Trinidad and Tobago's education system adapts to changing conditions

In the context of declining public revenues, following the sharp fall in oil and gas prices since mid-2014, Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) is looking to reassess the state of its education system to ensure it is in line with broader development goals. Buoyed by steady hydrocarbons revenues for the past decade, T&T’s education system is one of the great strengths of the twin-islands’ economy. The country maintained its spot at 89th out of 140 countries in the “Global Competitiveness Report” 2015-16 by the World Economic Forum, with a score of 3.9 out of seven.

However, the country ranked significantly above that in most education indicators, including quality of the management of its schools (30th), quality of the education system (33rd), quality of maths and science education (35th), availability of specialised training services (42nd), extent of staff training (47th), primary education enrolment (58th) and internet access availability in schools (60th).

A scenario of negative growth – the economy contracted by 2% in 2015 and is projected to contract a further 2% in 2016, according to the minister of finance, Colm Imbert – is nonetheless raising questions of quality, cost effectiveness, efficiency, and the relevance of higher education and skills training for the country’s changing labour market and broader macroeconomic situation. To assess the state of the education system, the newly elected People’s National Movement (PNM) government, led by prime minister Keith Rowley, launched a National Consultation on Education (NCE) in early 2016, an initiative authorities hope will enable the country to arrive at a strategic vision to guide successful future sector development. The stakes are high for the PNM government, as fresh policy moves will dictate how the country’s education system adjusts to a new era of low oil and gas prices, with the education sector expected to play a key role in assisting wider efforts to diversify the TT$175.9bn ($27.1bn) economy.

Basics

A legacy of its colonial heritage, T&T’s education system is largely based on the British model, and is generally divided into five levels. Students aged three to four attend the pre-primary level at the country’s many early childhood care and education (ECCE) centres. Primary education typically begins at age five and includes two preparatory grades – Level I and Level II – followed by five Standard grades (Standard I-V). Generally students finish this level of instruction at around age 11, at which point they are eligible to take the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) to secure a place at a government-assisted or public secondary school. Pursuant to the Education Act of 1966, education is compulsory and free for children aged six to 12 in public schools.

All secondary schools now offer at least five years of schooling, a change from the previous two-tiered system. When secondary schooling is completed, students are entitled to the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC). Since the introduction in 2000 of universal secondary education (USE), this level is also free and compulsory for students who pass the SEA. In 2015 there were a total of 258,000 students, with 36,000 in the pre-primary, 126,000 in primary and 96,000 in secondary levels. Post-secondary vocational training is available at the country’s more than 100 training institutions. Students wishing to pursue higher education, however, must undergo the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE), before joining a tertiary institution.

Legislative Framework

The Ministry of Education (MoE) oversees primary to secondary education and, in collaboration with the Tobago House of Assembly, works to ensure standards across the country. Higher levels are overseen by the Tertiary Education Division of the MoE, formerly known as the Ministry of Tertiary Education and Skills Training (MTEST) prior to the reduction of ministry portfolios introduced by the newly elected government in September 2015. The professional development of teachers also falls under the responsibility of the MoE. T&T’s education system is also guided by another key piece of legislation – the Concordat of 1961 – which established a dual system or state-church partnership, under which government-owned schools are fully funded by the state, while denominational schools enjoy state subsidies and grants, in addition to the state covering recurrent costs and staff salaries and pensions.

Under the Concordat, the government contributes 66.6% of capital costs for the construction and expansion of denominational schools, while the schools retain ownership and managerial responsibilities. By contrast, private schools are not subsidised and normally charge fees.

According to the MoE, in 2011 T&T had a total of 895 ECCE centres, primary schools and secondary schools. Denominational institutions accounted for just over half of these at 51%, followed by public institutions with 37% and private institutions with 12%. Private education is more common at the ECCE and primary levels, while the few private secondary schools that do exist – 29 in 2011 –over time became associated with failure at the SEA.

Decade-Long Transition

While T&T’s test-based education system started out as markedly elitist, government efforts to increase access to education, particularly in the past decade, have seen the country embark on a transition to a mass education system. The UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates that T&T’s youth (15 to 24 years) literacy rate stood at 99.6% in 2015, while the adult (15 years and older) literacy rate was only slightly lower at 99%.

Though data on the education sector remains scarce and outdated, universal pre-primary and primary education could already be a reality. According to UNESCO, the net enrolment ratio at the primary level increased from 88.7% in 2005 to 95.2% in 2010, the last year for which data is available. Moreover, the former minister of education, Tim Gopeesingh, told media in 2015 that T&T was on track to achieve universal ECCE by the end of 2015. The most recent data from the World Bank places net enrolment at the secondary level at 73% in 2004.

Rising Expenditure 

The transition to a mass education system is most visible at the tertiary level, with the introduction of the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses (GATE) programme in 2004 effectively galvanising demand for tertiary education. GATE is available to all nationals pursuing approved programmes, including distance learning, at local and regional, public and private tertiary institutions, and covers 100% of tuition fees at the undergraduate level, and up to 50% at the postgraduate level.

According to the MTEST, from June 2004 to June 2015 188,023 students benefitted from GATE, representing an investment of over TT$5.5bn ($847m). At current enrolment rates, GATE represents an annual investment of around TT$650m ($100.1m), according to Imbert. Public support for tertiary education goes beyond GATE. Another 15,810 loans were dispersed in the 2010-15 period under the low-interest Higher Education Loan Programme (HELP), amounting to TT$295.6m ($45.5m), with another 145 grants dispersed through the Financial Assistance Studies Programme (FASP) since its introduction in November 2013, totalling TT$5.4m ($832,000). The increased public funding had a definitive impact on access to education at the tertiary level. According to the MoE, the participation rate – the share of those aged 17-21 enrolled in post-secondary courses – increased from 7% in 2001 to 65.2% in 2013, surpassing the 60% by 2015 target established by the authorities. The University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine, a regional institution and the largest university by enrolment rate in T&T, had a total of 19,191 students in the 2014/15 academic year, having seen enrolment increase by 134% in the period from 2000/01 to 2014/15. The institution’s graduate output more than doubled in the same period, from 1637 to 3870.

The increased levels of public financial commitment to tertiary education led to a rise in public expenditure, with total public tertiary education expenditure increasing by 7% in the period 2010-15, from TT$3.3bn ($508m) to over TT$3.5bn ($539m) per year, according to data from the Ministry of Finance. The education sector has remained a priority for successive governments, and represented 15% of total public spending in fiscal year (FY) 2016, with an initial allocation of TT$9.7bn ($1.5bn), although expenditure was cut by TT$413.2m ($63.6m) following the mid-year budget review in April 2016.

Institutional Expansion

The rise in demand for higher education was accompanied by an exponential increase in the number of tertiary institutions in the country, as well as a significant expansion of the academic offer and technical training available. As of April 2016, a total of 62 institutions were registered with the Accreditation Council of T&T (ACTT), the regulatory body responsible for registering and accrediting tertiary institutions.

In addition, several training institutes and private enterprises were affiliated with the National Training Agency (NTA), the umbrella organisation responsible for coordinating the national training system and setting occupational standards. The NTA has also been tasked with ensuring quality standards among technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions and facilitating the development of occupational standards. Today T&T has outward-looking and internationally competitive tertiary institutions, as well as a robust array of programmes and degrees, many of which are accredited by foreign bodies. The University of T&T (UTT), for instance, has partnerships with 11 international institutions, including the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Cambridge and Johns Hopkins Medicine International. Meanwhile, new modalities such as distance learning – available at a number of institutions – and part-time studies, continue to provide life-long learning opportunities to update the country’s human capital pool.

Accreditation

T&T’s tertiary quality assurance system has nonetheless been slow to adapt to the new market conditions. While the ACTT sets quality standards which tertiary institutions must meet to become registered, accreditation is voluntary and is not a requirement for funding under GATE. Of the 62 ACTT-registered institutions, only 12 were accredited as of April 2016. These included the country’s three main universities – the regional UWI St Augustine Campus, UTT and the University of the Southern Caribbean (USC) – as well as the College of Science, Technology, and Applied Arts of T&T (COSTAATT), the MIC Institute of Technology, and the T&T Hospitality and Tourism Institute. In addition, 50 institutions were duly registered, one was pending continued registration and another was a new applicant.

Although it may appear that the government of T&T has had some difficulty with respect to tertiary accreditation, the numbers are slightly misleading. Only indigenous programmes can be accredited under the ACTT’s provisions, and of the 62 ACTT-registered institutions, only 18 meet this criteria. Therefore, the government has actually awarded accreditation to 67% of all public institutions.

Vocational Training

While the offer at the post-secondary level is substantial and includes a number of specialised institutions such as the Youth Training and Employment Partnership Programme, which is the largest provider of youth vocational training, MIC Institute of Technology and the National Energy Skills Centre (NESC), the academic stream remains the favoured choice for students, in part a reflection of the country’s cultural values. Of the roughly 90,000 students enrolled at tertiary education and skills training institutions in 2012, the last year for which detailed data is available, only an estimated 20,000 were in skills training programmes. Meanwhile, in the 2014/15 academic year, 51% of UWI’s St Augustine graduates were in the social sciences, humanities and education fields, with medical sciences at 18%, engineering at 12%, science and technology at 12%, food and agriculture with 5%, and law at 2% making up the remaining 49%.

Labour Market

The capacity of the labour market to absorb the increased supply of graduates from academic streams, however, seems to be increasingly limited. Even though data on labour market trends remains scarce, there is growing evidence of a mismatch between educational outcomes and labour market needs. Central Bank data on unemployment rates suggests skilled and semi-skilled employment remains high, while there is a continuing glut in terms of employment in more academic-oriented areas. This is compounded by the fact that a number of the new tertiary institutions are private, with a focus on programmes that require low capital investment in infrastructure, such as accounting, business and law programmes. “Because GATE funded both public and private institutions, we have overproduced in those areas that require little capital investment, like finance and business, when the labour market requires people with scientific, environmental and health backgrounds – skills that are acquired in labs,” Gillian Paul, president at COSTAATT, told OBG.

Greater public emphasis on skills training in the past few years is contributing to what some observers see as the beginning of a shift in attitudes, with TVET becoming slightly more popular and demand for training in the aviation, maritime and industrial sectors, in particular, increasing. While in recent years TVET has benefitted from a relative increase in opportunities for on-the-job training, in the form of internships and apprenticeships, strengthening the link between training institutions and the industry remains a challenge. “The reality is that private industry actors don’t always have the capacity to provide more opportunities for trainees. Despite the benefits, these placements represent a certain cost and more incentives are needed to effectively engage the private sector,” Steve Arman, NTA’s CEO, told OBG.

National Consultation

In early 2016, only months after assuming office, the PNM government launched a National Consultation on Education (NCE), a nationwide public debate aimed at identifying the main challenges facing the education system with a view to collectively arrive at a strategy for sector development. The initiative is expected to address a number of key issues, including quality, cost effectiveness, and the relevance of higher education and skills training in the context of T&T’s changing macroeconomic environment. At the pre-primary, primary and secondary levels, the discussion will include a review of the Education Act, the Concordat, infrastructural development and maintenance, service delivery, school indiscipline and greater parent involvement. According to the MoE, a special committee to oversee the development of the ECCE and primary school systems is also being established. One key area of concern is the poor state of infrastructure. According to the MoE, 70% of primary schools and 34% of secondary schools are 50 years old or more.

In recent years the government has rolled out several programmes aimed at improving infrastructure. In FY 2015 the MoE received an allocation of TT$839m ($129.2m) under the Public Sector Investment Programme to finance both the construction and upgrade of ECCE centres, primary schools and secondary schools. Budgetary constraints have seen the equivalent allocation in FY 2016 fall to TT$625m ($96.3m). The government is keen on streamlining the framework for public-private partnerships (PPPs), a move which could see the private sector begin to play a larger role in the execution of infrastructure works in social sectors. During the presentation of the FY 2016 budget in October 2015, Imbert proposed to the cabinet to make TT$20m ($3.1m) available to support the growth and development of the technical and operational aspects of PPP arrangements.

Anthony Garcia, the minister of education, told local media in December 2015 that the E-Connect and Learn Programme, introduced in 2010 by the previous People’s Partnership (PP) coalition government, would also undergo a review to ensure the programme’s maximum efficiency and effectiveness. The PP set out to provide secondary students with a government-issued laptop and access to the internet to be used in school and at home.

Tertiary Priorities 

At the tertiary level, the NCE is expected to focus on two key aspects – reviewing the sustainability of funding GATE, and ensuring the relevance of the education system in the context of the country’s changing labour market and broader diversification goals. In March 2016 a 16-person task force was appointed by Cabinet to review the policy guidelines that govern GATE. The task force will look at ways to reduce the cost of the programme and introduce new eligibility criteria for institutions.

A number of measures could scale back the level of public financial commitment to the programme. Introducing accreditation as a requirement for funding under GATE is one way the new government could significantly limit the pool of institutions benefitting from GATE, while strengthening the quality assurance process at the tertiary level. “This would bring the demand and supply more under control and enable the country to begin a serious discussion about first, the strategic focus of the remaining public and private institutions, and second, how we can utilise taxpayers’ money to have the most impact on the economic agenda of the country,” Paul told OBG.

The PNM government has publicly expressed its intention to review the accreditation process. Rowley told local media in late 2015 that a review was necessary to ensure programmes funded by GATE are worthy of the financial commitment of the government and its taxpayers. A review of GATE could also see new strings attached to the grants as the government works to curb the brain drain experienced in recent years. “We cannot continue to train people at such great expense and not finish the job by keeping them within the shores of T&T. We cannot continue to subsidise the world with high-quality health care givers while our own institutions are lacking in their services,” Rowley told local media in late 2015.

Diversification

On the back of declining oil and gas revenues, diversification into non-energy sectors is at the top of the government’s priorities, with the maritime industries, ICT, tourism and agriculture among the sectors in which the newly elected government is looking to accelerate growth. Established in 2004, UTT is the only national university with a specific mandate to promote entrepreneurship and tailor education in support of socio-economic development goals. Today, the institution caters to some 8000 students and has 13 campuses across T&T, offering an array of programmes in arts, education, engineering and sciences. New efforts to align the education system with diversification goals will build on the advances made in recent years, which include an expanded offer in maritime studies at UTT’s Chaguaramas campus, and at the ICT campus in Tamana InTech Park in Wallerfield, as well as the launch in September 2015 of UTT’s new Aviation Institute, geared toward aircraft engineering.

As the government presses on with its diversification agenda, the good news is that it has important tools at its disposal to achieve meaningful change. Demand for relevant academic and technical training can be effectively shaped through GATE, while the government’s position as the country’s main employer can provide it with additional leverage to influence labour market dynamics. A GATE Standing Committee was established in May 2011 to provide strategic and operational direction to the programme, with funding for new academic and TVET programmes to be based on socio-economic and labour market priority areas. However, the success of initiatives such as this remains constrained by ineffective data collection. While the introduction in July 2015 of the Edu-ID card by the MoE, designed to facilitate collection of enrolment data, represents a step forward in the streamlining of data collection, effective monitoring of market labour trends continue to be limited.

Research & Development

The effort to restructure T&T’s economy, which has depended heavily on the energy sector for public revenues and the public sector for employment, will also require increased spending on research and development (R&D), an area in which T&T continues to lag behind in comparison to its regional peers. The country ranked 80th out of 141 countries in the Global Innovation Index (GII) 2015 – significantly below its counterparts in the Latin America and Caribbean region, with Barbados leading the pack at 37th, followed by Chile (42nd) and Costa Rica (51st). Though T&T’s score represented a 10-place leap from its ranking in the GII 2014 index, the report noted that the country performed below-par relative to its GDP per capita. Currently four institutions are engaged in research and development – UWI St Augustine, UTT, USC and MIC Institute of Technology – with spending on research last reported at 0.1% of GDP, according to the MTEST.

The UWI’s T&T R&D Impact Fund, established in 2012, is the primary source of funding for the UWI St Augustine campus’s research agenda. Two years after its launch, a total of 22 research projects in diverse sectors had been approved for grant funding, representing a total investment of TT$14.3m ($2.2m). These included research projects in the fields of public health (TT$3.8m, $585,000), economic diversification and sector competitiveness (TT$3.4m, $524,000), crime, violence and citizen security (TT$3.1m, $477,000), climate change and environmental issues (TT$2.5m, $385,000) and technology and society (TT$1.6m, $246,000). The country has made some advancements in the establishment of a foundation for R&D activity, partly through the establishment of educational clusters such as the St Augustine Education City project, which is aimed at creating an integrated centre for academic excellence in the St Augustine area, where the highest proportion of post-secondary and tertiary students is concentrated. In FY 2016 TT$50m ($7.7m) is also being allocated for the establishment of the new Science City in Couva, envisaged as a high-tech hub with advanced R&D facilities for product development.

In 2013 UWI St Augustine entered into a partnership with the China Agricultural University (CAU), through the local Confucius Institute, and in October 2015 launched the first phase of the UWI-CAU Agricultural Innovation Park. The project, located on 81 ha of farmland in Orange Country, aims to showcase advanced agricultural production technologies using best practices from both China and the Caribbean. Increased efforts to foster the kind of entrepreneurship that will generate new employment will also be significant in stimulating private sector innovation.

Outlook

While the nature of the reforms that will follow from the NCE and its impact remain unclear, the mounting pressure to successfully diversify T&T’s economy is expected to see meaningful change at the tertiary level, even as the range of policy interventions available to the government becomes more limited, given budgetary constraints. As T&T works to bring its education system in line with labour market needs and wider diversification goals, a broader cultural change will also need to take place to establish an environment conducive to greater appreciation for the opportunities that sectors such as manufacturing and tourism have to offer. Longer term, investment in R&D and the fostering of entrepreneurship within the private sector will be key to ensuring T&T’s transition into a dynamic knowledge-based economy.

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