The time has come for us to evaluate the extent to which we have fully optimized the benefits of free education. The question to address is how can a developing country like Barbados, which spends six to seven per cent of GDP on education, translate this into economic growth. For this to be achieved, we must consider some key factors. This article examines the discussion on education quality for growth and those countries that have been successful in achieving economic growth by linking developmental objectives with educational reform.
The empirical evidence from developed countries which have achieved a high level of economic development is instructive. When studies were conducted over a prolonged period, the average number of years of schooling resulted in economic growth over subsequent decades. In particular, it has been noted that a highly skilled workforce can increase economic growth by about two-thirds of a percentage point per year. Furthermore, countries that can produce a cadre of high performers in addition to ensuring that all students achieve basic levels of education have sustained levels of growth. The implication for developing states like Barbados is illuminating as the results indicate the importance of not just access to free education but of producing quality achievers for global competitiveness.
The example of Japan is key in this regard. It features consistently among the world’s top performing systems in the OECD PISA which is the leading international test of competence among 15-year-old school students. Japan’s commitment to education in the post-war era resulted in high quality human capital which was key to the production of high technology, and high valued products. This nation’s reputation as one of the global technology leaders speaks for itself. However, in order for Japan to sustain its economic performance, it will be necessary to continue to create incentives to gain students’ and society’s commitment to be educated, in addition to shifting from a traditional approach of education to a competency-based approach.
Other countries have been strategic in their approach to reforming the educational system. In so doing, they have linked educational policy with developmental goals and long-term economic growth. Costa Rica in the 1990s illustrates this. In seeking to attract the multinational corporation Intel to boost foreign direct investment, one of the challenges was ensuring that Intel had a skilled workforce and that the educational system in Costa Rica could continuously supply the demand for skilled labour. This was achieved through reform to the educational curriculum at both the post-secondary and tertiary levels. By satisfying this need of the potential investor, Costa Rica successfully attracted foreign direct investment which resulted in economic growth. More importantly, Intel’s decision to relocate to Costa Rica resulted in spillovers including knowledge and technology transfers. Costa Rica moved from an economy based on traditional productive activities to one based on industry and services of medium and high technology.
These studies have implications for the future of our educational system in Barbados. Some key questions we must now ask: are we producing a workforce that is highly skilled that can lead in cutting-edge technologies? Moreover, is Government’s educational policy intricately linked with developmental objectives to grow the economy? Is there a clear connection in terms of the type of foreign direct investment that Government is seeking to attract and the labour force produced in this nation?
It is noteworthy that the skill requirement in our labour market is now changing as employers recognize the importance of soft skills. There is now the need for greater mastery of competencies and both cognitive and soft skills. One notes the implementation of some initiatives as Skills for the Future Programs and the recent focus on competency based training. Moreover, the accelerated pace of technology development means institutions must always be redefining educational and training programs to reflect global advancements and implement programs representative of pioneering new technologies.
What are the important policy considerations? In our era, the discussion has evolved from traditional concepts of “education for all” to emphasizing the quality of education received. This discussion is important since while education for all is a goal, several factors are key to its realization. These include the percentage of students actually completing training and academic programs, the quality of instruction received, and the quality assurance of programs being offered for post-secondary and professional training.
Secondly, one must assess evidence of school leavers from secondary and tertiary levels and their integration into the labour market. The information received will help improve and reform educational programs. Thirdly, the thrust for reform and research must be continuous in our quest for economic growth. Finally, a strategic economic developmental plan for this nation must be linked to preparing our labour force to attract necessary investment, leading to knowledge and technological transfers in our economy.
Industries are changing, automation is replacing basic skills in the workplace and global technologies are continually advancing. Essentially, policy and educational programs must reflect these realities. Our founding fathers implemented free education to invest in future generations to ensure we escaped the trap of poverty and our paths could be one of personal, social and national development. However, unless policy makers have a vision for national development, educational expenditure will produce meagre results, with serious implications for future generations who will risk becoming hewers and drawers of water in a global economy.
Attorney at Law