Tucked away at the top of the long peninsula stretching down the northern and most western part of Mexico – with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Gulf of California on the other – is a showpiece example of how a higher education institution can play a key role in the economic and social transformation of its community and region.
In this case we are talking about the border region where the United States meets the developing world.
Sixty years ago, a group of eight community and business leaders concerned about the brain drain of young talent caused by the lack of higher education opportunities in the region founded CETYS Universidad with an initial class of 52 students.
Then the land to the south of San Diego, known as Baja California, was being transformed into one of Mexico’s fastest growing agricultural and wine-growing regions and attracting multinational plants with a modern city starting to emerge in Mexicali.
But the lure for young people of moving to the bigger urban centres like Mexico City or across the border to the American states of California and Arizona for work or to continue their education, was destroying hopes of turning the region into the Mexican industrial and technical powerhouse it has become today.
Looking back to the dream of the CETYS founding fathers of establishing a centre for technical and higher education excellence in what had been an arid and desert land only a generation before, it is remarkable what has already been achieved.
“Where the choices were virtually nil for those seeking higher education, CETYS has spread to three campuses – in Mexicali, Tijuana and Ensenada – and grown to a student population of 8,000,” its president, Fernando León García, told University World News.
“We also have very high employability rates – among the best in the world – with 95% of our students employed within the first year of graduation and nearly 40% of the most important entrepreneurs in Baja California being CETYS alumni.
But, as the private not-for-profit institution prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary, there is no way it is resting on its laurels, with León García announcing a 15-year plan to transform CETYS from a university primarily serving its region and community into one of the world’s top 250 institutions for teaching, research and societal impact by 2036.
Systematic planning and evaluation will be key to achieving that ambition as it has in previous three-, five- and 10-year plans, said León García, who in July was elected to a three-year term as president of the International Association of University Presidents, as University World News recently reported.
The aim may be bold, but CETYS is determined to take advantage of its strategic location “right next door to one of the strongest economies in the world if you consider California an independent country”, said León García.
Despite a slight hiccup during the Donald Trump years in the White House, Baja California has benefitted from twinning plants and outsourcing from major US companies and most importantly for CETYS it has won accreditation from quality assurance bodies in the United States, such as the US WASC Senior College and University Commission.
Its business management and engineering programmes were the first in northwestern Mexico to receive international accreditation from the US Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs and its programmes have also been approved by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology in the US.
For the moment this ringing endorsement from across the border in the United States, together with research projects, internships and other collaboration with companies like Honeywell, Gulfstream, Medtronic and Paccar/Kenworth Mexicana, are more important than appearing in the top traditional university rankings with their bias for research citations.
René Suarez, director of engineering at Kenworth, agrees and told University World News he was impressed by the professional attitude of CETYS engineering graduates and their willingness to work as a team.
“They show confidence to take on responsibilities and have very good analytical skills. They are also willing to be leaders of change and can work proactively with changing priorities. CETYS engineering graduates are focused on solving problems and helping us to adopt new technologies and they are committed to the community and the environment,” he said.
International academic partnerships
Just as important are the international links with higher education institutions in the United States.
These include a double degree involving an MBA from CETYS and a masters in leadership from the University of San Diego, where Dr Denise Dimon, associate provost for international affairs and professor of economics, told University World News: “We’re proud to be a partner with CETYS in developing future business leaders who can serve and contribute to the growth and prosperity of our larger border community.”
CETYS’s oldest double degree partnership in the US, now in its 16th year, is with City University of Seattle. Christopher Bryan, CityU’s interim president, told University World News: “The partnership enables students from Mexico to earn a US accredited degree from a US-based institution and another degree from a Mexico accredited university. Students experience the best from both universities.
“It is an exemplary model that leverages both institutions’ strengths to provide students a one-of-a-kind programme.”
A move on the rankings
However, León García acknowledges that many global universities and decision-makers look at the university rankings, such as those produced by Times Higher Education and QS, for the badge of recognition.
And although CETYS has yet to appear in the top world league tables using research and citations as their major reference points, it has a respectable 601-800 place in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
It does best for ‘decent work and economic growth’ (SDG 8), ‘gender equality’ (SDG 5) and ‘quality education’ (SDG 4) in the 2021 version of the ranking.
Integrating research with teaching
León García believes that while CETYS was founded with the vision of developing well-rounded individuals by marrying a focus on business and engineering with a liberal arts twist, the university is now ready to take the next major steps to becoming a world-leading university.
“We acknowledge that we were not created as a research-focused institution; we were created as a teaching institution that now has an aspiration to become a comprehensive university.
“We’re making giant strides in our conversations with academics about our vision so they can help us to achieve our goal and understand the commitment from our board, which is investing heavily to help in the transformation of the culture,” said León García.
In the last 10 years the number of staff with doctoral degrees has risen from 20% to 73% through a commitment to support the existing professoriate to gain doctoral degrees and by bringing in new talent.
“We know that if we want to be internationally recognised, we must have doctoral-qualified faculty. But as we move towards becoming a more research-focused institution, we want to avoid the mistakes that some of the research-focused institutes are sometimes criticised for. So, we don’t want to do research at the expense of teaching.”
He cites the Warwick Manufacturing Centre at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom as an example of what CETYS hopes to create in northwestern Mexico.
Internationalisation with a developing world twist
Global engagement is a central part of the CETYS 15-year plan, but León García told University World News: “There is a bias when you talk about internationalisation of higher education from the developed country perspective, where they look at this in terms of foreign students coming to your campus.
“From a developing country perspective, it is the other way-round and you look at what you are doing to make sure that an institution that has been primarily local is providing a global perspective and capacity building.
“When we started this process a decade ago, we had about 20% of our graduating classes having some kind of international experience. We are now at 65%.”
He said that while the pandemic has forced a move to virtual mobility, he thinks this will only speed up the internalisation process through a blend of online, hybrid and study abroad opportunities.
As for the student mix, around 10% of undergraduates are from abroad, with most of the international students hopping across the border from California in the US or learning by virtual means during the pandemic when physical travel was restricted.
“There is a cultural connection with California in the US and many of those coming to us are from families with a connection to our region and from families who were originally from Mexico. So, they are bilingual. And we are accredited in the US, so that’s another part of our globalisation and internationalisation,” said León García.
With a growing number of courses offering a version in English, such as international business and industrial engineering, “which is very important for the type of industry and co-operations that we have across the US-Mexico border”, and 10% of all programmes being taught in English, there is strong demand for CETYS graduates.
“When we talk to industry, they say they like to hire our graduates because, all things being equal, they come out with a very solid degree; number two they are bilingual and number three they have an international experience with many of our graduates having a double degree, a degree from the US and a degree from Mexico.”
The partnership approach is welcomed by businesses like Medtronic, one of the world’s biggest medical technology companies. Miguel Rochín, its regional vice-president for operations in California, said: “The masters degree in innovation focused on medical manufacturing, offered jointly by CETYS and St Cloud State University in Minnesota, undoubtedly fills a technical skills gap in this industrial sector.
“The medical industry is highly regulated and uses a great diversity of transformation processes – two aspects not sufficiently incorporated into the curriculum of traditional engineering careers. That is why this programme represents an ideal complement to the engineering training of graduates as it integrates the most relevant aspects, both theoretically and in practice.
“Graduates of this programme have an added value since they have expanded competencies to face the challenges that this niche of specialisation requires, which makes them more competent and competitive, not only locally but anywhere in the world.”
All this is music to the ear of León García, who told University World News. “So, we’re moving from being a local to a ‘global multiversity’, responsive to both where we are and who we interact with, and to who supports us in working towards achieving global outreach and interaction.”
Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.