KNOWLEDGE IS THE FUTURE

Panama 2014 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: EDUCATION

Panama is expanding its university system and investing in science and technology in order to drive economic growth in the national interest.

Panama's economy is traditionally based on transportation, logistics, financials, and the exportation of goods and services, which comprise a significant proportion of its productive output. Panama has recently enjoyed a period of substantial economic stability and is using this opportunity to diversify and develop itself as a regional business hub. With 70% of the population under 25 years of age, university education will play a crucial role in the continued development of the Panamanian state. In an effort to build a diversified economy, a national strategy has been formulated to encourage science, technology, and innovation at the highest levels. To this end, the government of Panama has prioritized science, ICT, and innovation for its long-term growth plan. The presence of quality infrastructure including transportation, electrical power generation, clean water, and internet connectivity within Panama City, and its central geographic location between North and South America, make it an attractive location for foreign investment. However, weaknesses have been acknowledged in the areas of innovation, research, and higher education training—and the government is moving to address these problems head on. The country wants to shift from its trade-based roots to a more knowledge-based economy, and this highlights the importance of the education sector.

A SOUND BASE

Historically, education related investments have accounted for a large portion of the country's overall budget. In 2011, 12.9% of government expenditure was allocated to the country's Ministry of Education. Currently, primary net enrollment rates stand at 97.6% for males and 97.4% for females. Panama also has a high literacy rate of 97% for both boys and girls between the ages of 15-25 years old. Primary schooling is mandatory and the country boosts a high primary net enrollment rate of 91.2% in 2012. Secondary school net enrollment for boys and girls was 65% and 71%, respectively. Emphasis in Panama has been placed on increasing the enrollment of students in university level education. From 1970 to 2000, university level education among scientific and technologically active employees grew from 12% to 20%. Traditionally, academic interests in science, technology, and engineering have not been strong, but these are improving.

For Panama, keeping retention rates up is critical to facilitating the growth of the economy. High demand for labor has challenged the country's educational system. In response, the government has taken a series of initiatives to ensure a skilled and intellectual work force. The City of Knowledge foundation has transformed the Clayton Military base, located near the Panama Canal, into a business, scientific, recreational, and academic hub. More than 5,000 visitors use its facilities daily and the UN is expected to locate its regional offices within the premises. Furthermore, the government, in conjunction with the Universidad Latina de Panama, has pioneered the English for Life program to improve ESL competency among high school and university students.

Higher education is now a key national priority in Panama. Currently, there are 88 tertiary establishments available to Panamanian students. The University of Panama (UP), founded in 1935, has a student population of approximately 74,000. UP being the largest university system in the country, has developed a number of science related centers, which serve as areas of study concentration. In 2010, Panama launched its first nationwide accreditation initiative, which led to the closure of 10 institutions that failed to meet minimum standards. That year, enrollment at five of these accredited universities alone, the Universidad de Panamá, the Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá, the Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí, the Universidad Especializada de las Américas and the Universidad Católica Santa María La Antigua, reached over 100,000.

Universities will be especially important in the government's strategy to diversity its economy with ICT investments. Among the goals of Panama's “technologic revolution," is to train 15,000 new computer engineers by 2018. In accordance with a 2010 agreement between Panama and Microsoft, Microsoft will train 40,000 teachers and providing online tools and operating systems for the country.

INNOVATION CENTERS

The University of Panama is also creating a “network of innovation centers" to boost technological creativity and entrepreneurship. Gustavo García de Paredes, Rector of the University of Panama, tells TBY that “An important project is the network of Innovation Centers we are creating in different regions. These are technological centers of innovation and entrepreneurship, and our objective is to provide every local community with the necessary technical resources to launch the projects they need. We are pursuing comprehensive interaction between university and community. We are keen to promote entrepreneurship, reduce social inequality, and gather regional talent together within the same organization." It is important to consider the progress toward the development of innovation incubators within Panama. It is crucial, too, to consider the extent to which Panama, as a developing country with a small market size, has recognized the importance of technology and innovation in its efforts to build a sustainable economy. Such efforts are providing the foundation for the future.

The government has emphasized Panamanian economic development and refers to the current moment in the country's economic development as a synergistic "Triple Helix" model. This model tries to capture the policy-driven initiatives that promote the interaction between government, academia, and industry. The government of Panama plays a significant role in making available the regulatory guidance, infrastructure, and public financing for innovative projects. The greatest benefactors, thus far, have been academic and non-profit research institutes, but private companies with innovative programs are benefiting as well. While Panamanian universities, naturally, place emphasis on teaching, they are constrained with regard to pushing innovative research agendas forward. Dr. Carlos Arellano Lennox, the Rector of Columbus University makes the point: “Most of the universities are today adjusting themselves to the needs of society. However, one of the serious problems we face is the preparation that one receives in high school, which is deficient in Panama. The government drafts its own programs without consulting the educational sector." The importance of educating students to become productive members of the knowledge-based labor force is central when trying to encourage educational development and encourage prosperity. Panama is on the right path, and with the necessary drive and continued investment, the future looks bright.