Trinidad and Tobago’s government uses programme approval to steer education towards job market needs

After years of steady state investment, Trinidad and Tobago is reaping the benefits of increased attention to tertiary education. The student participation rate – the share of those aged 17-21 enrolled in post-secondary courses – has risen from 42% in 2010 to 65% in late 2014, compared to 2001, when it was just 7%. One key change has been the introduction in 2004 of the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses (GATE) programme, which ensures citizens can undertake tertiary courses, including postgraduate ones, virtually for free. This is widely seen as having many social benefits.

Programme Approval

However, an institution’s right to offer a programme to GATE-assisted students is not automatic. The programme must first be approved by the Accreditation Council of T&T (ACTT), an agency of the Ministry of Tertiary Education and Skills Training (MTEST), and then by the Funding and Grants Administration Division (FGAD) of MTEST. Without these approvals, an institute may still operate but must charge fees to its students. Lack of GATE approval can be a major disadvantage for two reasons. The first is financial: GATE has been in operation long enough that T&T citizens have come to expect tertiary education to be free. The second is cultural: a programme that is not approved is perceived as being of low quality.

Private Educators

For private providers, GATE incentivises the development of programmes that are relevant to the needs of the labour market. Often, this is done in partnership with leading foreign institutions. As of May 2015, MTEST was still awaiting results from a survey of T&T’s job market, before deciding what priorities the FGAD should adopt. As a result, MTEST has not approved GATE funding for new programmes since early 2014, giving programme providers that offer GATE-approved courses an early-mover advantage over other institutions. Not only does the GATE programme give younger T&T citizens incentives to study; it also encourages investment and innovation within the private tertiary segment, while still giving MTEST the authority to decide which programmes will be offered.

Home University

From a public sector standpoint, the state-backed University of T&T (UTT) is more directly responding to the needs of the job market. Established in 2004 to promote entrepreneurship and tailor education in support of socio-economic development, UTT now has about 10,000 students, 10 major campuses and nine smaller units in other locations ( including Tobago). Its facilities have generally been established close to economic growth clusters established by the government and in partnership with the private sector to ensure courses are relevant to market demands.

The UTT campuses in Arima, Port of Spain, Point Lisas and San Fernando, for instance, were established with programmes focused on expanding and enhancing talent development for participation in the energy sector. To achieve this, UTT adopted a strategy involving specially designed curricula; developing formal relationships with international universities specialising in these areas of interest, such as The University of Texas at Austin; and fostering relationships with upstream, midstream and downstream industries, including companies like BG Group, BP T&T and other leaders in the field. “These partnerships with the private sector provide graduates with in-field work experience,” Philip Julien, location director for the Caribbean operations of WorleyParsons, told OBG. “They could prove to be a win-win scenario for the energy industry as a whole.”

In light of the government’s plans to diversify beyond the energy sector, new UTT campuses and offerings include courses in maritime studies at the Chaguaramas campus (to support maritime services and yachting); the ICT campus at the Tamana InTech Park in Wallerfield (part of the research park developed by ETeck); and the UTT Aviation Institute in Couva (geared toward aircraft engineering). In late 2014 the minister of MTEST, Fazal Karim, announced that the UTT School of Banking, Finance and Entrepreneurship would be launched in 2015 with the aim of supporting the services centres that are being set up by international banks in tandem with the T&T International Finance Centre.