A streamlining of the country’s post-secondary support programme is the driving force behind a recently launched review of Trinidad and Tobago’s higher education system.
In early March the government of T&T launched a 16-person task force charged with reviewing the Government Assistance for Tertiary Education (GATE) programme.
GATE covers 100% of tuition fees at the undergraduate level and up to 50% at the postgraduate level, and is available to students pursuing approved programmes at local and regional, public and private tertiary institutions.
The task force, comprising representatives from government ministries, and business associations and chambers, as well as educational institutions and NGOs, is due to submit its findings in July.
Since GATE’s introduction in 2004, more than 190,000 students have been able to access funds, with outlays under the scheme totalling $5.5bn to date. A further $600m has been allocated to the programme for 2016, according to Colm Imbert, minister of finance.
With public revenues under pressure form lower hydrocarbons receipts, the government is looking to rationalise spending. To achieve this, the eligibility criteria for institutions, courses of study and students is being reconsidered.
Funding, however, is not the only issue under review; educational outcomes and the relevance of higher education and skills training to labour market needs are also being closely examined.
When announcing the formation of the task force, education minister Anthony Garcia noted concerns about whether the GATE programme was having the desired impact. He acknowledged a lack of comprehensive data regarding graduation rates, post-graduation employment figures, labour market needs and the so-called “brain drain” of students.
While the government remains committed to maintaining access to tertiary education, some reforms, such as the possible introduction of a means test for student eligibility under GATE, should be discussed, Imbert said in February during his address at the National Consultation on Education (NCE), a public consultation aimed at identifying the main challenges facing all levels of the education system.
Prime Minister Keith Rowley called for the national education system to be more closely aligned with economic and societal needs.
“There is a recognition that we are not doing as well as we should be doing in education in T&T,” Rowley said at the final instalment of the NCE in February.
There is a growing emphasis on certification rather than education, and as a result the country is not seeing returns on its investment in education, he added.
The five-week NCE process conducted by the Ministry of Education is expected to address key issues, including quality, cost effectiveness, and the relevance of higher education and skills training.
Among the outcomes of the process will be a revised tertiary education and skills training policy, more effective funding strategies and a targeted scholarship programme, the ministry said in a statement in February.
Improving cooperation among higher education institutions and reducing duplication of services should go some way toward improving student outcomes, according to Gillian Paul, president of the College of Science Technology and Applied Arts of Trinidad and Tobago (COSTAATT).
“The economy has not diversified quickly enough to absorb the number of graduates that GATE has facilitated. Overall, the programme has led to an overproduction of graduates, particularly in certain fields,” she told OBG. “Closer coordination could help eliminate these redundancies.”
Developing the sector’s capacity to attract international students could offer another avenue for unlocking economic benefits.
Several tertiary institutions, including the University of West Indies at St. Augustine, already offer courses to international students at the undergraduate and graduate levels on a fee-paying basis, and Paul sees significant growth potential in this segment.
T&T has myriad advantages as a centre for education, she told OBG, such as English being the language of instruction and comparatively low tuition fees.
Institutions like COSTAATT could also focus on vocational training areas that support diversification and are in demand both domestically and internationally, Paul added.
“We are currently training over 1500 nurses. Given the global shortage of nurses, we could expand training in this area to develop it as an export market,” she told OBG.
By attracting international students, T&T’s higher education system could boost foreign exchange earnings and offset the expense of scholarships provided to local students studying abroad, enabling further development and investment in T&T’s education sector.