Former minister of tertiary education and skills training and former MP for Chaguanas East
In four years, we will complete the first 25 years of the 21st century.
Taxpayers have invested more than $8 billion (TT) on the GATE programme since 2004. The programme achieved its highest levels of participation during the People’s Partnership tenure with over 60,000 students per annum pursuing university, college and technical and vocational education and training.
The GATE programme has been cut from over $650 million (TT) under the People’s Partnership government to $400 million (TT) under the PNM Government.
The Government’s GATE policy has exiled lifelong learners above 50 years, targeted the middle class through a flawed means test, restricted regional studies, curtailed undergraduate studies and discontinued postgraduate studies.
The net effect of these austerity measures has been a complete loss of confidence in the tertiary education and training system. Tertiary education participation has taken a nosedive to below 30,000 students before the onset of the pandemic, but the bigger crisis is the absence of purposeful leadership and vision for the sector.
COVID-19 has also accelerated the three intertwined As– automation, algorithms, and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Amazon doubled its year over year-net profit from US$2.6 billion to US$5.2 billion even in the midst of a pandemic pointing to an increasing reliance on machines over manual systems.
The jobs pandemic which I have defined as “The massive loss of jobs across international boundaries caused by a health pandemic” has resulted in the loss of millions of jobs due to full or partial business closures.
The ILO estimates 34 million job losses in the Latin American and Caribbean region alone as a result of the pandemic. The World Economic Forum also projects that 85 million jobs could be lost to the three As over the next five years, but that 97 million new roles could emerge to meet the changing workforce demands. The future graduate must prepare for the jobs of tomorrow by making a career pivot today. A wave of new jobs is expected to emerge over the next five to ten years, all of which are linked to increased technology diffusion, the data and AI economy, the green economy, and the new roles in engineering.
How then does T&T leap into the future to provide sustainable job opportunities for our graduates? The answer begins with a paradigm shift in current thinking. Education and training must not be viewed as an expense but instead as an investment.
Facebook has a market cap and net worth of over US$500 billion. Our US$1.2 billion investment on the GATE programme over the years could derive exponential ROI if our education system nurtures one graduate of Zuckerberg’s ilk.
Performance-based funding mechanisms for both students and institutions must be leveraged to incentivise talent development in emerging careers as well as to nurture key cross-cutting skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, active learning, self-management, and resilience.
Nine months have elapsed since the Government mandated business closures which resulted in over 40,000 nationals losing their jobs either on a temporary or permanent basis. An urgent, mass and accessible reskilling and upskilling programme twinned with social assistance programmes such as the Salary Relief Grant should be prioritised. The planned YTEPP-Coursera project commencing in January 2021, though welcomed, will benefit a few hundred people and will have minimal impact on the scale of the fallout in the labour market numbering in the tens of thousands.
All learning institutions must therefore be equipped to manage a hybrid model of physical and virtual learning as a strategy to reduce student densities on campuses in a post-pandemic era. The National University of Singapore, for instance, has limited the number of students on-campus to no more than three-fifths of its total capacity.
Investments in the future graduate must start today to realise dividends tomorrow in the form of innovative thinking and the growth and development of new workers and industries.
Failure to fund education programmes designed to upskill and reskill the workforce will translate into second and third waves of the jobs pandemic, and consequent casualties of the education of the nation's students at all levels.
The year 2021 brings new possibilities for our country. Happy New Year!