It started as a fight over 2 cents.

When the administration of the largest university in the Americas proposed raising student tuition from a token 2 cents to about $150 a year, outraged students launched a strike that closed classes to 267,000 students and their 30,000 professors.

Nearly three months into the strike, the protest has spilled far beyond the campus to become the latest symbol of the acrimonious struggle between the institutional powers of the old Mexico, born of the social revolutions of this century, and reformers hoping to reinvent the new Mexico of the next millennium.

What better place to seek a transformation than within the walls of a revered institution now facing hard times? After 89 years of virtually free tuition for any student who could gain admission, the president of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (known by its Spanish initials as UNAM) saw a modest $150 a year tuition for those who could afford it as a chance to upgrade dilapidated facilities, improve outdated laboratories and provide scholarships to poor students who--even without tuition--must work to pay their living expenses and buy books and materials.

But students at the university, which clings tenuously to its reputation as one of Latin America's most prestigious centers of higher learning, viewed the tuition plan as one more blow to a social safety net under attack by neo-liberals obsessed with securing Mexico's place in the global economy.

"The president is following the rules of neo-liberalism where it's not important to raise education resources, but to care about other interests . . . such as your standing with the World Bank," said Julio Goytia, 28, one of the striking students who have been occupying the building that houses the School of Architecture.

Students began their strike April 20, taking a stand for the right of all citizens, particularly the poor, to a free, quality education. And in the beginning--with the argument that the Mexican government has become more concerned with salvaging its banking and business institutions at the expense of long-established welfare systems designed to protect the poor--the students won some public sympathy as well as the tacit support of Mexico City's left-of-center government.

But as the weeks dragged on, with marches and demonstrations that stalled traffic in an already gridlocked city, with the university dropping its plan to start charging tuition and with the news media portraying the striking students as radicals depriving other students of an education, the students have become increasingly isolated. In fact, an estimated 167,000 students finished the spring semester last week, meeting with professors off campus in warehouses, restaurants, bars and churches.

Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo this week implored, "There are no reasons to continue the strike, it should end."

Students remain resolute, however. Even though little more than sporting events normally take place on UNAM's huge campus in the southern end of Mexico City in the summer, striking students continue to occupy all major buildings, most of which are draped in rain-dampened banners and sprayed with student slogans.

At the School of Architecture, about a dozen students have turned one classroom into a living area and kitchen where they cook on portable burners sitting on architectural drafting tables.

As they prepared lunch one day, students said their demands include more than tuition proposals. They said they are fighting half a dozen changes the university has imposed in recent years, including limiting the number of years students have to earn degrees and imposing tougher enrollment standards to improve the quality of the school's graduates.

While students say those new rules limit access to education, they also concede that they--like the administration--are fighting to save the image of what once was one of the nation's once most valued institutions.

In recent times, UNAM, which has produced Mexican presidents and Nobel laureates, has lost much of its luster.

"Now when a student graduates, it's difficult to find work," said Jesus Romero, 20, a student who has finished two years of architectural studies. "UNAM is viewed as a work factory, not an institution that produces true professionals."

It is a painful admission for the students and administrators of a college regarded in past decades as the institution that would educate the lower and middle classes, as well as the elite, to assist in the creation of a modern industrial and professional Mexican work force.

Now, with negotiations between students and the university administration at a stalemate and summer vacation diminishing the need for an immediate resolution to the crisis, both sides appear to be settling in for a long, intractable standoff.

Outside the university buildings, some of which are decorated with the most ornate and impressive murals in Mexico, janitors, maids and other workers sit idle on front steps, as they have done for almost three months: They show up for work, only to be denied entry to their posts by locked doors. Many of the workers, who continue to receive their pay, said they support the striking students.

At a small demonstration in support of the striking students last week, Leonardo Figueiras, a political science professor, implored the public and the news media to recall that "strikes and student movements always have helped transform our university as well as society."

CAPTION: Students demonstrate to oppose changes proposed by the administration of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.