The Caribbean Single Market Economy identifies university graduates as a group of persons eligible for free movement among CARICOM states. An educated workforce will be crucial to the development of the region in an era where a vibrant knowledge economy is the success indicator for countries worldwide.
Several factors prevent young people from entering tertiary education and this has implications for the educational level of the workforce and the migration of skills from one country to another.
In Jamaica, the most populous country in the Anglophone Caribbean, for example, gross enrolment rates decline as students move from pre-primary to tertiary level, with the sharpest decline being observed between secondary and tertiary.
Performance in the 2006 Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) Caribbean Secondary Examination Certificate (CSEC), the terminal examination for secondary education and the basic requirement for pursuit of tertiary education, reveals that Jamaica’s students (35,428 sitting mathematics and 37,408 sitting English Language) underperformed in relation to the Caribbean average.
The regional averages of 35% in Mathematics and 51% in English Language point to Caribbean-wide underperformance at secondary level. These two subjects are major prerequisites for entry to almost all tertiary institutions. Failure to achieve success at this level thus denies students the opportunity to graduate from an institution of tertiary education. There is thus no access to the opportunities presented by the free movement of labour provision applicable to graduates.
The productivity of these students as workers in the labour force in their own countries, which must strive to be competitive with the rest of the world, will also be impaired.
In 1997, the Heads of Government of CARICOM set a target for tertiary level enrolment by the year 2005. This target required the doubling of tertiary level capacity and output in seven years – from 7 percent of school graduates at that time to 15 percent.
It was a clear mandate to existing tertiary level institutions to increase access and enrolment, and it presented an opening for other institutions to seize an opportunity to offer tertiary level education.
The opportunity has been seized by a number of local private and foreign based institutions operating within the region, independently or in collaboration with public local institutions. There has been an explosion of tertiary education programme offerings for Caribbean students over the past ten years. This growth has been fuelled by the new information and communication technologies, the increased demand for higher education, and the thrust towards the ‘commoditization’ of education.
The demand in the Caribbean for higher education exceeds the existing regional capacity to supply this education. The demand will only grow as the CSME becomes a reality particularly given the potential for social mobility and career advancement through the free movement of skilled and qualified people. Transnational education is seen as one solution to the problem of increasing demand for tertiary education faced by the countries of the Caribbean: it offers choices to students, and because the state is not involved, the students pay the full fee for their education.
The proponents of the CSME expect that higher education will generate graduates who are oriented towards providing the knowledge base for the development of the Caribbean region.
They will be graduates who understand and are prepared to offer solutions to the unique problems of the region, to address its special challenges, and to provide leadership in the region, even though the provision for the free movement of graduates allows for the involvement of graduates from recognised universities worldwide. Ongoing research pertaining to the CSME must be undertaken to assess its progress and achievements, and to consider its impact, including the impact on gender issues. Such research demands that Caribbean tertiary and higher education institutions serve as reliable resources for national and regional problem solving.