Positioning Guyana Educationally for Economic Growth

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With two more oil discoveries in October 2022 and an expected record growth rate of approximately 58% according to International Monetary Fund (IMF), Guyana a nation of less than a million, is facing tremendous challenges surrounding human capital. This new oil nation has little experience in the oil and gas sector to satisfy the increased demand in this newly developing industry, nor the large technical and specialised workforce required. Moreover, the majority of the working-age population (age 15 and above) is residing in rural areas (72.1%). 

Guyana does excel in primary education, being one of the highest-ranked developing countries in the Education Index of the United Nations (UN) Human Development Report, with a score of 0.943 and with a high reading literacy rate at 92% of the population. However, the nation continues to struggle with the provision of increased access to satisfactory secondary education. Many schools are short on basic resources, especially in the areas of science and technology, putting students at a disadvantage. Given that most of the population lives in rural areas, the lack of infrastructure and the limited or absence of technology and the internet creates the main impediment for children to attend school and pursue further education. Moreover, Guyana is still an agricultural country and child labour is a common practice for poor families in rural areas (83% of children aged 5-17 are engaged in some sort of economic activities). One should note that 43% of the population lives in poverty

There’s a known correlation between education and a nation’s success. Highly educated countries have more stable economies, therefore the Guyanese government has a serious task in investing in education as a means to ensure a bright future. Achieving economic growth and prosperity is possible only through substantial investments in people and their education, combined with heavy investments in infrastructure across the country, both physical and digital. 

The first step should be to establish an education system built to successfully serve future generations.  In doing so, Guyana may wish to turn to the experiences of two other small oil-producing nations: Brunei and Qatar.

With a population of 441,532 people (half of Guyana’s), under the Ministry of Education, Brunei formed and implemented several educational reforms that ensured quality education free of charge at every grade level. To do so successfully, the ministry governed the schools, funded the education programs, and wrote and instituted the curriculum. As a result, Brunei experienced a substantial rise in literacy rates, improving from 69% to 92%. What is quite unique about Brunei’s education system is that is free throughout, including university study abroad. All education is free for citizens, including lodging, food, textbooks, and transportation. There are several lower-order tertiary education institutions in Brunei, including institutes, technical colleges, training centers and colleges. If local facilities are not available, then the government pays for overseas education instead. Unquestionably, free education for all seems to be a key component to Brunei’s successful and continual development. 

Qatar also provides a model certainly worth considering, as well. In fact, it could become the “Qatar of the Caribbean”, capitalising on its petroleum riches, and attract foreign capital and human talent from the region and all over the world. Qatar decided to deploy its oil money and become globally famous for building one of the most prestigious initiatives – a literal city, the Education City, around investment in innovation and infrastructure. This Education City has been built as an end-to-end education community with schools and programs from early childhood though Ph.D. and advanced research. It has high-tech labs, an education innovation incubator and is already home to eight major foreign universities, all sharing one interconnected and impressive campus. Of those eight, six are American – Cornell, Georgetown, Texas A&M, Virginia Commonwealth, Northwestern, and Carnegie Mellon. It is not only designed to impress but also to attract foreign talent and develop the most valuable asset of its economy, its people. 

Guyana’s President Dr. Mohamed Irfaan Ali has said that 20% of the national budget will go towards education in 2022, with about GY$74.4 billion being allocated towards transforming the education sector with the aim of providing equitable access to quality education. President Ali is following the trend established by former President David Granger who between the years 2015 and 2020 invested about 16%-18% per year of the total budget in education, placing Guyana as one of the top proportional spenders in education in the world. The big challenge with education is that it is a long-term investment. The results will only be visible in the medium-to-long term which will see requisite skills for the economy in the future. Let’s take a look at Norway, the oil state which is also one of the richest countries in the world and ranks first with the most diverse workforce and most inclusive economy. Norway invested heavily in education, using the tuition-free strategy all the way to university, teachers, researchers and professors being paid from public funds. This investment led to results like a low unemployment rate (3.2% in August 2022) and low labor gender gap (71.4 % of men and 66.4 % of women in working age were employed in 2021).In the recent years, Norway has repeatedly been ranked as ‘the best country to live in’ by the United Nations Human Development Report. On its journey to become less dependent of oil, Norway prioritised education as a means to diversify its economy and foster higher and more inclusive growth, promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, along with vocational and entrepreneurial skills. Now, its economy is globally known for other industries like shipping, shipbuilding, and aquaculture, supported by a strong and growing professional services industry (finance, ICT, legal) with emerging opportunities in fintech, cleantech, medtech, and biotechnology. Employment in the services was reported at 78.89 % in 2020, according to the World Bank). Strong collaboration between industry and research institutions attracts international research and development (R&D) activity and funding. Foreign direct investment in Norway stood at US$160 billion at the end of 2021 and has more than doubled over the last decade.

Short-term, the country needs a rapid and robust upscaling in certain sectors such as oil & gas, engineering, agriculture, agro-processing, and science and technology, which can be achieved through improvement in technical and vocational training. The government should aim to establish partnerships with foreign universities and colleges and encourage collaboration between foreign companies and local institutions to support short-term the high demand for professionals in the energy sector and related sectors. One of the top global companies investing in education is ExxonMobil, who is one of the three exploration and production (E&P) companies in Guyana as well. ExxonMobil is investing about US$115.5 million in education and was a founding sponsor of the National Math and Science Initiative, which works to improve math and science education in the US. ExxonMobil Qatar has focused its community outreach programs on educational development in support of the Qatar National Vision 2030, which aims to propel Qatar forward by balancing economic growth with the well-being of people and natural resources. One such effort is ExxonMobil’s partnership with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in Qatar and Qatar University’s National Center for Educator Development.

A similar program in Guyana would not only bring foreign expertise in the country but would also help the locals acquire the needed skills to benefit from the ongoing economic transformation. Oil and gas revenues can be used to reform Guyana’s educational system, especially STEM-based programs: STEM-based teaching and learning, including training the teachers. It is a good opportunity to also put better labs in high schools and tertiary institutions. The government needs to get the people involved and passionate about the new direction of science and technology and where it can take the country. An important step that has already been taken is the industry-funded Centre for Local Business Development (CLBD), which provides a space for local firms to learn about opportunities in the oil and gas sector, strengthen their competitiveness, and prepare to join the oil and gas supply chain.

International organisations and private companies will inevitably play a part in supporting the government’s goals. Recently, the World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors approved financing of US$44 million for a Guyana Strengthening Human Capital through Education Project. The project will focus on expanding access to quality education at the secondary level, as well as improving technical and vocational training (TVET) to meet the needs of the labour market. The funding aims to prepare Guyanese citizens to excel in emerging sectors of the economy including climate-resilient agriculture, low-carbon technology, and digital development. The project includes the promotion of apprenticeships, a digital platform providing information on training opportunities, and the preparation of a new TVET policy that will set the direction for the sector’s medium- to long-term development.

Ultimately, Guyana’s investment in education should have the purpose to prepare its citizens for the future and help them possess the skills and knowledge necessary to be able to excel in society and adapt to the global changing demands, which would in return build a strong and healthy economy. Investment in human capital for an educated and enlightened citizenry, with a skilled workforce to propel the nation towards sustainable and inclusive economic growth, will be a winning formula for the nation.

Cristina Caus is an international oil and gas business developer and consultant and holds a master’s degree in international business from Florida International University. Jerry Haar is a professor of international business at Florida International University and a global fellow of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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