Trinidad and Tobago's education system is multi-faceted and well funded

Buoyed by revenues from the oil and gas industry, education can be considered one of the great economic strengths of Trinidad and Tobago, which stands out among emerging markets by this measure. In its “Global Competitiveness Report 2014-15” on 144 countries, the World Economic Forum ranked T&T as 89th for overall competitiveness, but 44th for the general quality of its education system, 43rd for primary education, 35th for maths and science, and 33rd for its management schools. In other categories the ratings were less impressive but still well above T&T’s overall ranking.

Education is available for free to all nationals, with the exception of exam and administration fees at the tertiary level, and 50% of postgraduate tuition. This reflects a school and university system designed to distribute the wealth generated by the country’s dominant energy and petrochemicals sectors. Unsurprisingly, the government has made education a priority: in the budget for FY 2015, the funding allotted to education amounted to TT$10.13bn ($1.56bn), or 15% of total spending. The portion of this going to the Ministry of Education (MoE) was TT$4.45bn ($686.2m), an increase of 10.5% over the previous fiscal year.

Five Levels

T&T’s education can be broadly divided into five levels: pre-primary (ages 3-4); primary (5-11); secondary (12-18); post-secondary (including technical or vocational training); and tertiary. The MoE oversees pre-primary to secondary education – though in Tobago, education at these levels is the responsibility of the Tobago House of Assembly, with which the MoE collaborates to ensure standards across the country. Meanwhile, the two highest levels are overseen by the Ministry of Tertiary Education and Skills Training (MTEST). The MoE and MTEST have joint responsibility for the professional development of teachers.

Compulsory education lasts for six years, from age six to age 11. According to UNESCO, 21% of T&T’s population was aged 14 years or younger in 2012. Nearly 39,000 children were enrolled at the pre-primary age; primary and secondary school-age children numbered some 128,000 and 86,000, respectively; and there were slightly over 96,000 people of tertiary education age. As of early 2015, there were 126,000 primary school pupils. According to the most recent data from the World Bank, net enrolment rates for the pre-primary, primary and secondary levels were recorded at 67% (2007), 95% (2010) and 73% (2004), respectively, while figures from MTEST place the gross enrolment ratio for the tertiary level at 65% in 2014.

According to the MoE’s “Education Sector Strategic Plan 2011-15”, T&T has a total of 895 primary schools, secondary schools, and early childhood care and education (ECCE) centres. Just over half of these (51%) are operated by religious denominations and receive financial assistance from the state, while 37% are owned by the government and funded through the national budget (though many ECCE centres are run as public-private partnerships). The remaining 12% – 71 primary and 29 secondary schools – are run privately, usually for profit, receiving little or no subsidy from the state.

Strategic Plan

Policymaking by the MoE follows the “Education Sector Strategic Plan 2011-15”. Of the plan’s 16 priorities, 12 are related to general improvements: universal ECCE; integration of technology in education; teacher training; curriculum reform; improvement of academic performance; testing and neuro-diagnostics of children; expansion of vocational training; improvement of infrastructure; a continuous assessment programme; boosting literacy and numeracy; moving the Secondary Entrance Assessment exam to May; and promotion of career guidance in secondary school. Three other priorities are related to the MoE itself: transforming its organisational structure, improving corporate communications and developing human resources. Lastly, the plan seeks to promote the involvement of parents and other stakeholders in education.

Spending

The Strategic Plan projected recurrent spending of nearly TT$5.6bn ($863.5m) in 2014/15, up from TT$4.7bn ($724.7m) the previous year. The lion’s share of this goes to pay personnel: around 89% of the secondary level’s TT$2.7bn ($416m), 89% of the primary level’s TT$1.44bn ($222m) and 41% of ECCE’s TT$62m ($9.6m). Other outlays include TT$988m ($152.3m) for general administration costs, TT$278m ($42.9m) for social support programmes (mainly free meals provided to school children) and TT$80m ($12.3m) for ICT (mostly laptops and computer labs).

In a separate section on capital expenditures, the Strategic Plan envisaged development spending of TT$999m ($154m) for 2014-15, down from TT$1.01bn ($155.7m) in 2013/14, with the largest sums earmarked for construction of new schools: TT$550m ($84.8m) for secondary and TT$315m ($48.6m) for primary. Since 2010, the current government has built 25 new primary schools, and another 31 were under construction as of early February 2015. “In the past four years we have opened 41 ECCE centres, while 14 more are expected to be completed in 2015,” Tim Gopeesingh, the minister of education, told OBG. “Through public-private partnerships we have established around 200 private centres, which should allow us to meet the target of universal access to ECCE in 2015.” Spending on refurbishments and extensions of existing schools was projected at TT$87m ($13.4m), of which around 64% was devoted to primary, 23% to secondary and 13% to ECCE. In this vein, some 4600 maintenance projects have been undertaken since 2010 by the relevant MoE agency, the Educational Facilities Company.

Concerns & Achievements

At the time it drafted the Strategic Plan, the MoE was most concerned with poor attainment and literacy levels, lack of student motivation, teacher indiscipline and absenteeism, the relatively low academic achievement of boys relative to girls, drug use and violence in schools, and parental and community indifference. Despite this, UNESCO data indicates that, even prior to 2010, a number of trends have been positive. While the net enrolment rate at the pre-primary level slipped from 69% in 2004 to 67% in 2007, at the primary level it increased from 88.7% in 2005 to 95.2% in 2010. The portion of primary school pupils who complete their final year has also risen, from 83% in 2004 to 89% in 2009. The ratio of pupils to teachers dropped from 17.5 in 2004 to 15.9 in 2007, before returning to 17.6 in 2009. As of February 2015, the MoE employed 8000 teachers each for primary and secondary school.

In his budget statement in September 2014, the minister of finance and the economy, Larry Howai, noted achievements in ECCE, primary and secondary education. The government claims that, through its own centres and those run by public-private partnerships, T&T is on track to achieve universal ECCE for three- and fouryear olds in 2015, partly by deploying literacy and numeracy coaches to 118 schools, and partly by training 2700 existing teachers to carry out this coaching.

Two other priorities under the strategic plan are accommodating special needs children and technology use, with laptops now available in all secondary schools. "The government has delivered around 75,000 laptops to secondary students,” Gopeesingh told OBG. “The focus is now on using ICT for student-centred development and addressing special needs such as dyslexia and autism at early stages of education.”

Examinations

Overall, academic outcomes have been improving. Howai noted that the 2013/14 academic year produced the best results on record on the country’s three major exams: the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA), the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and the Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE). Administered by the MoE, the SEA, is taken by students before they enter secondary school, while the CSEC and CAPE are administered by the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC), the CARICOM-wide testing agency established in 1972 and serving most of the organisation’s member states, including Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, T&T, and Turks and Caicos Islands.

The CSEC is the counterpart to the UK’s O-Level exams, as the CAPE is to the UK’s A-Level exams, and is a precursor to tertiary education. Gopeesingh noted that the proportion of students that pass the SEA has increased from 55% to about 75%, with some two-thirds of students achieving a score of 60% or higher. Meanwhile, the number of students scoring 30% or below has fallen from 14% in 2009 to 6% in 2014. In the same span, the ratio of students passing the SEA English and mathematics exams was up from around 47% each to 54% and 57%, respectively.

According to Gopeesingh, 94% of CAPE candidates pass, with nearly two-thirds achieving “high grades” of I-III. The CXC notes that grades of I–III for the general and technical proficiencies should be considered as satisfying the enrolment requirement for four-year programmes at universities, as well as the entry requirement to community colleges, teachers’ colleges and any tertiary institution offering post-secondary programmes.

Tertiary Education

Besides the T&T branch of the University of the West Indies (UWI) and the University of T&T (UTT) – two of the country’s three universities – MTEST is responsible for nine other institutions. One of these is the Accreditation Council of T&T (ACTT), the government body that gives official recognition to tertiary education and vocational training institutions.

There are 11 accredited and 58 registered institutions in T&T, including several affiliates of UWI, a number of theological colleges, professional development institutions, law and accounting schools, language schools, vocational trade schools and the Cipriani College of Labour and Cooperative Studies.

Arts & Sciences

One ACTT-accredited institution is the College of Science, Technology and Applied Arts of T&T (COSTAATT), which has an enrolment of around 10,000 students. Established in 2000 as a result of the merger of six different institutions, it offers a range of vocational and liberal arts programmes through the School of Liberal Arts and Human Services, the School of Business and Information Technologies, the School of Nursing, Health and Environmental Sciences, the Ken Gordon School of Journalism and Communication Studies, and the School of Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning. COSTAATT does not require students to take the CAPE, though those who do may be eligible for credits. Students will, however, need to have studied at least five CSEC subjects, including English and mathematics. Applicants who are over 25 years of age and do not meet the requirements may be admitted on the basis of prior work experience.

The government recently allocated land to COSTAATT for a new campus in Chaguanas, which will add to the latter’s campuses at El Dorado (the Academy of Nursing & Allied Health), Trincity, San Fernando, Sangre Grande, Tobago, and two locations in Port of Spain.

Vocational Training

Other agencies of MTEST are more specialised. The Metal Industry Company offers a number of vocational engineering and trade programmes for those interesting in the metalwork trade in manufacturing or engineering, while the National Energy Skills Centre (NESC) trains people who are looking to work as skilled technicians in the energy sector. The National Training Agency sets occupational standards and is the umbrella body that coordinates and regulates vocational training.

Based at Chaguaramas, to the west of Port of Spain, the T&T Hospitality and Tourism Institute offers around 30 programmes for those wishing to work in hotel or restaurant management, while the Youth Training and Employment Partnership Programme, launched in 1988 to combat the then-prevalent problem of youth unemployment, provides a wide variety of training courses, many of which are recognised regionally as Caribbean Vocational Qualifications.

For its part, the Secretariat for the Implementation of Spanish was set up in 2004 as a specialist agency to promote Spanish as a second language. The National Examinations Council runs exams and certifies around 75 vocational or trade courses. In addition, MTEST manages specialised courses in nursing and midwifery.

Tertiary Education

MTEST also runs the various programmes that fund the costs of students’ tertiary education – the most important of which is the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses (GATE) programme, which benefits some 67,000 T&T nationals studying at ACTT-registered institutions. Students who benefit from the GATE programme are expected to work in T&T for a period of time after graduation, the length of which varies depending on the value of their grant. According to the minister of MTEST, Fazal Karim, the participation rate in tertiary education has soared from just 7% in 2001 to 65% in late 2014, thanks in large part to the introduction of GATE in 2004.

The Financial Assistance Studies Programme (FASP) is a supplementary grant available to students seeking a post-secondary course. FASP recipients are also required to work in the country for a period or time or else the grant will convert to a loan. Likewise, the Higher Education Loan Programme is available to nationals who are under the age of 50 who wish to study at an accredited private or public tertiary institution, or at approved institutions in other CARICOM countries.

Howai and Karim have both highlighted how the student participation rate has risen from 42% in 2010 to 65% in late 2014, exceeding the previous government target of 60%. “One-third of UWI’s studentry is now enrolled in postgraduate studies, compared to the just above 20% levels of 2007/08,” Clement Sankat, principal of UWI St Augustine, told OBG.

Howai’s budget statement also emphasised construction work at tertiary institutions, including projects like an additional campus for UWI at Penal-Debe in south Trinidad, which will house faculties for law, science and technology, agriculture and social sciences; expansion of UWI’s Faculty of Medical Sciences; an Open Campus for UWI at Chaguanas; expansion of COSTAATT’s campus at El Dorado; four new technology centres under the Metal Industry Company; the establishment of a Drilling Academy at St Madeline to provide training in downstream oil and gas operations; the construction of an aviation campus at Camden Field in Couva with the collaboration of UTT; and the construction or expansion of three other vocational training institutions associated with the NESC.

Universities

T&T is home to three universities. The largest, UWI’s St Augustine campus, has around 19,000 students, 1400 of whom are foreign – mostly from other CARICOM countries served by UWI, but some from as far away as South Korea and Zimbabwe. In 2014 the university signed new partnerships with tertiary education institutions in China, Brazil, Austria, Fiji and Samoa. UWI was founded in 1948 in Mona, Jamaica, which still houses the university’s chancellery; the other main campuses are at St Augustine, to the east of Port of Spain and now the largest in the UWI system, and Cave Hill in Barbados. Before 1960, the campus was home to the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture. Programmes at St Augustine are offered through seven major faculties: engineering, food and agriculture, humanities and education, law, medical sciences, science and technology, and social sciences. Undergraduate and some postgraduate degrees in engineering are accredited by the Engineering Council of the UK.

There are also three graduate institutions at UWI. These are the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, the Institute of International Relations and the Arthur Lok Jack Graduate School of Business – the last of which offers graduate courses in Trinidad (two campuses), Tobago, Suriname, Guyana and Guatemala, and is accredited by both the ACTT and the international Association of MBAs.

Meanwhile, UTT is T&T’s second-largest university by number of students and is the successor to the T&T Institute of Technology. Founded in 2004 as the only national university with a specific mandate to contribute to T&T's socio-economic development, UTT now has 10 teaching campuses across Trinidad and sites in nine other locations, including Tobago. Programmes are offered in 19 areas across three main faculties: arts and education, engineering and sciences. UTT also offers postgraduate programmes, with over 10,000 students enrolled. In the past few years MTEST has focused on expanding the variety of programmes and entrepreneurial initiatives offered by UTT, in conjunction with efforts to improve the university's partnerships with international institutions and the private sector (see analysis).

The third, the University of the Southern Caribbean (USC), is a private institution operated by the Caribbean Union Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. USC offers about 45 graduate and undergraduate programmes through its schools of business, education and human studies, science and technology, social sciences, theology and religion, and humanities. The main campus is in Maracas Valley, north-east of Port of Spain. As part of its strategic plan for the five years to 2017, the university aims to increase its enrolment to 5000.

Outlook

The positive trends that are well established in T&T’s multi-faceted education sector should carry into 2015 and beyond, with increasing numbers of ECCE, primary and secondary school pupils to be taught in new buildings. Execution of the MoE’s Strategic Plan has yielded results in academic achievement. T&T’s tertiary institutions are outward-looking and internationally competitive – though at this level, where the participation rate has reached 65%, further increases may be limited. As vocational training programmes expand, the sector also has the potential to grow in ways that can help drive the country’s export industries.

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The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2015

Education & Health chapter from The Report: Trinidad & Tobago 2015