With 4% of all global trade passing through its canal, The Republic of Panama boasts the two busiest ports in the world as well as one of the fastest-growing economies in the Americas. Despite this, only recently have long-standing issues with both quality and access begun to effect improvements in the Panamanian educational system.
Traditional Panamanian education comprises three stages (primary, secondary and tertiary) and schooling is free through the secondary level. Then the system splits into an academic track and a vocational track, with more students choosing the latter. Public education is non-profit, serving 87% enrolled students. Rising enrollment reflects increased demands for skilled labor, but quality problems linger and have resulted in a mismatch between educational offerings and market needs. Rural and urban areas show wide divisions in access and delivery of education services, adding to inequality. Indigenous and Afro-Caribbean populations also suffer discrimination, high poverty and low political representation, further reinforcing barriers to their educational achievement. In recognition of these problems, in recent years the following efforts have been undertaken:
- In 2010, in a new evaluation process was set up for universities by the fledgling National Council for University Evaluation and Accreditation of Panama (CONEAUPA). The changes emphasized skills training, curriculum unification and quarterly terms during the academic year. They also established a nation-wide team to update curricula.
- The government has increased student financial support, quadrupling grants from 2009 to 2013; thus pushing demand for university places in a wider range of study areas. However, areas such as health sciences and export and logistics still face under-enrollment. Panama plans to establish a national, PISA-aligned assessment system to measure learning outcomes.
- The 2014 program “Panamá Bilingüe” aims to implement a fully-bilingual education system in twelve years, improving English skills among both teacher and student populations, and sending on average 2,000 teachers yearly to immersion programs in the US, the UK, Canada and Barbados.
Through these efforts and several bilateral agreements with countries like France, Jamaica, Morocco, Trinidad and Tobago and Singapore, Panama envisions becoming an international education hub in the Americas and has set special migration regimes for educational establishmentsin order to attract foreign students, academics and researchers.