Focus: Education

Technically Speaking

Sep. 23, 2015

Creating an educational system of excellence is among the government's top priorities under its comprehensive vision geared towards social projects, fiscal responsibility, and institutional respect.

On a regional level, Panama is a key figure in designing the agenda for developing education in the Americas. At the seventh Summit of the Americas, held in April in Panama City, one of the main outcomes of the event was establishing a common research area in universities and increasing the mobility of professors and students. Panama is keen to develop technical skills of the country's engineers and technicians. As a result, one of the ministry's current main objectives is to invest in their technical colleges.


Under the slogan “Panama First," the government's comprehensive vision focuses on social projects, fiscal responsibility, and institutional respect, and creating an educational system of excellence is among the top priorities. Other goals of the vision include developing quality bilingual education in all public schools, increasing universal scholarship, strengthening vocational education, promoting the sectors of the greatest growth through academic programs—including creating a logistics hub, promoting agricultural exports, and supporting the tourism sector. One crucial target set by President Juan Carlos Varela has been increasing the number of preschool aged children, as the country is below the Latin American average in the regard. According to Marcela Paredes de Vásquez, the Minister of Education, Panama's average pre-school attendance rate is an “unjustifiable" 66%, compared to a rate of 72% in the Latin American region. Furthermore, more than a third of high school age students leave before they graduate, which hasn't done the economy any favors in terms of having an educated workforce. Another factor contributing to Panama's high dropout rate is its juvenile delinquency problem. To mitigate this, the government is committed to increasing the number of schools, increasing in-school hours, and increasing the attractiveness of schools by investments in athletic, cultural, and musical programs.

Setting up a bilingual education system in Panama will begin with an overhaul of the elementary and primary schools, and the entire process will begin in 2016 and take 12 years to be fully set up, says Vásquez. To start, a one-year training program in English will be implemented for teachers, which will consist of four month local intensive training, a four-month English immersion program in either the US, England, or Canada, and finally a four-month long classroom training. The ministry expects 1,800 teaching staff to register in the program in its initial stage. Wendy McArthur, the Director of Knightsbridge Schools International Panama, told TBY, “President Varela's plans for education are ambitious and his focus on bilingual education is fantastic. I am from Canada, and we are also a bilingual nation, and I feel that it brings many benefits. Panama, in particular being home to the Canal, is a special country and having a bilingual nation would help it to continue to develop."


Panama enjoys a high literacy rate of 97% for males and females between the age 15 and 25 years old. In 2013, a total of 1,024,307 students were enrolled in the country. Between 2009-13 enrollment increased by 47,856, representing a 4.7% increase, according to Panama's National Institute of Statistics and Census. While male enrollment in school at the primary stage is stronger, females tend to stay in school longer. Primary education is 51.7% male, while in secondary school females represent to majority with 50.7%. Gross primary education enrollment was 101.1%, 102.3% for males, and 88.6% for females for 2013; in the same period secondary school enrollment was a total of 74.7%, 77.3% for females, and 72.3% for males.

The dropout rate in primary education reached 1.1% in 2013, which was higher for females at 1.2% and 1% for males. By province, Darién had the highest dropout rate at 2.2%, and at a regional level Emberá did with 4.2%. Dropout rates increase at the secondary level with a nationwide rate of 4.9%, showing the highest rate in the indigenous region of Emberá. Panama graduated 68,986 students in 2013 in primary and secondary education, 84.7%, with females accounting for 53.4% and males accounting for 46.6%.

The percentage distribution of expenditure by the government education was 26.4% on preschool and primary education, 24.8% on secondary education, 18.2% at the university level, 2.4% on special education, 1.6% on adult education and literacy, and 26.7% to the cost of the Ministry of Eduacation, the University of Panama, the Technological University, the Panamanian Institute of Sports, the National Institute of Culture, the Panamanian Institute for Special Training, Insititute for Training and Development of Human Resources, and the National Institute of Professional Training Human Development. The total annual cost per pupil during 2013 reached $1,342, $805 in preschool and primary education, $1,250 in secondary school, and $2,718 at the university level.


Panama's higher education sector has come along way since the University of Panama, the first fully-flegded university, was established in 1935. It wasn't until 1965 when the second university was started, University of St. Mary. Now there are 14 institutes of higher learning, including the Technological University of Panama, Nova University, University of Florida, Panama Canal College, Chiriquí Autonomous University, and the University of Istmo. Development of higher learning, once concentrated in the capital, now reaches previously underserved, remote provinces. Still, the University of Panama is the country's leading instituion, offering degrees in medicine, law, architecture, education, and more.

The ministry has also been hard at work collaborating with the Ministry of Labor and the private sector in an effort to stimulate technical and entrepreneurial skills among Panamanian students, and has already initiated investments in technical institutes, which provide specific practical skills geared toward key segments in the workforce. “I am keen to provide education in the areas being demanded by technical activity. Logistics is one of the fields requiring development as it accounts for 20% of GNP. Construction, tourism and banking are sectors of strong activity. We are geared more towards the service industry, which accounts for 80% of GDP. In agriculture, we need to work on developing the rural sector to supplement the ports and the canal. Agriculture is not a key contributor to GNP, but it is important in terms of job creation," said Juan Planells Fernandez, Rector Magnifico of USMA Universidad Catolica Santa Maria la Antigua.

Technical schools follows a curriculum that is 70% technical and practical, and 30% personal and life skills, according to the ministry. One joint project is ENADE, the institute for informal training. The key challenges facing the workforce identified to the ministry included personal and language skills, in both Spanish and English. “The institutes will teach in both Spanish and English, and prepare students to find a well-paying job. It is hoped that it will be no longer necessary for companies to source talent from abroad, as the Panamanian workforce becomes competent across a wide range of highly skilled roles," Vásquez told TBY.