thus becomes a programmatic discourse, in the manner of a diffuse horizon that is unable to characterize the practices of the present (Han-Pile, 2010). This conceptual laxity is not alien to the so-called educational humanism, which cannot overcome the limits of a positional conception, determined to place the student at the center:
Education, understood as a humanistic process, will defend a student-centered approach […] as well as the centrality of the potential for self-realization and the scope of personal manifestation to satisfy individual learning needs. (Khatib et al., 2013, p.47)
Humanism is a philosophy that considers that the individual and their potential for development in all aspects of the human being are fundamental for education […] There are three key aspects to a humanistic view of student-centered education: human being, individual development of children as unique human beings, and social and cultural location. (Starkey, 2019, p.6)
The definitions of educational humanism are always close to the centrality of the student. Cognitivist perspectives qualify this centrality by associating it with learning, while psychologists choose to link it with well-being and personal accomplishment (Zovko & Dillon, 2018). Despite our theoretical reservations, for the moment we will take this attribute, the centrality of the student, as the main component of the humanist promise. We say promise —and not approach, or rapprochement—, with the purpose of emphasizing its programmatic nature.
In this paper, we will analyze the intersection between humanism and COVID-19. Not without first presenting two basic points to clarify the meaning of our inquiry. In the first instance, note that the intersection between both phenomena is not correlational, but associative. We understand this relationship as a Cartesian plane where the ordinate axis (x) represents humanism, in its role as a historically settled structure, and the abscissa axis (y) reflects the situation of the health contingency. Second, we specify that the humanism studied here is educational humanism, and not that linked to psychology or art. In particular, we are interested in the analysis of humanism limited to the higher education and the practices carried out in Mexican public universities.
In general, our analysis will start from two large dimensions. In the first dimension, we will discuss the findings of the main studies that reflect the degree of care given by universities to students during the health contingency. We refer, specifically, to the care provided to the psychological, economic, family and academic problems that they experienced in the framework of the pandemic, and that could lead to anxiety, depression, economic crisis or school dropout (Velastegui-Hernández & Mayorga-Lascano, 2021).
Second, we will highlight the dimensions of the humanistic commitment toward university teachers. Emphasizing problems such as job saturation, psychological exhaustion and the lack of training in the management of digital technologies, with which teachers dealt with distance education. One of the criticisms that we have repeatedly sustained (Lindquist & García-Galván, 2021), is that, in its desire to focus educational processes on the student, humanism has marginalized teachers. Thus forgetting their psychological, biological, social, economic and family needs, to mention the most basic.
We will start from deductive content analysis, recovering those studies that portray the effects of COVID-19 in Mexican higher education. After searching, analyzing and synthesizing the literature, we will outline some conclusions to determine whether universities must rebuild their humanist commitment, or whether it is necessary to move towards positions of a higher critical level. The chapter will consist of four sections. In the first one, we will carry out an introductory inquiry into the definitions and assemblages of humanism in Mexican universities. In the second section, we will expose the effects of the pandemic on this educational level, in light of the humanist promise. In the third section, we will carry out an evaluative balance to recognize the successes and failures of Mexican universities during this process. Finally, in the fourth and last section, we will present our main conclusions, as well as the lines that could be explored in the future research agenda.
Humanism in Mexican universities
It is not easy to define what universities understand by humanism. In the first place, there is a narrow border between political, administrative and theoretical discourses. With this laxity, an overlap is generated in which administrative documents –such as work plans and programs– are interpreted as theoretical references, while documents closest to the theoretical level –such as educational models– are relegated to the pedagogical field. In this dilemma, we can identify one of the main challenges in Mexican public universities: the absence of theoretical reflections that support university practice.
If the educational models of Mexican universities are consulted, it will be found that most of these documents manifest principles and guidelines for the training of students, but omit the university functions of research and collaboration with the surroundings. An implicit convention then appears: the institutional vision is expressed in the strategic planning documents, while the pedagogical vision is consolidated in the educational models. As a result, we notice that, at the institutional level, the university is managed by strictly administrative principles, without a solvent theoretical foundation.
In the scope of the above, most universities conceive humanism as an essentially pedagogical element, or as a device for training:
The education provided by the University will be eminently humanistic, in the broadest and deepest sense of being conceived as guided by ethical values, searching the integral development of the student’s personality and faculties and fostering their love for the country and humanity. (Autonomous University of Aguascalientes, 2016, p.2)
Humanism, in its educational approach, refers to the student as an individual, unique entity, different from others. Through this approach, it is sought to provide the best conditions for each of the students to achieve entire development. (Autonomous University of Coahuila, 2015, p.8)
The Acalán educational model is taken from the Humanist current because it underlies the premise that human beings are unique and different from others, that they have a need for self-realization and are capable of self-determination, learning and creative problem solving. The complexity of the human being is highlighted, discarding the conception that he only participates in the educational act from cognition, but recovers the values, interests, and affections of humanity. (Autonomous University of the Carmen, 2017, p.45)
As seen in the excerpts, when speaking of humanistic education, it is actually referring to humanistic training. For humanism to become a true institutional philosophy, at least two essential transitions are required: (1) that humanism encompasses the three substantive functions, generating humanist research and outreach and (2) that, from the first transition, the centrality of the student is overcome in favor of the centrality of the human being, regardless of their role within the institution.
Having clarified the above, we are in a position to identify the main trends in humanist discourse within universities. Initially, we have a stream focused on the development of personal faculties, which we will call classical humanism. The origin of this stream goes back to the psychotherapeutic theory developed in the 1960s by Rogers (1969). Within the classical perspective, as Hoidn & Reusser (2020) point out, it is common to identify allusions to the following symbolic vehicles (Schon & Rein, 1994): accomplishment, self-realization, balance, self-determination and well-being.
Within classical humanism, an assemblage with the constructivist stream is also appreciated. In general terms, constructivism and humanism coincide in the centrality of the learner, but constructivism concentrates on learning and humanism in the formative spectrum (Guerra, 2020). In this sense, they should be understood more as related processes than as homologous streams. A teacher can describe his teaching strategies as constructivist without it being essential for him to assume himself as a humanist, and vice versa.
A second stream, for now, a minority, is the so-called critical humanism. Unlike the classical conception, critical humanism appropriates the subject’s participation in the processes of emancipation and social transformation, advocating for equity and justice:
Humanistic claims that humans are the center of the world and fully responsible for their actions are rejected, as they suggest that all humans have experienced life equally, regardless of world inequalities. […] When individuals are tired, hungry, and treated as subhumans, how is human fulfillment possible? […] How can humanistic rationality evade the systems of oppression in which human beings live? To have flourishing beings, they first need to be emancipated. (Magill & Rodriguez, 2015, p.213)
As expressed in the quote, critical humanism is not satisfied with placing the student at the center, but rather struggles because this role is accompanied by practices of justice. It is assumed as an incongruity that the student is the focus of the training process while he is simultaneously the focus of a network of oppressive practices. For this reason, critical humanism calls for participation in the processes of social transformation, seeking that education commits itself to the emancipation of its actors, but also to their participation in causes of social justice (Plummer, 2021).
A common element in both humanistic approaches is the prolonged absence of teachers. Studies such as Chávez (2016) show that Mexico is one of the Latin American countries where university teachers have a lower rate of personal accomplishment, and at the same time the highest indicators of burnout. To the above, we must add the emerging problems caused by the health contingency, which, far from reducing it, intensify the crisis of teachers.
In this way, it is also necessary to consider the precarious employment conditions that university teachers face. In a study carried out by ANUIES in 2015, it was documented that 68% of academic staff contracts in the country’s universities were for hours. In the case of public universities, the percentage is close to 60%, while in private universities the figure rises to 83%. In addition, 30% of part-time teachers work in at least two universities simultaneously (ANUIES, 2015).
The two main problems faced by part-time teachers are limited salaries and the lack of definition of their contracts (López et al., 2016). Currently, there are no national statistical records that reflect the income received by part-time teachers. However, the following examples may be illustrative. In the case of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM, by its Spanish initials), the salary table valid for 2021 stipulates that an ordinary subject teacher receives 427 Mexican pesos (21 USD) for each hour-week of class. In the case of the Autonomous University of Baja California (UABC), this figure drops to 400 pesos (20 USD); at the University of Sonora (UNISON) at 397 pesos (19.8 USD); and at the Universidad Veracruzana at 396 pesos (19.8 USD). In these cases, four hours per week is assumed. However, the most critical situation is experienced by the universities in the deep south of the country: at the Benito Juárez Autonomous University of Oaxaca (UABJO) the hourly salary is 83 Mexican pesos (4.15 USD), with the possibility of rising to 97 pesos (4.85 USD) being category “B”; at the Autonomous University of Guerrero (UAGRO), the hourly salary is 124 pesos (6.2 USD); and at the University of Quintana Roo (UQROO) it is 165 pesos (8.2 USD).
In addition to low pay, part-time teachers face job uncertainty. Due to the nature of their contracts, the continuity of the subjects assigned to them is not guaranteed. Although it is still premature, it is highly probable that two phenomena have occurred during the pandemic: (1) the unpaid saturation of part-time teachers, given the additional activities that distance education entails and (2) the hiring –indefinitely– of new part-time teachers for remedial purposes, due to illness, indisposition or deaths among full-time teachers.
What could be expected of an authentic humanistic education?
At this point, it is feasible to characterize what could be considered signs of authentic humanistic education. As we pointed out, this list of practices should include both students and teachers, and also transcend the classroom level.
Humanistic education is fair education
No educational system that claims of being humanistic can be recognized as such if it holds a set of injustices within it. Along these lines, can an educational system in which 68% of teachers labor in a situation of precarious wages be called ‘humanistic’? At UABJO itself, where part-time teachers earn an income of 83 Mexican pesos (4.15 USD) for one hour of their work, the rector obtains a monthly salary of 58,350 pesos (2,917 USD). Assuming a conventional full-time working day, we have that the rector receives 365 pesos (18.2 USD) per hour, more than 4 times what a subject teacher receives. Equally critical is the case of national universities. At UNAM, the rector has a monthly income of 177 thousand 868 pesos (8,893 USD), which in perception by hours translates into a superiority of 10 to 1 compared to the salary of part-time teachers.
Meritocratic justifications could appear immediately. One of the most common lies in the discourse of relevance: “the activity of the rectors is more relevant than that of part-time teachers”. This premise can be discussed from different angles. Starting, for example, by questioning whether the activity of teaching –as a substantive function– is less relevant to the university than the activity of administrative figures who, beyond representation in external events and the head of internal ceremonies, contribute little to the significant improvement of university activities. In any case, and assuming that their work was more important than that of the teachers in front of the group, it would be worth questioning the level of inequality.
From our point of view, these contradictions are possible thanks to the pedagogicalization of humanism. To the belief that humanism is just a formative theory that should stay in the classroom. Between the lines, what this entails is that the rest of university activities, such as research and collaboration with the surroundings –and even adjective functions such as management and governance– can escape the responsibility of becoming humanistic practices.
Humanistic education is education with equity
Without equity, education cannot be considered humanistic. We adopt here the definition of equity formulated by Rawls (2008), who understands it as: “a practice in which opportunities are open to all people under equal conditions and result in the greatest benefit for the least advantaged members of society” (Rawls, 2008, p.143).
Subsequently, it will be necessary to give a visage to equity. First, it is necessary that students have the same opportunities with each other, in the same way as teachers. Even more urgent is that people with fewer social advantages obtain greater benefits. In the case of students, the groups that we consider most vulnerable would be represented by those who live in conditions of moderate or extreme poverty; with some disability; who belong to an indigenous group or who are part of a minority community (Hill Collins & Bilge, 2019).
With regard to teachers, those who labor part-time can be considered vulnerable. Above all, if they are compared with full-time teachers, who, in addition to having higher incomes, enjoy job security and benefits. However, among part-time teachers, a condition of intersectionality can still be recognized, that is, a fracture of otherness within otherness (Hill Collins & Bilge, 2019). In particular, we can note a more intense vulnerability among those who do not have computer equipment at home or a stable internet connection; in those teachers who have a more robust workload, which could lead to a state of saturation; in those who, due to temporary issues, do not have a harmonious space in which to teach classes; and also, of course, in teachers who do not have an optimal training in the management of digital technologies for the development of virtual classes.
Humanistic education is inclusive education
One of the most incisive criticisms that have been made against humanism –and that constitutes the quintessence of posthumanism– is the one that accuses it of being an inevitably excluding position (Braidotti, 2013, 2020; Ferrando, 2019). For critics, the founding reason for exclusion is, ironically, the form of inclusion. In other words: the homogenization of what is heterogeneous. The category ‘human’, which reflects the core of humanism, renders singularities invisible in their vastness. The statement ‘we are all human’ creates the illusion that all humans have been treated fairly.
The detractors of humanism look at the ‘human’ as a device of normalization (Foucault, 1978). Historically, human has been subjected to a dynamic of gradients between the less human and the more human. A range of ideal characteristics with which the West has evaluated the humanity of the subjects: being a man, being white, being a Christian and being a Westerner (Bautista, 2014). Of course, in the era of the politically correct, universities have “moved away” from this type of segregation, in favor of a discourse that supports diversity and inclusion. So, where is the normalizing character of current humanism? In the vision of Chatelier (2017), it is found in the psychological discourses of realization. This position is an indication of what Han (2016) calls the yield society, as opposed to the disciplinary society recognized by the post-structuralists of the 20th century:
The yield society is progressively shedding negativity. It is precisely the growing deregulation that ends it. The yield society is characterized by the positive modal verb power (können) without limits. Its affirmative and collective plural “Yes, we can” precisely expresses its character of positivity. Projects, initiatives and motivation replace the prohibition, the command and the law. Disciplinary society is still governed by no. His negativity generates madmen and criminals. The yield society, by contrast, produces depressives and failures.(Han, 2016, p.17)
As Han (2016) points out, psychologic humanism elevates the accomplishment of the subject as the highest ideal, but completely ignores the systemic conflicts that prevent the subject from feeling fulfilled. In addition, it positivizes and individualizes achievement, hinting that those who achieve accomplishment will do so on their own merits since overcoming is a strictly individual challenge. What remains to be asked is what will be done with individuals who — due to situations of abuse, poverty or marginalization — fail to come close to that ideal. The above brings us to a major question that is unfortunately absent in the discussion of university humanism: Should the university impose an ideal of fulfilment among its members or should it instead combat those systemic problems that prevent them from achieving fulfilment?
What we observe, deep down, is an excluding simulation. Simulation, because Mexican universities are capable of reproducing humanist discourses, aimed at the accomplishment of the individual, as long as these discourses allow them to ignore the systemic inequalities that hinder realization. It is excluding, moreover, because it segregates those who will not be able to embed themselves in the ideal of achievement. Even more serious, it holds them responsible for it. This contradiction is best reflected in the case of part-time teachers. On the one hand, the psychological discourse of humanism that encourages achievement emerges in the universities, but precarious wages and labor marginalization are omitted, arguing that the achievement of teachers is a personal responsibility.
The same happens in the student dimension. It is of little use for the university to declare itself humanist if this humanism will be a device to dictate who is and who is not realized. This situation would show that at the center there is not the individual, but the ideal to which they want to approach. The inclusion of humanism must begin with the acceptance of those who have a different vision of the human. Without this inclusive commitment, without this accompaniment with those who cannot self-realizing, any humanist discourse will be a poetic resource to soften the abuse.
COVID-19 and its impact on higher education in Mexico
Before deepening into the humanistic commitment of the universities during the health contingency, it seems essential to us to outline a brief overview of the effects of the pandemic on higher education in Mexico. In a special way, we are interested in dimensioning the magnitude of the problems that became visible during this period in Mexican universities. Not without first recognizing that the problems raised are not episodic, but are due to the intersection between long-standing structural conflicts and the health crisis.
Higher education in Mexico
In Mexico, higher education is structured in three subsystems: university-academic, technological, and teacher training schools (normals and other institutions). Each of these subsystems, in turn, is divided into federal, state and municipal levels, according to their degree of centralization (General Law of Higher Education, 2021, Articles 28 to 35).
According to data from the statistical yearbook of the National Association of Universities and Institutions of Higher Education (ANUIES), for the 2020-2021 school year the school population for the higher level is 4 million 938 thousand students. Most of these students are enrolled in state public universities (26%), followed by centralized and decentralized units of the National Technological of Mexico (12%) and federal public universities (11%). The five states of the Republic with the highest concentration of higher education students are, in descending order: Mexico City, State of Mexico, Puebla, Jalisco and Nuevo León (ANUIES, 2021).
Regarding the number of teachers, the National Survey of Occupation and Employment of the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) reports that in Mexico there are 232 thousand higher education teachers. This gives us a ratio of 21 students per teacher. According to the survey data, the bulk of teachers works in the disciplinary field of social sciences, followed by engineering and education (INEGI, 2019).
Finally, it is necessary to dedicate a few words to the budgetary condition of higher education. The Expenditure Budget of the Federation (EBF) for 2022 allocates 883 thousand 292 million Mexican pesos to education. Of this total, 17.5% will be assigned to higher education and postgraduate levels, the equivalent of 154 thousand 279 million pesos. For its part, the expenditure dedicated to the development of scientific activities is equivalent to 0.2% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This budget reaches the universities through federal contributions. It is worth remembering that, in the case of state public universities, the budget is made up of three sources: federal contributions, state contributions and own income.
Humanistic commitment to students during the pandemic
In 2020, during the most critical period of the pandemic, INEGI implemented the Survey to measure the impact of COVID-19 on education (ECOVID-ED). The survey, applied by telephone, showed that 2% of the students –of all levels– enrolled in the 2019-2020 school year were unable to complete it due to the pandemic. A second edition of the same survey was carried out in 2021, showing the intensification of the problem. Among the main results, it was found that 9.6% of students (equivalent to 5.2 million) did not inscribe in the 2020-2021 school year. The age groups most affected correspond to the university stage, in the ranges of 19 to 24 years and 25 to 29 years (INEGI, 2021).
For all that, there are still no concrete studies that record the dropout rate at the higher educational level. However, it is possible to carry out a first approach based on the new enrolled indicators registered in the ANUIES statistical yearbook. It is essential to remember that this is only an observation since the change in the absorption rate is a multifactorial phenomenon. If it occurs, the decline may not be associated with COVID-19, but with economic, family or social reasons, among others.
As can be seen in Figure 3.1 (where the y-axis represents the total new enrollment and the x-axis the school year), the absorption rate in universities decreased considerably in the 2020-2021 school year. We are talking about a 9% decrease, equivalent to 117 thousand students. Furthermore, we observe that the absorption rate remained relatively stable during the four preceding school years, so that, regardless of the causes, there is a statistically atypical variation.
Figure 3.1. History of the absorption rate in higher education institutions in Mexico during the period 2017-2021
Prepared from the ANUIES statistical yearbooks.
Certainly, the drop in the absorption rate is not strictly the responsibility of the universities. In any case, what could be required of them is a good performance of the retention rates and terminal efficiency. Unfortunately, it is still too early to assess the impact of a still active pandemic on institutional indicators.
What is possible is to recognize the practices that universities –in keeping with their humanistic commitment– could establish to strengthen retention. From our perspective, the following are some of the most important: 1) academic flexibility, which involves both the emotional and the infrastructural fields; 2) scholarships and relaxation of the collection of registration fees and other academic expenses and 3) free and quality psychological support.
Regarding academic flexibility, we know of Agreement number 06/12/20, published in the Official Gazette of the Federation, and which established the inadmissibility of the failure of students in basic education during the pandemic. However, the autonomy of the universities made it impossible for this norm to be homologated for the higher education. Perhaps the closest thing was the document entitled “Responses of Public Institutions of Higher Education in Mexico to face the crisis of COVID-19”, where ANUIES, in consensus with the rectors of state and national universities, established the protocols for academic continuity within the framework of the suspension of face-to-face activities.
Despite the above, there are numerous studies (Cortés et al., 2021; González, 2020; Montes et al., 2021) that register high levels of academic stress among students. As Duarte & Sánchez (2021) warn, the combination of isolation and the exponential increase in virtual activities –most of them implemented as remedial resources to favor integration– led to a state of saturation that the authors call technological stress.
Even more serious is the situation of health science students who carried out field work (internships or residencies) in hospitals during the pandemic. In most cases, there was exposure to borderline experiences in the most critical health stage. In addition, they faced the initial refusal to vaccinate them because they are not formally established doctors and the potential risk of being infected during their clinical experience.
If we have referred to flexibility, it is because we consider that, in real terms, Mexican universities do not have sufficient resources to reduce the digital divide experienced by their students. Although we have the case of universities such as Guadalajara, Nuevo León and Baja California, where the permanent loan of computer equipment to students in vulnerable situations was implemented, it is impossible to ignore that there are strata where marginalization is even more intense (Martínez, 2021). This marginalization is the case of southern universities, where two structural problems come together: budget weakness and the deep poverty in which some students live (Carrasco, Castellanos & Bermúdez, 2021).
Based on these first reflections, it is possible to recognize that universities have partially fulfilled with academic flexibility during the pandemic. The key to making this commitment more solid lies, in the opinion of some academics (Alcocer et al., 2021; Calderón et al., 2021), in the strengthening of tutoring. Tutors are a human bridge between the student and their institution. At the same time, it is the tutors who are able to evaluate the cohesion of the group and the academic and personal difficulties that their students may face.
Scholarships and relaxation of the collection of registration fees and other academic expenses
In addition to academic flexibility, what is expected of a humanistic university is that it is able to assimilate that COVID-19 has severe repercussions on the economy of its students. According to the latest data provided by the National Evaluation Council (CONEVAL), the percentage of people living in poverty grew from 41.9 to 43.9% during the pandemic. These two percentage points are equivalent to 3.8 million new poor. In the case of extreme poverty, the percentage increased from 7% to 8.5%, the equivalent of 2.1 million new people living in extreme poverty.
Although we do not have precise information on the increase in poverty among the university student population, it is a fact that the economic crisis produced by the contingency had a direct or indirect effect on students. Thus, universities must establish support programs for their less favored members.
A first strategy that has shown effectiveness in the short term is the granting of financial scholarships to students in vulnerable situations. In the case of Mexico, the federal government coordinates a call for applications aimed at this population with the “Young People Writing the Future” scholarship, also known as the SUBES Scholarship. The support consists of an economic remuneration of 2,400 pesos per month per fellow, and is exclusive for students who live in poverty, in an area of high violence, or who are indigenous or Afro-descendant. However, during the pandemic, the percentage of university students who benefited decreased by nine percentage points. In 2020, the SUBES scholarship was awarded to 175 thousand university students, which represents only 3.5% of the school population at this level.
With these data, we can look that the support of the federal government is valuable, but insufficient. Humanist universities must, at their own expense, offer financial or in-kind scholarships to students who fail to receive a federal stimulus. Studies such as that of Morales-Cervantes & Urbina-Nájera (2021), also verify that students consider that the support of their university is mainly reflected in the granting of financial scholarships and tutoring services.
It is known that Mexican public universities already have formally established scholarship systems (Cruz et al., 2013; Gómez, 2014). However, what is expected is the implementation of emerging programs for the attention of students in vulnerable conditions. Among the state universities that implemented this strategy are the Autonomous University of Aguascalientes, the Autonomous University of Tamaulipas, the University of Guadalajara, the Autonomous University of Nuevo León and the Autonomous University of Baja California.
If analyzed in detail, one of the common features among the universities that started the granting of scholarships is that they are located in the north-central part of the country, and that they have an adequate budget. It would be much more complicated for other universities, where there is no budget solvency, not even to fully develop basic activities. Among the above, we can identify the universities of Morelos, Oaxaca, Zacatecas, Chiapas, Tabasco, Veracruz, Michoacán, Nayarit, the State of Mexico and Guerrero, who declared themselves in budget crisis in 2020 (Sánchez-Jiménez, 2020).
Given the impossibility of certain universities awarding financial scholarships, two alternatives could be considered. The first consists of the exemption from the collection of registration fees for those students who go through an adverse economic situation. In the case of universities in crisis, undergraduate enrollment fees do not exceed one thousand Mexican pesos, in contrast to universities such as Baja California or Nuevo León, where the average amount is close to three thousand pesos per semester. However, we know that this would be a serious blow to the perception of own income, especially in the context of the budget deficit.
This brings us to the second alternative: budget adjustments and audits. Of the ten universities declared in crisis, four were involved in the Master Scam, a process of corruption in which the government of former President Enrique Peña Nieto used eight public universities to divert resources to shell firms. Presumably, in collusion with university authorities (Moreno, 2019).
In this context, the need to make the use of public funds within universities more transparent is evident. In any case, it is the students and teachers who pay the consequences of corruption and financial mismanagement. However, it is also crucial to reconsider the salaries assigned to senior university officials. Within universities in crisis, for example, we have rectors with the following salaries (the amounts were recovered from the current salary tables at the universities):
- Michoacan University of San Nicolás de Hidalgo: 109 thousand pesos per month
- Autonomous University of the State of Mexico, 100 thousand 500 pesos per month
- Autonomous University of Zacatecas: 83 thousand pesos per month
- Autonomous University of the State of Morelos: 77 thousand pesos per month
- Veracruz University: 75 thousand 480 pesos per month
- Autonomous University of Chiapas: 70 thousand pesos per month
- Benito Juárez Autonomous University of Oaxaca: 58 thousand 350 pesos per month
- Autonomous Juárez University of Tabasco: 57 thousand 514 pesos per month
- Autonomous University of Nayarit: 38 thousand 982 pesos per month
Rectors are the most visible authority within universities, but it is also necessary to cross-check the salaries of higher-ranking university officials with less visibility. What we are trying to point out is the implicit contradiction in universities that declare themselves in crisis —and thereby compromise substantive activities— when their rectors have almost the same salary as the President of the Republic. In these practices, it becomes palpable that humanism has been used as a cosmetic resource, suitable for speeches and manuals. The reconsideration of these salaries could lead to scholarships for vulnerable students, not to mention other intra-institutional needs.
Free and quality psychological support
Finally, we believe that the humanistic commitment to students, especially during the pandemic, should be reflected in free and quality psychological care. Factors such as confinement, social isolation, death of relatives and close friends, loss of employment (especially in the informal sector), together with the overload of virtual activities, have produced a noticeable increase in the levels of depression and suicide attempts among young adults (Benítez, 2021).
In addition to this complex matrix of problems, a contingent conflict appears, these are the communication obstacles in virtual education. University students, especially newcomers, do not personally know their classmates and teachers, much less identify the academic instances to which they should go when they require psychological support (Cayo-Rojas & Agramonte-Rosell, 2020). At least in Mexico, this situation is far from being considered resolved. It is true that some universities have returned to physical activities, but most of them continue in the hybrid or virtual mode.
Again, this challenge can only be solved through the integration of university actors. As we will see in the next section, teachers have absorbed most of the academic load, serving as tutors, advisers and even as administrative liaisons. The optimal mechanism would be to take advantage of the psycho-educational personnel that the institutions have; if they do not have them, the universities could establish internal strategies where psychology students can provide their social service, attending to the emotional problems raised by the pandemic, both among students and teachers.
Humanistic commitment to teachers during the pandemic
This section must begin with a constitutive and urgent premise: attending to the needs of teachers is not only a labor issue but also an educational one. Conceiving student problems as educational, and the needs of teachers as labor, explains why the latter are not beneficiaries of the humanism promoted by universities. Without well-paid teachers with job security, no teaching-learning process can be truly humanistic. You cannot promote the fullness of students at the cost of dehumanizing teachers.
As we said in previous sections, the most vulnerable group in the academic sphere is made up of part-time teachers. However, it is not valid to fall into the trap of homogenization. Despite the common figure, part-time teachers have dissimilar characteristics from each other. To begin, as Gil-Antón (2021) points out, it will be necessary to distinguish between professionals who have a formal job and dedicate a few hours to teaching; and among teachers whose only job is teaching, and who earn their income through the accumulation of class hours. The second of these groups, needless to say, seems to us the most vulnerable.
In the context of the pandemic, part-time teachers were the most prone to dismissal (Kimie, 2021). By not having a permanent place, the universities can do without them and leave them without income temporarily. In the worst-case scenario, these actions occur suddenly, preventing teachers from preparing in advance for another job, inside or outside the university environment.
In addition to the uncertainty, there are also numerous pedagogical injustices that these teachers experience in the classrooms. To begin, continuing with Kimie (2021), a sub-remuneration of the activities for which they are hired is observed. In face-to-face education, the teacher charges one or two hours depending on the time spent in front of the group. However, in virtual education, part-time teachers double the time invested —through advising, reviewing work, monitoring platforms— without these additional activities being considered in the income received.
We know that this situation is common to all university teachers, regardless of whether they are part-time or full-time. But full-time teachers have a base salary that is not affected by the number of hours they dedicate to each activity. From our perspective, this implies working from a disadvantage, as hours spent without pay prevent part-time teachers from investing their time in other activities for which they could earn income.
The above problems demonstrate the incongruity between humanist discourse and exploitative practices. We say ‘exploitation’ without any fear, assuming that earning 83 or 124 pesos per hour as a university professor —as happens in the universities of Oaxaca and Guerrero, respectively— is a form of expression of abuse.
Beyond the exhortation, what interests us is to emphasize the disadvantages of reducing this problem in the workplace. With the excuse of being a strict labor problem, the universities relegate the responsibility to the operational authorities. This represents a first shield, insofar as it protects the most visible face of the university —the educational one— and replaces it with an administrative space with less exposure. Arguing that the salary amounts are the exclusive responsibility of the union and financial entities of the university, is an old strategy to justify the low salaries of some and the excessive income of others. The university, as a whole, is responsible for everything that happens within its institutional limits, leaving no space for exceptions.
In the case of student problems, it is highly likely that at least the conflicts associated with COVID-19 will be resolved in the medium or long term. Eventually, the face-to-face classes will resume their course, and the students will find in the school space a niche for training and coexistence. But also, it must be said, of pressure and symbolic violence. However, the situation for part-time teachers will not change in the post-pandemic world, no matter how long it takes to arrive. As long as the universities do not assume an authentic humanist commitment, beyond the discourses, they will continue to work in conditions of precariousness and uncertainty.
In light of these problems, we can conclude that the humanistic commitment to teachers during the pandemic has been deficient. Universities have directed their efforts to partially address student problems, but have sacrificed, for the same purpose, the integrity of the professors who dedicate their time to training future professionals.
Throughout this paper, we have realized the ambivalence of universities in the face of the problems of their community. On the one hand, there are positive symptoms that reflect a partial commitment to the needs of the students. In this vein, Mexican public universities have deployed strategies such as granting scholarships, making their activities and evaluative criteria more flexible, and permanent psychological support for students who require it. On the other hand, universities seem not to care about the precarious conditions in which their teachers operate, especially those who are hired by the hour. The humanization of students is thus promoted at the cost of the dehumanization of teachers.
From our point of view, we reiterate that there are two major challenges for universities to be authentically humanistic. The first challenge entails that humanism becomes an institutional philosophy that permeates the substantive functions of teaching, research and outreach, as well as the adjective functions of management and governance. It is time to discuss humanistic ways of producing and exchanging knowledge. However, it is also elementary that institutional norms are permeated by this centrality of the person. If humanism is understood as a training device, then not in a philosophy, but just a theory of learning.
The second challenge involves the incursion of teachers into humanism. It is not sustainable that humanism continues to be defined as the centrality of the student in the training process. Humanism must be understood, instead, as a philosophy that places the human being at the core of its actions. This involves students, but also teachers, cleaning staff, secretaries and all those persons that are not very visible, but essential for the operation of universities. However, to place is not to name the placement. The commitment must be reflected in actions that transcend discourse. In this sense, it is urgent that universities improve salary conditions for part-time teachers and that they also provide elements of certainty and labor continuity.
Regarding the limitations of the study, we consider that the most important is associated with the preliminary nature of the information. The profound effects of the pandemic in Mexican universities and the possible evolution of COVID-19 with the emergence of new strains and variants of the virus remain to be seen. Thus, the needs of university actors will continue to deepen if immediate solutions are not established. In this sense, active and non-sedentary vigilance is required, capable of preventing the future, but also providing solutions in the present.
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