PROGRESS REPORT

Panama 2017 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: EDUCATION

Panama's education sector is prepped for massive improvements in 2017, with government initiatives and private-sector customization raising local standards to an international level.

Although the fast pace of economic growth has outrun Panama's education sector by a wide margin, the Ministry of Education of Panama (MEDUCA) has identified various areas for improvement. The government is currently investing approximately 3.5% of national GDP into the education sector, but the target is to raise that figure to at least 6% over the medium term in order to bring the sector back up to speed.

Panama's public education system in particular has faced challenges in recent years. According to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Ranking for 2016, Panama's overall rank was 50 out of 140 countries, while the quality of Panama's education system was ranked 94, notably lower compared to other measures of Panama's economy and society. In response, Panama recently expanded access to universal primary education, especially for indigenous and rural communities, where the quality of education is often negatively affected by external circumstances. For example, in 2015, only 59% of primary schools and 63% of middle schools had potable water, while 67% of primary schools and 84% of middle schools had electricity.
In the shadow of the massive Panama Canal expansion and the greater influx of international investors and laborers, Panama is in the process of shifting its attention away from large infrastructure development toward the betterment of educational facilities, training programs, and human capital. With recent statistics in mind, Panama's 2015-2019 Strategic Government Plan has outlined a host of investments totaling USD19.5 billion, with 55% dedicated toward social projects in education and healthcare. This is set to benefit the over 800,000 students who were enrolled at educational institutions for the 2016-2017 school year. There are five state-run universities in the country, 15 private higher education colleges, and over 30 private and public technical institutes in Panama that can also expect to receive government support in one form or another over the medium term.

PROGRESS REPORT

The year 2017 is expected to bring about the continuation of a number of different programs implemented by MEDUCA. The ministry currently has nearly 500 investment projects underway, including the construction of 3,871 classrooms. As well, 50 new schools for secondary education are being built in 2017, with an investment of approximately USD600 million. As part of its push to increase the quality of education facilities, the current administration is working to replace 1,000 underdeveloped rural classrooms with 1,221 smart classrooms at 248 schools, with an approximate investment of USD400 million.

A few of the programs undertaken in 2016 were “Extended School Day for All,” which invested USD2.7 million into meals for students and an additional USD1.9 million for teachers working extended hours in 34 schools around Panama; the “Learn to the Maximum” program, which was designed to improve the reading comprehension of 3,000 primary school students at 290 schools; and the “Panama Bilingual” initiative, a USD20 million program to develop the skills and abilities of 3,500 educators in teaching English as a second language to over 50,000 kindergarteners and 14,000 middle schoolers. The goal for 2017 is for Panama Bilingual to train an over 2,000 more teachers and reach an additional 218 schools.

Already more than 25,000 new educators were trained in 2016, with MEDUCA's budget allowing for pay increases across the board. Approximately 3,000 teaching vacancies were filled for the 2017 semester, 890 of those positions permanent. Meanwhile, 540 new permanent teaching positions have been created in some of Panama's more inaccessible areas.

LEARNING EXPERIENCE

The unique economic landscape and geographic position of Panama also calls for specialized higher education institutions. Educators must be ready to provide a global education that meets international standards and taps into the potential of Panamanian youth.

Many education providers have identified the strong need for bilingual Spanish-English learning environments where students develop the language skills needed to be successful on the various multicultural careers paths available in Panama. Wendy McArthur, Executive Director of Knightsbridge Schools Panama, told TBY, “We are an English-immersion school and strongly believe in the benefits of multiple languages. We live in a global society, and if we want our children to be successful, they must know multiple languages.” The school's proximity to the special economic zone Panama Pacifico has spurred the initiative to produce more graduates with bilingual skills. The zone is expected to increase the population in the area, as well as attract a number of international businesses and residents. In preparation for a new wave of diverse job opportunities in the area, “One of the things our school does really well is to graduate students with excellent English fluency,” McArthur added. The future third bridge being built to connect both sides of the Panama Canal will also support Knightsbridge Schools in its efforts to attract more students, make education more accessible, and prevent long commutes.

Meanwhile, King's College the British School of Panama's Head Teacher Vanessa Whay also noted in an interview with TBY the wide spectrum of job opportunities available for students. “We will have students who may want to go into engineering, catering, or tourism. There are many opportunities for students, regardless of where they went to school or their cultural or academic background,” she said, adding “There will be a huge market and niche that will open up huge opportunities for the workforce in the future.” The school already boasts an impressive 60% international student body of over 30 nationalities.

For Panamanian education institutions, location is as important as curriculum and career preparation. For that reason, the City of Knowledge was established for large universities, research centers, high-tech companies, and international organizations to come together under the unifying principle of innovation in education. “Panama and the City of Knowledge offer an opportunity to reach out to the region. Panama is not only a hub for ships going through the Canal; it is a humanitarian hub and a business hub as well,” Jorge Ramón Arosemena Román, President of the City of Knowledge, explained to TBY. “We are a bridge and in the middle of the tropics between two oceans and that means a great deal of rich biodiversity. At the City of Knowledge we work on getting Panama closer to the world.”

With an increasing number of companies moving their headquarters to Panama, human resources companies also see the country as a promising place to do business. The number of universities producing talented and skilled human capital is destined to increase the attractiveness of the local education sector as well as the pool from which companies both local and global can recruit new hires. “Panama is the hub of the Americas for several reasons; its location, financial incentives, the expanded canal, and the inflow of many investors, who all need qualified people to boost and develop their business,” said Oscar Rodriguez, Director of Busqueda Efectiva.