Big or small, human capital development is the ultimate test for building a nation – a nation with a people living flourishing lives, co-existing and interacting with the rest of the world; a nation that maintains its integrity, economic and political freedom. Analysis of the shifting seascape of the Maldivian education sector always provides us with useful insight into our course on the trade wind.
Records show that as early as 362 AD Maldives engaged in bilateral trade and political diplomacy with countries far away. Its trade ships sailed to Bengal, Burma, Thailand and Aceh during south west monsoon and to Arabia, the Persian Gulf and the East Coast of Africa during north east monsoon. The earliest navigational schools provided the necessary mentorship required. They trained the men to operate, make and repair astrolabes, quadrants and wooden sextants. Other occupations and mentorships flourished. The boat builders passed on their craft to the generations to come. Toddy men passed on their skills to the younger. Education was mostly focused on skills building and providing literacy.
Now fast forward to the reign of King Iskandharu who in 1676 AD started classes at the inner courtyard of the Iskandharu Mosque. His majesty’s initiative for paying the teachers has today turned to an industrious sector occupying 4.25 percent of our GDP and 11.09 percent of government spending. Higher education, today, is a buoyant industry. The Gross Enrolment Ratio in Higher Secondary Education has risen from 5.6 percent in 2001 to 34.8 percent in 2016 – an indication that school goers today have a better chance of embarking on their journey of higher education directly after school. Two universities, many public institutes and numerous private education providers have secured a foothold while many new institutes are joining the sector every year. Around 87 institutes are currently registered at Maldives Qualifications Authority (MQA) to offer their own programmes. The portfolio of programmes have expanded hugely. Today, more than 1,500 programmes are offered at varying levels. The sector has not only become an important agent for the mobility of the workforce, it has also become an emerging employer.
Despite these successes, Maldives still has a long way to go. The Gross Enrollment Ratio of Tertiary Education still remains very low at 14.5 percent. This is 4.36 percent lower than our closest neighbour Sri Lanka and significantly lower than most of the countries at the same level of per capita. While the recent progresses are impressive, our counterparts such as Mauritius and Seychelles have crossed the mark few years ago. At 22.8 percent, our youth unemployment remains a serious concern.
Thus it becomes apparent that we need collective efforts to boost the sector. Vital investments in higher education infrastructure, research and modernization efforts are badly needed to make the sector relevant for the economy. The shifting needs of job markets today demand a broader spectrum of skills. World Economic Forum’s Future of the Jobs Report estimate 65 percent of children entering primary schools today will ultimately work in new job types and functions that currently do not yet exist. This means we need agility in the work force. Provision of lifelong learning skills and opportunities for constant up skilling should be key focus areas of higher education providers.
The fourth industrial revolution is imminent and it will be foolish for us to think that Maldives will remain intact. The new wave of changes will bring about changes to structural economy. While many old jobs are expected to vanish and give way for new opportunities, the way we do our jobs will change significantly. Global Human Capital Report 2017 suggests constructing ‘future-ready’ curricula requires both reviewing core linguistic, mathematical and technological literacies and ensuring sufficient attention to building digital fluency. With the highest ranking of accessibility to information and technology in this region, Maldives has definitely got an edge on building the digital fluency. However, the term ‘digital fluency’ embodies deeper learning than simply being able to use a cell phone or a tablet. A similar concern shared by the Future of the Jobs Report is the challenges created by the prestige premium attached to tertiary-certified forms of education rather than the actual content of learning. Today’s youth require a portfolio of credentials rather than relying on a single degree. Professional growth largely depends on one’s ability to constantly acquire new skills and achieve networking.
In today’s globalised economy, we are all connected. Trends in other parts of the world are easily reflected in our own waters. Turbulences in geopolitics will also bring about shifts in the labour market requirements. Whether we want to join the Silk Route or the Spice Route, our success will largely depend on our ability to capitalize on the opportunities presented. Human capital development remains crucial. Critical and innovative thinking becomes the bedrock. While economic progress becomes our main drive, our stand for humanity, ethical stance and progressive thinking should remain firm.
The Department of Higher Education and the Maldives Qualifications Authority have a significant role to play to check quality aspects of higher education provision. Commoditization of higher education only driven by short term requirements to redeem certificates for jobs does not bring much long term benefit to the economy. Intrinsic value of higher education should never be foregone. The currency of the degree qualifications should be decided both in terms of their fit for purpose in the economy and their intrinsic value as an end in itself. Meanwhile, hyper-competition with a tendency to drive down prices to marginal costs may bring about more harmful effects than benefits. Institutions should be wary of this. Higher education funding schemes and Public Private Partnership initiatives should counter this by creating better opportunities for the less affluent. Private Higher Education Association of Maldives (PHEME) has a growing and a more active role to play in democratizing access to higher education.
In short, the higher education sector in the Maldives has a significant role to play in our journey on the trade wind. Competitiveness in the global economy calls for a robust education sector. While our recent achievements are pleasing, we should have a more vivid vision of our education system. Our long term security, global integrity, economic and political freedom lies with it.