It is no exaggeration to say that education has made the Caribbean what it is today. From rebellion, through emancipation, to the creation of unions and political parties, in revolution and the thirst for independence, education has been the common stream that enabled the flood of change.

Today, however, despite the deeply held belief of parents, governments and companies, that education is the key to personal and national development, the Caribbean is at a crossroads. Not only is secondary education failing many young people but just as importantly, higher and further education to a significant extent is not preparing individuals, nations, or the region for the world of tomorrow.

Resolving the problem is complex. There is still a tendency to see the way to success as a university degree that provides access to status through the law, teaching, higher grades of the public service, and politics. As the endless recitation of speakers’ qualifications and experience at almost every major Caribbean event attests, this still matters.

What is missing is the leadership and more importantly a Caribbean development model that recognizes that while the intellectual skills that lead to these disciplines remain essential, the nature of economic opportunity is changing, and small states that judiciously cultivate cadres of alternatively skilled individuals can obviate their limited size and physical resource.

Achieving change in education is no longer about measures that place a sticking plaster on current problems, but about developing a skilled knowledge-based, high-value-added, creative Caribbean work force able to establish a global place for the region’s largely small services-based economies.

As multiple recent reports indicate, in a world facilitated by connectivity, in which automation, robotics and the application of artificial intelligence and quantum computing are driving change and economic development, economies unable to reskill or upskill to meet the needs of the fourth industrial revolution will have an uncertain future.

Importantly, this is not just about acquiring high tech qualifications or skills but as much about relating differently to changing global demand and Caribbean needs, and focusing more on the quality of service, care, engagement, and creativity.

With the right training, skills development, marketing and much improved connectivity, location becomes an increasingly meaningless concept whether opportunity lies in future in the Americas, the wider world or in meeting the region’s own needs.

An upskilled region could become, by example, a hub providing animation and postproduction services; for fashion design; software and IT development; cybersecurity expertise; political analysis and research; the secure transcription of court proceedings; some accounting and audit functions; and other forms of mutually reinforcing, pan-Caribbean employment. It could also add significant value and profitability to the region’s valuable tourism product.

With an understanding of the remarkable changes taking place globally in agriculture, many labor-intensive forms of farming will ultimately be marginalized but with the right skills, automation, the application of genetic engineering solutions and new transformative growing methods, Caribbean agriculture could be revolutionized, and food security guaranteed.

Post-pandemic recovery and climate change mitigation aside, upskilling will almost certainly require the eventual abandonment of strategies that place importance on a belief that financial transfers from the wider world can enable the region to replicate the past. Instead, the process will require reimagining the future place of the Caribbean in the global economy and the energy to deliver policies to match.

Professor Avinash Persaud’s recent CARICOM Commission on the Economy provided context and depth when it comes to what global change will mean for education. It made clear that the responses now required are overdue, and about more than investment in reoriented education systems. Caribbean education, the Commissioners wrote, should be about reducing inequality. It “must embrace a shift from acquisition of information to the development of critical thinking, decision making, adaptability and innovation,” creating “global citizens, digitally literate, creative, collaborative with good interpersonal skills,” they said.

Achieving change in a region that is conservative and traditional when it comes to education may not be easy. It needs government and opposition parties to overcome their enmity and develop convincing policies that are in the long-term national interest and to say so publicly.

It also requires the private sector, the unions and wider civil society, including educators, to develop joined up thinking about the world of tomorrow and the Caribbean’s place within it. That is, to achieve a consensus on where national and regional weaknesses and strengths lie in relation to global change, and to identify practically how skills might be developed in relation to opportunity.

Central to this process will be guaranteed universal high-speed connectivity, the rapid regionwide roll out of 5G irrespective of U.S. caveats about the source of such technology, and the acquisition of low latency, broadband internet systems of the kind that private technology providers in the U.S. and China are developing, offering even the remotest locations total coverage.

It will also require a view on how skills development solutions are to be funded, and the role that well-managed and transparent national sovereign wealth funds dedicated to education might play. Well explained, able to capture popular imagination, and not subject to political whim, a Sovereign Education Fund based on mutual benefit, could for example receive a small proportion of tourism taxes, utilise Citizenship by Investment Funds presently wasted on recurrent expenditure, take advantage of a proportion of windfall income from oil and gas discoveries, or be positioned to require support from new investors in return for tax breaks.

Developing a new skills base will also involve reorienting the thinking of external partners about the nature of investment in the Caribbean’s future. The Biden administration is presently trying to identify projects that will enable the U.S. to compete with the infrastructure programs China has been developing across the Americas. If the U.S. and China genuinely want to see a stable independent region they need to understand that just as vital will be their support in helping develop the skills that will enable the nations of the region to be economically viable far into the future.

The region has creativity in abundance. Technological advance can enable young people in the region with the right skills to become citizens of the world while remaining at home, able to compete in future on an equal basis with their peers around the world. If the region is to experience the transformative growth implied by the fourth industrial revolution, new thinking and leadership will be essential. But more than that, young people must become more vocal advocates for their own future.

— David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at david.jessop@caribbean-council.org