David Jessop: Education, Caribbean innovation and the future
For many years now, the Caribbean has been able to cultivate a generally positive image of high literacy levels and academic achievement.
It has given the world Nobel laureates and has demonstrated a capacity for intellectual rigour and debate that makes it among the more interesting regions of the world with which to engage.
It has used this to promote itself as a location for foreign investment and as an indicator of its identity and culture.
However, look more closely at what is happening on the ground in many states and it becomes clear that away from a small elite group of schools, the region's secondary education system is failing to turn out students with the type of qualifications or skills that will enable the Caribbean to succeed in the highly competitive services-based industries that its future rests upon.
Moreover, while there are a growing number of publicly and privately funded centres of excellence within higher education in the region, it is clear that there is much more that needs to be done to adapt tertiary education to the globally competitive academic environment in which all higher academic institutions now operate.
Put more simply, if Caribbean universities are to attract the best undergraduates, researchers and faculty, they need to do so based on a reputation for rigour, educational outcomes that are more than satisfactory, and new sources of income.
Two years ago, St Lucia's prime minister, Dr Kenny Anthony, speaking largely in the context of secondary education, spelt out where declining educational standards and poorer quality schools might lead the region. He said that there was a need "to place greater emphasis on developing citizens who can make a contribution", otherwise his country was in danger of becoming uncompetitive.
Numbers of young people, he said, were leaving school unready for the world of work, and did not have any marketable, technical or vocational skills.
Recently produced figures appear to support this. While there has been a slow upward trend in exam results for the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate and Caribbean Certificate of Secondary Level Competence, a December 2014 Caribbean Exams Council report suggested that from 2012 to 2014 the number of candidate entries for January exam sittings declined by 25 per cent, while the May-June entries fell by 4.5 per cent.
The reasons given were "economic considerations, declining birth rates, policy decisions, and general low interest".
What is apparent is that there is a pressing need to redefine the region's approach to education to ensure it is producing individuals with competencies that place the region on a path to sustainable development.
As many Caribbean educators point out, education in the Caribbean may not be fit for this purpose as it has largely been based on adapting a colonial inheritance. What is needed, they suggest, is a new educational philosophy appropriate to the contemporary Caribbean, a Caribbean-led assessment of the region's key competencies, a focus on the economic areas where the region might hope in future to have global competitive advantage, and an approach more closely related to the digital world.
Speaking about this recently to the chief executives of two major Caribbean companies, one from Trinidad, the other from Jamaica, it is clear that the matter is becoming serious. They noted that companies are having to start their own skills development programmes. One cited the example of Trinidad where labour shortages in the construction, hospitality and the garment industry are growing, and pointed to a report produced by the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce that suggests that poor attitudes, absenteeism, indiscipline, illiteracy, a disdain for service industries, and a lack of continuous skills training were starting to damage key sectors.
This is concerning as there are multiple studies which indicate that knowledge-based economies represent the only realistic long-term future for most resource-poor, small states, and for this reason, education in nations such as those in the Caribbean has to be transformational, technology-driven and relevant to national development.
Across the world, new technologies are now disrupting the way in which government and business is organised, threatening to leave much of the Caribbean behind.
At the same time, high-speed broadband, total connectivity, and the offer of low cost or even free Wi-Fi is opening the world of ideas and opportunity potentially to everyone, making size and location less relevant.
This means that trained and educated individuals can creatively apply and ally their skills to income without leaving to work overseas; offering opportunity in everything from computer animation to back office services, design, three-dimensional printing applications, and the many the new ideas that are emerging in the world beyond the region.
What is now happening globally begs the question as to whether the skills and forms of thinking that much of the Caribbean has previously encouraged will still be relevant in 10 years' time.
The region is not short of ideas about how to advance changes in education.
Taken at random, recent reports suggest schools and classrooms need to be modernised and new technology introduced; distance learning needs facilitating; consideration needs to be given to future labour force demands in priority sector such as tourism, financial services, and light manufacturing; foreign language teaching needs expanding; schools need to be better managed and more accountable; models like the Caribbean Science Foundation that encourage innovation should be more widely applied; university research needs to be related to private-sector needs; and new sources of financing for education are required.
Given that in most Caribbean states educational spending is falling and having to compete with other social priorities, including health care and housing, the starting point ought to be finding new funding for education.
Here there is a wealth of external experience. In North America, Europe and in states like Singapore, community colleges and tertiary education establishments have been created through foundations; corporate money is used for public/private educational partnerships; there are commercially led research parks around universities; and fee-paying summer schools support full- time education.
There are also many other ways. For example, large regional and hemispheric multinationals engaged in the region, including those from China, should be encouraged to invest in schools and local education out of self-interest and to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility.
If innovation and entrepreneurship are to thrive in the Caribbean, it will require both a change in thinking and an equally radical change in education from the primary school level upwards.
n David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council. david.jessop