Skills gap creates a need for educational diversification in Trinidad and Tobago

The education system in Trinidad and Tobago offers universal free education for all citizens, ensuring that over 95% of the population are enrolled in primary education. With the adult literacy rate at around 99% in 2010, T&T was already far above the 2018 world average of 86%. In addition, education received the highest budget allocation for FY 2019/20, at TT$7.6bn ($1.1bn), more than TT$1.1bn ($221.6m) ahead of national security and health, the second- and third-highest areas of government expenditure, respectively, reflecting the country’s Vision 2030 plan to build a knowledge-based economy and diversify beyond coal and oil.

Structure & Oversight

The education system of T&T is based on the UK’s educational structure. Schooling is divided into five levels, preschool from ages three to five; primary school from ages five to 10, lower secondary from 11 to 14; upper secondary from 14 to 16; and post-secondary, or A-levels, from 16 to 18. Since September 2015 the Ministry of Education (MoE) has managed the budget allocation for education and has overseen the school system from early education to the tertiary level, including vocational training, in both islands of T&T. The MoE oversees all public and private schools, which in 2017 included 900 early childhood care and education (ECCE) institutions; 540 primary schools, of which 477 were public and 63 were private; around 190 secondary schools, with 134 public and 56 private; and 74 tertiary institutions.

In 2017 the MoE published the Draft Education Policy Paper (DEPP) 2017-22, recommending policies in line with the National Development Strategy 2016-30, also called Vision 2030. The DEPP focuses primarily on effective administration of the education sector and universal access to quality education at all levels. Evaluations on the previous MoE policy paper, which covered 1993 to 2003, were incorporated to establish the objectives of the new policy paper.

The Accreditation Council of T&T (ACTT) assesses the quality of post-secondary and tertiary institutions in the country. Since 2015 the ACTT has managed the registration of educational institutions, the accreditation of study programmes across these institutions and the recognition of foreign qualifications.

Industry Breakdown

Harmonised with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 of ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education, Vision 2030 strives for “a modern, relevant and accessible education and training system”. Some of the main policy recommendations provided by the MoE to meet these objectives include the hiring of more teachers, the standardisation of orientation and training for all educational staff, better communication with all stakeholders and the introduction of overarching education legislation, which does not currently exist. The government has outlined plans to introduce stronger legislation that will cover the entire education system, including early education and the tertiary level, which are currently under-mentioned in the Education Act of 2005.

Infrastructure continues to be a primary concern in the sector, as 60% of primary schools are at least 50 years old. The need for major infrastructure works across the country is blamed on a lack of regular maintenance, which has lead to outdated facilities and a lack of access for the demographic needs, including disabled access. Many schools and universities across the islands require major upgrades, particularly in response to the damage caused by the 2017 earthquake. In FY 2018/19 the government invested a total of TT$85.2m ($12.6m) in school infrastructure projects. This included an allocation of TT$25m ($3.7m) for the repair of earthquake-damaged schools and TT$5.2m ($768,000) for emergency upgrades. In 2019 the government announced an ambitious plan to complete 27 schools across the islands. They are still under construction and scheduled to be completed by the end of 2020.

Public Sector

Since 2000 access to universal free public education has been a political priority in T&T, resulting in high levels of enrolment across all levels. In this regard, the most notable development in recent years has been the rapid increase in tertiary enrolment, from 15% in 2004 to 60% in 2015.

T&T must now tackle gender disparities in education. Female enrolment and educational attainment are greater than that of males on average. However, despite academic achievements, women are generally less sought after in the labour market. The 2019 unemployment rate in T&T was 2.8%. However, there is a notable difference between the male unemployment rate, at 2.6%, and the female one, at 3%. Women generally reported greater difficulties finding employment.

Preschool

Despite only introducing public access to ECCE in the 1990s, T&T has a high rate of enrolment across ECCE institutions, at around 89%. This is much higher than the Latin America and Caribbean average, which stood at around 75% in 2017. Children have free access to public ECCE institutions until the age of eight. A dedicated curriculum was developed in 2006 and reaffirmed in 2013, which focuses on well-being, effective communication, citizenship, intellectual empowerment and aesthetic expression. However, there is no legislation for the implementation of the curriculum and there is a lack of cohesion between MoE expectations and teacher skills at this level. The government expressed an interest in improving ECCE in the 2019/20 budget statement, aiming investment towards instruments to measure early learning outcomes and make improvements across the sector.

Primary Level

At the primary school level, the enrolment rate is 95% and over 92% complete primary education, according to government figures from 2010 and 2014, respectively. The primary school curriculum includes nine core subjects: Agricultural Science, English Language Arts, Mathematics, Physical Education, Science, Social Studies, Spanish, Values, Character and Citizenship Education, and Visual and Performing Arts.

Following primary school, all students must sit the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA). Following its independence, T&T rapidly established a system of education that has remained largely unchanged since, leading to criticism from the media. For instance, SEA is known to be an extremely difficult, high-pressure exam, as it determines secondary school allocation of students based on merit. Most grades throughout a child’s school life rely on memory-based exams, restricting the potential of children with different learning abilities.

Recently, there has been a push to change the SEA, which was introduced in 2000, in order to alleviate pressure on young students, as over 12% of students sitting the exam in 2017 received a failing grade. However, the government has displayed little interest in adopting a different system. Instead, the MoE’s principal policy focus for the primary level is to enhance and standardise training across all primary school staff, particularly principals, and to train teachers to teach in multi-grade classes, as this is needed in nearly 10.5% of primary schools. These aims respond to some of the failings outlined in the DEPP, and are vital for the progress of the primary education system. Yet to date the needs of students with learning difficulties have scarcely been addressed, meaning that a number of students fall behind in their early education years.

In 2019, following negative media coverage drawing light to the fact than many special needs children were not attending school, Anthony Garcia, the minister of education, announced that a training programme for teachers educating special needs students would address some of these downfalls. In addition, a July 2019 report from the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights, Equality and Diversity declared that an estimated 3735 children require special needs education. The report recommended a screening process during early education to ensure all children receive the educational support they require.

Secondary Level

Since 2000 access to secondary education has been free, with compulsory attendance for adolescents under the age of 16. At present, there are over 182 secondary schools across the two islands, 134 of which are public and 48 private. In the 2015/16 academic year, 81,471 students attended public secondary schools, around 89.9% of the population segment. The split of male and female students was almost 50:50. National curriculum at the secondary level offers Mathematics, English, Science, Social Studies, Physical Education and Geography. However, additional subjects and extra-curricular activities vary across each school.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that 39.4% of labour force had five or more secondary school subject certifications in 2017, this includes much of the ageing workforce, who graduated before compulsory attendance laws came into place. With a drop-out rate of around or 0.98%, or 802 students at secondary level in 2015/16, T&T has a high rate of school completion and is well on its way to achieving its goal of developing a knowledge-based society.

Private Sector

Up-do-date statistical information on private education in the country is limited due to the lack of oversight in the sector. According to the DEPP, there are 48 private secondary schools across T&T. As well as enrolling privately funded students, several places are sponsored by the MoE for students who excelled in their SEA exam. While the MoE is tasked with regulating the country’s private school system, according to the Education Act of 2005, there is in practice a certain amount of confusion around the MoE’s authority. Hence, two challenges that have been outlined in the DEPP are the inadequate supervision of private schools and the lack of a comprehensive database of registered private schools.

Private ECCE institutions once filled the gap left by the public sector. As public ECCE institutions were only introduced in the 1990s, many parents had previously turned to the private sector for their children’s early education needs. However, according to the DEPP 2017-22, private ECCE is not as consistent as public ECCE anymore, particularly in the areas of staff training, staff selection and human resources. “The large amount of smaller private institutions in such a small country means that quality can often be a concern,” Gillian Paul, president of the College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts of T&T, told OBG.

At the tertiary level, Roger Hosein, senior lecturer at the University of the West Indies, told OBG that he believed the quality of the best public tertiary institutions could not be matched by the private sector. “Private institutions are more nimble than public institutions and they can react better to the national and international job markets,” Hosein told OBG. With the youth unemployment rate at 11.8% in 2017, T&T is well below the Caribbean average for youth unemployment, at 28.5%. Still, greater diversification of skills for graduates would help ensure that the Vision 2030 aim of economic diversification is achieved.

Educational Staff

According to T&T’s Central Statistical Office, there were 6571 teachers during the 2015/16 academic year at public secondary schools. As such, the student-to-teacher ratio at that level stood a little over 12:1. More broadly, the DEPP estimated there were 21,000 educational staff members that the MoE manages for approximately 280,000 students.

In early 2019 media reported that teachers were threatening strike action in response to the lack of a salary increase since 2014. As the cost of living continues to rise, the T&T Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) followed this threat with action. Thousands of teachers took to the streets to protest in October 2019. While the MoE has yet to say whether teacher salaries will increase, the TTUTA met with the authorities in late December 2019, sending a positive signal to the protesters as negotiations seem to have restarted.

Higher Education

Access to tertiary education has been bolstered by the strong primary and secondary education system as well as government grants for all students to access tertiary education, which has boosted enrolment over the past decade and a half.

Since 2017 the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses (GATE) programme has offered financial support based on means testing for all students and is available for both undergraduate and postgraduate studies. The economic thresholds for funding are high, with undergraduate students of families earning less than TT$10,000 ($1480) a month getting 100% of their tuition fee paid, those in the TT$10,000-$30,000 ($1480-4430) bracket having 75% of tuition paid, and those over TT$30,000 ($4430) receiving 50% support, meaning all students have access to at least partial support. Some criticisms have been raised, however, at the availability of GATE funding for various university programmes, which has led to higher enrolment in better-funded courses. As such, the provision of GATE funding “may create a supply and demand gap because of oversaturation in certain fields of study,” Paul told OBG. In 2019 the government provided a total of 1560 scholarships at a cost of TT$214.9m ($31.8m).

While students are currently gaining state support to study whichever subject they want in university, many are finding it difficult to access the job market once they graduate. Around 6000 graduates sought employment in 2016, and the figure is rising as enrolment in the tertiary level increases. To help make graduates more appealing to employers, former Prime Minister Patrick Manning introduced the On-the-Job Training Programme in 2012, which helps youths aged 16-35 develop practical occupational skills and experience. The programme continues to grow, with the number of trainees rising in 2019 from 4832 to 6000, supporting greater graduate employment. However, according to a 2018 ILO study, as many as 50% of the country’s youth is estimated to be neither in education, employment nor training, presenting the issue of underemployment.

One area where enrolment is significantly low is in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, owing to limited progress in STEM subjects at secondary schools. In the OECD’s 2015 PISA assessment, T&T scored some way below the global average of around 490 in reading, mathematics and science, with mean scores of 427, 417 and 425, respectively. Investment has been aimed at enhancing STEM studies in recent years. In 2019 TT$300,000 ($44,300) was allocated to the Teach Me programme at the National Institute of Higher Education Research Science and Technology, which trains teachers in STEM subjects to better transfer knowledge to their students. Still, a more comprehensive approach needs to be introduced to encourage greater participation and performance, and as these skills are fundamental in supporting the diversification of the economy.

Vocational Training

In the past students graduating with an undergraduate or postgraduate degree had relatively easy access to the labour market thanks to the strong energy sector and economy. However, since the 2015 recession it has become harder for young graduates to gain employment in their area of choice after university. This is partly due to oversaturation in certain subjects and jobs, but also because of a lack of diversification of the economy.

Moreover, the scarcity of investment or encouragement to study in areas such as STEM subjects has led to a mismatch between the skills of the youths and the needs of the labour market. Sectors such as agriculture and construction have a high demand for skilled labourers, but due to the expectations of young people who grew up in a high-income state, many graduates are unwilling to take lower paid jobs. Because of so many years of reliance on the oil and gas economy, it is hard “re-socialise students to see agriculture as viable and desirable,” Paul told OBG, Across three vocational institutions, including the MIC Institute of Technology, the National Energy Skills Centre and the Youth Training and Employment Partnership Programme, enrolment over 2010-15 remained steady, totalling 10,000-13,500 students, according to DEPP figures. However, certification rates for students attending these institutions were below 60% on average for the same period, presenting a low completion rate in technical and vocational education training (TVET). This may be due to the labour market attracting students away from their studies to pre-graduate jobs.

In 1999 the government introduced the National Training Agency to develop the TVET segment. Following the government’s Draft National Strategic Plan of 2010, a situational analysis was carried out to develop policy recommendations for further improvement, which were incorporated in the DEPP. The primary areas of improvement outlined in the DEPP include the need for greater oversight in the TVET segment, a better understanding of labour market needs, and more effective monitoring and evaluation. Moreover, as in many countries in the region, there continues to be a stigma around studying at a vocational institution, which the MoE has said it will seek to remedy with better promotional activities in the coming years.

Edtech

In the World Economic Forum’s “Global Competitiveness Report 2019”, T&T came 67th out of 141 countries for the skill sets of graduates, but 92nd in digital skills among the active population. This suggests that despite having a well-educated labour force, the use and understanding of digitalised processes is still limited. However, the country came 61st in ICT adoption, demonstrating a positive shift towards tech.

One of the main difficulties is the lack of investment in technology in schools. While there is a need for investment in basic school infrastructure, ICT often gets overlooked in the mix, an issue that Vision 2030 strives to rectify over the next decade by reorienting the budget system. Conversely, most universities, both public and private, are now offering enrolment, course registration, grade posting and fee payment services online, and many are releasing mobile applications for students to access paperless resources remotely.

Part of the government’s Vision 2030 includes a National Broadband Strategy, aimed at enhancing the broadband infrastructure, improving access to ICT services, integrating ICT policies and ensuring better regulatory oversight. This objective is echoed in the government’s National ICT Plan 2018-22, which seeks to have 85% broadband coverage at the minimum download speed by 2022. The goal of creating 30,000 direct jobs in the sector demonstrates the need to provide adequate ICT education for youths across the country.

In response to this plan, Anthony Garcia, the minister of education, acknowledged the lack of teacher training in ICT at the beginning of 2019, opening a new technology education centre at the Couva West Secondary School with an investment of TT$240,000 ($35,500). Over 700 teachers received MoE technology education training between April and June 2019 from a total of 2810 to date, reflecting the government’s drive to improve ICT education.

Outlook

T&T’s education system has developed rapidly and holistically, offering free, universal education across a range of core subjects. Public investment remains the highest of any sector and the intake across universities and vocational institutions has increased significantly over the last decade. However, slow economic diversification and the oversaturation of certain university programmes have led to a mismatch between graduate skills and the availability of opportunities in the labour market, particularly in the wake of the 2015 recession. GATE funding or other grants could encourage the uptake of subjects and the development of skills required in the contemporary labour market.

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The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2020

Health & Education chapter from The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2020

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