Trinidad and Tobago helps prepare students for the job market with tertiary-level grant system reforms

 

Successive governments in Trinidad and Tobago have placed a high emphasis on education, and many of the profits derived from the country’s flourishing hydrocarbons sector have been channelled towards the development of schools and funding of tertiary education. The education system, despite at times eliciting criticism for its competitive examination culture, has allowed generations of T&T citizens to receive free primary, secondary and tertiary education and, in many cases, has funded studies abroad. In the annual “Global Competitiveness Report” from the World Economic Forum (WEF), T&T’s education scores routinely outperform other sectors of the economy. However, there is a growing consensus that the existing system, which places higher value on academic achievement rather than providing the skills necessary for the country’s economic development, is in need of significant reform. In 2017 major changes to the way state grants are awarded through the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses (GATE) programme may be the first step towards a more results-orientated system in which the private sector will play a more important role.

Structure 

Until September 2015 there were two ministries in charge of education. However, following the reduction in ministry portfolios in that month the Ministry of Tertiary Education and Skills Training was absorbed into the Ministry of Education (MoE) and renamed the Tertiary Education Division (TED).

There are five education levels in T&T, namely, pre-primary, primary, junior secondary, upper secondary and tertiary. Pre-primary, for children aged three to five, is provided through the country’s many early childhood care and education centres. Primary education, delivered to children aged five to 11, is split into two preparatory grades – Level I and Level II – and five Standard grades (I-V). Education is compulsory for students aged six to 12. Following consultations with a number of education stakeholders, in December 2016 Harrilal Seecharan, chief education officer at the MoE, announced that the National Test, which gauges the performance of students at Standard I and Standard III, would not be held in 2017, after concerns about its effectiveness were raised by schools and teachers. Indeed, Seecharan told local media at that time that the test was undergoing review. “[The National Test] will no longer have that role of comparing schools and comparing students, but we will focus on using the data to improve teaching and learning.”

Secondary School 

Elsewhere, an examination culture is dominant. On completion of primary school, students can sit the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) exam – which tests maths, language, arts and creative writing – in order to secure a place in government-assisted or public secondary schools. A good score on the SEA is a passport to study at the country’s “prestige” schools, such as Fatima College, Queens Royal College or Saint Mary’s College, which are denominational schools run by religious groups and backed by state funding.

In total there are 96,000 Trinbagonian students enrolled in 125 secondary schools. Schooling at this level is free and has been compulsory since the introduction of universal secondary education in 2000. After five years, students graduate with the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC).

Pass Rates 

In 2016 a total of 58.1% of Standard V students who took the CSEC achieved the full certificate, which equates to five or more passes – a slight improvement on the previous year. The pass rate for English increased from 64.6% in 2015 to 72% in 2016, but the MoE expressed concern that the pass rate for mathematics dropped to 54.1% as compared to 61.1% the previous year. Following the CSEC, students can choose to continue their education for a further two years in order to sit the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) which allows for entry into tertiary education. In 2016 a total of 94.1% of upper-sixth form students passed Unit Two of the CAPE.

Private & Denominational 

Of T&T’s combined 895 primary and secondary schools, just over half are operated by religious orders. Under the Concordat of 1961, which established the principle of state-church partnership, the state funds 66.6% of capital costs for the construction and expansion of denominational schools and pays all recurring costs, salaries and pensions for their operation. A further 37% of schools are owned and run by the government and 21% – 71 primary schools and 29 secondary schools – are private and receive no state funding.

However, private schooling is a growing market in T&T, as competition for a place at prestige schools remains high and some parents prefer to avoid subjecting their children to the SEA exam, according to Jackie Fung-Kee-Fung, admissions, marketing and communications director at the International School of Port of Spain (ISPS). “While the state system is exam driven, private schools can take a holistic approach to education,” Fung-Kee-Fung told OBG.

“We are seeing increasing demand for private education as parents recognise the need for a well-rounded education with a focus on the development of soft skills.” However, with no state funding, the price point at which schooling is offered is an issue, she said. “Currently, 58% of our students are Trinbagonian and 42% are international, but this can fluctuate depending on the level of activity in the oil sector, which dictates the number of expatriate families.” As with other private schools, ISPS offers the International Baccalaureate primary and middle years programmes, as well as US College Board Advanced Placement examinations.

Higher Level 

T&T is home to three government-funded universities. The largest by enrolment, with over 19,000 students, is the University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine. The second-largest are the University of T&T, formerly the T&T Institute of Technology, which focuses on the sciences and engineering, and the College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts of T&T. Both have more than 10,000 students. The private University of the Southern Caribbean (USC) is located to the north-east of Port of Spain and is run by the Caribbean Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventist Church. Smaller than the others, USC aims to increase its student enrolment to 5000 by the end of 2017.

UWI St Augustine has a total of seven faculties, all of which offer post-graduate programmes up to PhD level. In addition, the Arthur Lok Jack Graduate School of Business, which is an affiliate of UWI, offers post-graduate qualifications and has both local and international accreditation.

Vocational Skills 

With a strong focus on more traditional academic pathways, vocational and skills training programmes are less popular than university courses in T&T. In 2012, the latest year for which data is available, 20,000 students out of a total tertiary education body of 90,000 were enrolled in vocational training programmes offered by organisations focusing on specific sectors, such as the National Energy Skills Centre, the T&T Tourism Hospitality and Tourism Institute and the MIC Institute of Technology (MIC). The National Training Agency is responsible for setting occupational standards and regulating vocational training. However, the courses suffer from a high attrition rate. Of the 3500 students who enrol at MIC each year 20-25% drop out or fail the programme, according to data from the institution. The situation creates a dilemma for the government. While Colm Imbert, minister of finance, has restated the importance of trades-based careers in T&T, telling local media that the government would work to encourage students to continue training, the poor performance of vocational schools makes them a prime target for budget cuts.

Indeed, steps are being taken to align funding with performance. From August 2017 only courses accredited by the Accreditation Council of T&T will be eligible for GATE funding. Of the 62 higher education institutions registered with the council only 13 had received accreditation by August 2016, suggesting there may be a renewed push for accreditation in the coming years.

Performance 

As the WEF has demonstrated, T&T has traditionally ranked higher in its education metrics than in its overall global competitiveness ranking, thus illustrating the extent to which the government has traditionally focused on the sector. However, in the 2016-17 edition of the “Global Competitiveness Report”, which assessed 138 countries, T&T fell in the rankings of both overall competitiveness – from 89th position to 94th – and a number of education indicators. In terms of quality of the education system, T&T fell from 33rd place to 38th, for quality of school management it dropped from 30th to 33rd and for internet access in schools, it fell from 60th into 66th place. Still, for quality of maths and science education, the country rose from 35th to 31st and for availability of specialised training it jumped into 42nd place, up from 36th. The challenge for the coming years will be to make improvements to these key indicators in what is likely to be a period of reduced government spending.

Budget 

As a result of the slowing economy, fiscal budgets have tightened across all sectors of government. The FY 2017 budget, published in September 2016, allocates TT$7.22bn ($1.08bn) to education and training compared to TT$9.8bn ($1.46bn) in FY 2016 and TT$10.13bn ($1.51bn) in FY 2015. Nevertheless, education continues to receive the second-highest budget allocation, only behind national security, which has seen more stringent cuts over the last two years. Education now accounts for roughly 10% of the national budget compared to a steady rate of 7% for the years between 2011 and 2014. While personnel expenditure generally accounts for the majority of the MoE’s budget, in 2017 outlays in this area will see a significant reduction due to budget constraints caused by the economic slowdown. In 2017 the staffing budget is forecast at TT$2.68bn ($400.4m), a 4% drop on the previous year and around 51% of total MoE spending. In 2013 staff costs accounted for nearly two-thirds of expenditure in the sector.

ICT In Schools 

While the education system has historically benefitted from healthy budgets, it has also been criticised for not using funds in an efficient manner. One area Imbert highlighted in his budget speech of September 2016 was the previous administration’s “Free Laptop Policy”, where new students at secondary schools received a laptop computer at the expense of TT$310m ($46.3m) over the course of four years. According to Imbert, the scheme suffered from a lack of an overarching ICT policy, inadequate ICT infrastructure in schools and insufficient teacher training. In response he promised that the government would roll out a five-year ICT education policy, providing improved training and infrastructure and ICT-integrated lesson plans. Laptops will still be provided to secondary school students, but those sitting the CSEC and CAPE will be entitled to use their own devices.

A Smaller Gate

The biggest education cutbacks will take place at the tertiary level, namely to the GATE programme. Since 2004 GATE has provided students pursuing approved programmes at public and private tertiary education institutions, including via distance learning, with grants covering 100% of undergraduate tuition fees and 50% of postgraduate tuition fees. Grants have also been available to study abroad. Unsurprisingly, demand for tertiary education spiked following its introduction. In 2001-15 the proportion of 17-21-year-old students in tertiary education rose from 7% to 67%. From 2004 to 2005, GATE supported 188,023 students at a cost of TT$5.5bn ($821.8m).

As well as incurring a cost to the taxpayer, the scheme suffered from a number of other inefficiencies. A condition of GATE is that its students are required to work in T&T after graduation for a period of time determined by the size of the grant. However, with students free to choose any course of study, there is a disconnect between the programmes being undertaken and the available career opportunities in T&T. It is common to hear of students who have studied law or finance at top foreign universities but have been unable to find employment upon returning to T&T. In such cases parents are often forced to repay the GATE loan so that their child can find work overseas.

In his budget speech, Imbert said that while GATE had improved access to tertiary education, a new approach was needed to fund the programme more efficiently. A new means-tested system has been put in place for the 2017/18 academic year. Under the scheme, students from families with incomes under TT$10,000 ($1494) per month will remain eligible for 100% financing of undergraduate tuition fees, but those in the bracket of TT$10,000 ($1494) to TT$30,000 ($4482) would be required to pay 25% of fees, while those from families earning more than TT$30,000 ($4482) would be required to pay half the cost of fees. In addition, students will be eligible for funding for only one undergraduate and one postgraduate course, and postgraduate students will only receive GATE money if their course is aligned with national development needs. The reforms represent a major overhaul of the scheme. Tertiary education will continue to be provided free of charge to the country’s poorest students, with subsidies available for those from the middle class, but incentives for study programmes that are less likely to provide a return on the state’s investment will be diminished. According to Imbert, as a result of this move, GATE expenditure will decline from its 2016 level of TT$650m ($97.1m) to TT$600m ($89.7m) in 2017 and TT$500m ($74.7m) in 2018.

To soften the impact of the cuts, the government will also raise the loan ceiling for GATE students at local institutions from TT$25,000 ($3735) to TT$35,000 ($5229) per year. Students studying internationally will continue to be granted a maximum of TT$75,000 ($11,206) per year. Following the announcement of the changes, Hilary Beckles, vice-chancellor of UWI, told local press, “The political commitment to social equity in access to GATE is commendable. The determination to ensure that a disproportionate share of the tax burden does not fall upon working-class families and others who constitute the most vulnerable social groups in society will stand well the test of time.”

Infrastructure 

While staffing and student grants have seen cuts, in his budget speech Imbert also said that the capital investment policy for schools would focus on renovating or replacing ageing infrastructure and buildings with modern facilities “in a timely and cost efficient manner”. In the MoE’s expenditure guide for FY 2017 a total of seven new projects have been identified, the largest of which include a TT$20m ($3m) school improvement project in the Laventille community, a TT$10m ($1.5m) construction and refurbishment of Holy Cross College and the establishment of a knowledge centre in Laventille, which is set to cost TT$8m ($1.2m). A further eight projects have been reactivated, including the construction of three primary schools in Piccadilly, Mafeking and Palo Seco, costing TT$8m ($1.2m), TT$4m ($597.7m) and TT$4m ($597.7m), respectively. Repair work is expected to be undertaken at further 40 schools at a cost of approximately TT$34m ($5.1m) in FY 2017.

Overhaul 

While the government’s decision to cut back on some expenses while continuing to invest in critical education infrastructure is being applauded by stakeholders, there is a growing consensus in T&T and other CARICOM nations that a more radical overhaul of the regional education system may be required. In early 2017 the MoE found itself between master plans. The country’s last five-year plan for the education system, introduced under the previous administration, ran from 2011 to 2015. In February 2016, five months after taking office, the People’s National Movement government led by Prime Minister Keith Rowley launched a National Consultation on Education, aimed at engaging a range of stakeholders to arrive at a new strategic vision for the sector. However, the findings of the consultation have not been made public.

Although there is, as yet, no national action plan for the development of tertiary education, in August 2015 the TED published a national policy framework entitled “The Future of Tertiary Education and Skills Training 2015-25”. The report outlines ways to address the current challenges facing the sector, advocating the creation of an overarching policy framework to ensure comprehensive governance, a funding model aligned to relevant training based on the labour market and the development of work-ready graduates with entrepreneurial skills. In addition, it aims to increase the number of institutions meeting international standards, provide life-long learning opportunities and improve the number of scientists and researchers graduating from the country’s universities.

Regional calls for education reform are also growing. In June 2016 the CARICOM Commission on Human Resource Development published a paper entitled “A Region at Risk: A Review of Issues Affecting Educational Access, Equity and Relevance in CARICOM Member States”. The report stated that “most schools and other educational institutions in the region are no longer fit for purpose” and that Caribbean students “are being taught within a 19th-century education model predicated on obedience as opposed to the encouragement of critical thinking”. It concluded that there was “little sense to continue to tinker and make adjustments to education systems” and recommended that CARICOM develop a regional statement outlining a new philosophy for education for the next two decades. Other recommendations included greater synchronisation of education with economic needs, increased e-learning content and the replacement of secondary school entrance exams with “mechanisms and processes which offer broader choice through the provision of high-quality differentiated and individualised education in all schools which cater to the need of both variety of differentiated learners.”

UWI Makes Its Move 

One organisation that appears to have taken this message on board is UWI. At his August 2016 presentation to UWI management, Brian Copeland, campus principal designate of UWI St Augustine, said that the St Augustine campus could not wait for the rollout of a new strategic plan at the university level. Copeland’s target is to have mapped and redesigned the university’s institutional processes by the second half of 2017, with an eye to improving efficiency and creating the foundation for a data-driven, strategy-led, decision-making culture. He also pledged to change the way that programmes are selected, designed and implemented, with a particular emphasis on outcomes that meet the needs of the job market as well as the inclusion of certified work experience and the strengthening of an innovative culture.

Furthermore, Copeland aims to encourage more partnerships with the government and private industry to incubate start-ups commencing in August 2017. “Our graduates have been underemployed in recent years, as they are not working in the jobs for which they have been trained,” Copeland told OBG. “We need to engage the private sector more.” UWI has also worked to ensure its degrees are recognised internationally. In December 2016 Beckles announced that UWI had become an approved university by the MoE of China. This assures that both the degrees of Trinbagonian and Chinese students at UWI will be accepted by Chinese employers. “China is a key strategic partner for us as we seek to diversify and globalise the UWI experience,” Beckles told local media. “Having Chinese students among us enhances the exposure of our students and expands the network of global contacts they will have upon graduation.” In September 2016 UWI opened a new BSc Software Engineering programme designed with China’s Global Institute of Software Engineering.

Outlook 

Backed by the government and sector stakeholders, 2017 will see key changes to education, particularly at the tertiary level. Following years of high oil revenues, a generous system of grants for students studying a wide range of subjects has developed. However, the economic downturn has focused minds on achieving improved performance with slimmer budgets. Tighter restrictions on GATE funding will help cut the fat on the tertiary education system, and the involvement of the private sector should help funnel students towards programmes that are a better fit for the development of the economy long term.

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The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2017

Health & Education chapter from The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2017

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