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Panama 2018 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW

Panama has near-universal enrollment in primary education, but the sector still faces challenges in delivering high-quality education in rural areas.

Panama has improved basic educational outcomes over the past few decades, but disparities still persist between the quality of education available in urban and rural areas. Working with public sector unions to increase the quality of education available across the whole country is one of the Ministry of Education's foremost priorities moving forward. The sector has also seen growth in its higher education system come up against funding ceilings, threatening to affect the University of Panama's position as the country's leading university. Some education leaders have proposed increased privatization efforts to help funnel greater investment in the sector; even if enacted, better management in the public sector will be needed to help the educational system take the next step.

Under the leadership of the Ministry of Education, the government's educational regulatory body in charge of setting standards and distributing funding, Panama has seen enrollment and literacy rates rise steadily for more than a generation. According to UNICEF, as of 2012 Panama had an adult literacy rate of 94.1, on par with Latin American averages. Youth literacy rates of 98% and a female literacy rates equal to 99% of males both reflected the effects of widespread universal education for both sexes and bode well for the continued development of the nation's human capital. Nine years of public education is compulsory in Panama, with a network of free primary, middle, and secondary schools providing services up to age 18. Primary school enrollment is strong at 109% and 106% for males and females in 2012, per UNICEF data, but enrollment both before and after the compulsory schooling period drops significantly. Just 65% of pre-primary school children are enrolled, and secondary school participation rates drop to 65% for males and 71% for females. Bridging this gap from basic to high-skilled education is critical for the future of the country; in order to provide a steady supply of high-skilled workers, secondary and tertiary enrollment rates will need to increase.

Compounding this skills gap is the educational divide between rural and urban regions. As with many other Latin American countries, Panama has seen persistent gaps in the average quality and quantity of education in rural communities. One of the core goals of Panama's 2015-2019 Government Strategy Plan is improving human capital in rural regions through improved infrastructure and increasing the share of tax revenue redirected toward these schools. Basic facilities are in place at many rural areas, but there is little access to the technology needed for vocational and high-skilled education. Other goals include increasing the proportion of four- and five-year olds in pre-primary education to 100% through expansion of free pre-primary offerings and offering online classes to help students remain in school through secondary education. Stagnant levels of investment have hampered the development of the sector in recent years; public education spending as a share of GDP fell from 0.4% in 1990 to 0.2% in 2012. To combat this, Panama is looking to partner with the private sector in order to provide economic support in a way that links higher education students with key research sectors. In this way, the government hopes to improve quality by giving students access to key technologies while also boosting the country's industrial sector.

Panama's higher education sector has also begun to look beyond the country's borders to develop research partnerships and offer new opportunities for its students. In April 2018 Panama signed an MoU with Qatar to cooperate in the higher education sector. This came on the heels of a similar agreement with China in 2017 that saw Panama establish diplomatic relations with the PRC for the first time. The economic benefits of a trade deal with China grabbed the most attention, but the agreement signed between the two states also calls for educational partnerships and research sharing agreements to strengthen the Panamanian higher education system. Deals like these should go a long way toward solidifying the future of the sector, bringing in new revenue, and giving students the skills they need to be successful in an ever more globalized world.