Despite notable achievements in the past decade, including reaching universal coverage at primary level, Panama’s education sector continues to face a number of challenges. Curricular reform introduced in 2010 has increased pertinence and retention rates. At the tertiary level, the strengthening of the accreditation process for universities has also brought about improvements. However, by international standards, quality continues to lag behind. In the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) “Global Competitiveness Report 2014-15”, Panama ranked 83rd for the quality of its education system (out of a total of 144 countries), down eight places from 75th in the previous year’s report (out of 148 countries) and behind regional neighbours Costa Rica (21st) and El Salvador (63rd). In particular, the report highlighted the disconnect between the educational offering and labour market needs, which has resulted in a skills gap.

Improving the education system has become key to ensuring sustainable economic growth, particularly after slower growth in 2014. A rising budget, and a push to expand the post-secondary offer and improve bilingualism rates, are indicative of the current government’s commitment to improve Panama’s education outcomes, and should help strengthen vocational training in the medium term.


The Panamanian education system is divided into three stages: basic, secondary and tertiary. Basic education covers students from ages four to 15 and is split into three levels: pre-school, primary and pre-middle school. Pre-school consists of two years for four- to five-year-old children. According to the Ministry of Education (Ministerio de Educación, MEDUCA), in 2013 an estimated 100,744 students were enrolled at this level. Primary school (ages six to 12) lasts six years and accounted for some 427,165 students in 2013. Pre-middle school covers students aged 12 to 15 (or grades seven to nine) and accounted for 134,601 students that same year. These three stages make up the block of compulsory schooling.

Secondary, or middle, school covers students between the ages of 15 and 18, and operates on a bachelor’s system whereby students can choose from two areas of study: academic or technical/vocational. In 2013 nearly 34,000 students chose an academic track, while close to 40,500 chose technical training. Education up to middle school is free of charge, and all public education is non-profit, while for-profit institutions among private schools are allowed at all levels. The public sector accounts for the largest share of enrolment, roughly 87%, with the private sector accounting for the remaining 13%.


Efforts to improve coverage in recent years have yielded positive results. According to MEDUCA, 100% of primary-school-aged children were enrolled, while enrolment for pre-middle school increased from 85.1% in 2009 to 97.6% in 2013. Middle school registration had the highest increase, from 52.3% in 2009 to 79.9%. Pre-primary school enrolment is still low, but improved from 62.1% in 2009 to 70.7% in 2013. The country has also managed to reduce drop-out rates from 5.1% in 2009 to 3.1% in 2012, according to MEDUCA. Nonetheless, significant disparities remain between urban and rural rates. Even though two years of pre-primary school are mandatory, many rural areas do not have this option. Fabio Carranza, executive-director at Cospae, a lobby group comprising private sector stakeholders, told OBG, “In addition to the lack of infrastructure, there is also a lack of teachers to attend to this level.”


With the exception of the pre-primary level, the number of enrolled students has increased in the past decade, adding pressure to the country’s already limited educational infrastructure. Total enrolment in basic and middle school is estimated to have reached 831,719 in 2014, up from 763,103 in 2004. With an insufficient number of schools, many institutions have adopted shorter school days, in which students attend classes either in the morning or the afternoon. Of MEDUCA’s 3243 schools, some 200 operate this way. In many schools conditions are less than ideal in terms of infrastructure, and they have not kept up with demand. Access to potable water and electricity, for example, remains a concern, especially in rural areas and the indigenous comarcas. In 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available, only 59% of primary schools and 63% of pre-middle and middle schools had potable water. Electricity was available at 67% of primary schools and 84% of pre-middle and middle schools. Although the percentage of students with access to a computer was relatively high (73% at primary level, and 77% in pre-middle and middle school), internet access was lower (20% and 27%, respectively) in 2010. Nevertheless, access to computers has increased considerably in recent years, after MEDUCA distributed 183,000 laptops to students in grades nine and 10 in 2012 and 2013.


While the two-shift school days have optimised infrastructure use, they have had a negative effect on the quality of education and development of students’ basic skills. Shortcomings are also associated with an insufficient number of teachers and poor training. In some cases, the lack of teachers has led to strikes and school closures.

In the WEF report, Panama ranked particularly low in maths and science, at 107th out of 144 countries, and only slightly higher in primary education (93rd). It did, however, rank high for internet access in schools (40th) and extent of staff training (47th).

The lack of quality has also been attributed to Panama’s historic underspending. Though education expenditure has increased in the past decade, it remains low, at 3.5% of GDP in 2011, according to the World Bank, below regional neighbours Belize (6.6% in 2010) and Nicaragua (4.6% in 2010). A recent WTO review of the economy noted that Panama “must devote more resources to social programmes, including improvements in the quality of education,” to meet the needs of a sustainable and growing economy.


To that end, Panama has been rolling out improvements. Curriculum reform introduced in 2010 emphasised skills training, and contributed to the unification of curricula and standardisation of education across the country. It also divided the academic year into quarters and established the National Curricular Innovation and Renovation Team, formed by teachers and professionals to update curricula throughout the year. By 2014, 3185 educational centres had implemented the reform, and total annual investment in the programme averaged 0.9% of GDP since it began, according to the OECD. The National Teacher Training Team was also established in 2011.

In 2012 Decree 920 sought to extend the number of instruction hours and introduce a new package of salary incentives. However, opposition from teacher unions, in particular, sparked a month-long protest in August 2013, shutting down a large part of the primary education system and ultimately leading authorities to discard the decree. Since 2012 the Entre Pares programme has also required teachers to undergo a 15-day intensive course on computer-oriented teaching. As of early 2015, the scheme had covered 100% of the permanent workforce, or 35,300 instructors.


Since taking office in July 2014, President Juan Carlos Varela has continued the previous government’s emphasis on expanding infrastructure and improving teacher training, while also strengthening student funding. MEDUCA’s budget for 2015 is nearly $1.29bn (up from $1bn in 2013), of which $412m is earmarked for investment, particularly in expanding infrastructure for middle and post-secondary schools. In October 2014 Varela initiated the Mi Escuela Primero programme, aimed at rehabilitating and improving conditions in 3600 schools across the country with private sector assistance. Additionally, Varela’s government has plans to add 10,000 classrooms to the existing 28,000, to enable students to shift to full-day schooling. Tenders for construction and renovation are overseen by the Ministry of Public Works.

Efforts to improve bilingualism are also continuing. Though English was made mandatory in schools in 2003, a lack of bilingualism has affected a number of sectors, especially tourism. To increase bilingualism rates and improve English teaching skills, the government launched the Panamá Bilingüe programme in 2014, which will remain in place until 2019 with an annual investment of $10m. It aims to train 2000 teachers a year in bilingual education, and improve bilingualism rates for 30,000 basic education students and another 20,000 secondary students. The programme has three main components: teacher training, an after-school programme for grades seven through 11 and a programme for pre-school to grade six. As part of the teacher training component, in January 2015 the first group of 550 teachers left for the US and the UK to improve their English skills and prepare for an English-teaching career. A new bilingual teaching degree was also introduced in 2013 and the country’s first Bilingual Technical Institute is slated for the Tocumen area, with a view to training bilingual students at the technical level for the services sector.


Fulfilling his campaign promise, Varela has also increased the Universal Grant (Beca Universal) as part of the effort to increase enrolment. Introduced in 2010, the grant provides financial support to primary and secondary school students in the public and private systems. With the recent rise, primary students will receive $30 a month over the academic year, pre-middle students $40 and middle school students $50. Some 500 students will receive the grant, for a total annual investment of $53m, ensuring more students have the means to attend school.


Beyond grade 12, students can pursue higher education at universities or institutes. In a context of rising job competition and increasing demand for specialised knowledge, higher education is increasingly sought after. Enrolment in universities has generally followed an upward trend, rising from 135,209 in 2009 to 138,894 in 2013, according to the National Statistics and Census Institute (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censo, INEC). The public system, which consists of five major universities, accounted for the largest share of enrolment – 92,015 students – with the private system accounting for the remaining 46,879 students in 2013. Besides the five public universities – Universidad de Panamá (UP), Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá (UTP), Universidad Autó noma de Chiriquí (UNACHI), Universidad Marítima Internacional de Panamá and Universidad Especializada de las Américas – 34 private institutions are helping cover rising demand and claiming an increasing share of enrolment. “In 2005 the public-private ratio of university students was 80-20%. Now, it is closer to 60-40%,” Rubén Díaz, research management coordinator at the Universidad Santa María la Antigua, told OBG.

Though rising demand has broadened the areas of study available, some remain unexplored. “There has been little emphasis on health sciences, administration of health science systems, and export and logistics programmes. This leaves room for universities to venture into these areas to respond to economic demand,” Bruno Iván Garisto Petrovich, president at the Universidad Latinoamericana de Comercio Exterior, told OBG. A significant increase in financial support from the government is also ensuring that more students have access to higher education. Grants from the Institute for Training and Improvement of Human Resources at the university level more than quadrupled from 2863 in 2009 to 12,582 in 2013, according to INEC. From January to May 2014, 3517 were disbursed for an investment of more than $6.5m.

As with basic education, shortcomings persist at the tertiary education level. The WEF’s report ranks Panama’s higher education and training 83rd for 2014-15, scoring 3.5 on a scale of one to seven. The score represents a significant drop from the previous edition in which Panama ranked 68th, with a score of 4.26.


The quality deficiency among Panama’s higher education institutions has been largely associated with a lax accreditation process. In an effort to improve this, authorities formalised the process by creating the National Council for University Evaluation and Accreditation of Panama ( Consejo Nacional de Evaluación y Acreditación Universitaria de Panamá, CONEAUPA) in 2010. CONEAUPA developed a two-phase procedure whereby universities self-evaluate before undergoing evaluation by an external committee. Universities that meet quality standards following a series of indicators receive accreditation for six years, after which time they can apply for renewal. All new academic programmes and majors also undergo evaluation by the Technical Supervision Commission, a second regulatory entity.

Formalising the accreditation process has contributed to a series of changes. The process entails drafting a quality improvement plan which universities aim to implement within the six-year period. “This has been a very positive change, because it has not only forced universities across the country to break out of inertia, but also promoted integration between universities and the labour market,” Díaz told OBG.

Panamanian universities have since gained some ground at the regional level, despite the WEF’s rankings. Six universities – one more than the previous year – made it to the QS Latin American University Rankings 2014, which rates the top 300 institutions across the continent. Two of them registered significant advancements. Making the list at 105th, UTP climbed 46 spots from 151st in 2013. UTP was followed by UP, which jumped 31 places from 147th the previous year to 116th. The remaining four – Universidad Católica Santa María La Antigua, UNACHI, Universidad Latina de Panama and the Universidad Latinoamericana de Ciencia y Tecnología Panamá (new to the rankings) – all placed above the 200 mark.

The accreditation requirements have also helped close down poor-quality institutions, a move which has affected private institutions in particular. There are currently 22 accredited universities, five of which are public. Of the roughly 42 private universities in early 2012, only 24 had operating licences .

According to Díaz, however, the most significant change is taking place at the institutional level. “The majority of private universities function as teaching universities. What the accreditation process has done is force us to explore the other two elements: research and extension – that is, our contribution to the community and the labour market,” Díaz told OBG.

Technical Training

Tertiary schooling remains limited at the technical and vocational level. “There is still a social stigma attached to this type of training, making it less attractive for the youth, and that has prevented the development of a strong post-secondary offer,” Carranza said. Enrolment at the state’s vocational institute, Instituto Nacional de Formación Profesional y Capacitación Para el Desarrollo Humano, decreased from 108,467 in 2009 to an estimated 78,611 in 2013, according to INEC, further fuelling the country’s already significant skills shortage. The institute offers various training programmes in the agriculture, industries, commerce and tourism fields, areas in which the shortage of skilled labour is most severe (see analysis). This shortage is prompting authorities to address the issue with long-term strategies. Varela’s administration has made public its commitment to expanding the country’s offering in technical and vocational training. In early 2015 the government oversaw the tender for the design and construction of the first bilingual technical institute, for example.


As Panama continues on the road to economic maturity, the quality of its education system has become a priority in the bid to sustain economic growth, and for good reason. The country’s ability to acquire the level of skills needed to compete in a changing global economy with increasingly complex demands depends on it. Though the sector has historically suffered from a lack of continuity in policy, the current government’s emphasis on carrying out the goals of previous administrations – improving infrastructure at all levels, expanding technical training, increasing bilingualism and strengthening student funding – represent steps in the right direction.

In a context of increased competition for jobs, raising workers’ employability – and strengthening synergies between the educational offering and the labour market – will prove crucial to increasing productivity and ensuring sustainable economic growth.