Postsecondary education and skills training programs are helping to put Maldivians back in control of their own future.

Malé, Maldives - Not much more than a decade ago, postsecondary education in the Maldives involved government institutions operating under widely differing guidelines and with sharply variable standards. There were no degree courses in the country, and the government was taking out loans to send promising scholars abroad to study.

"Back then, these institutions were just serving the needs of the different ministries and it was clear a single organization was required to harmonize standards and to improve the use of government resources," says Maldives National University vice chancellor, Hassan Hameed.

Enter the Postsecondary Education Development Project, ADB's first foray into education in the Maldives. The initiative, funded by a $6.3 million equivalent concessional Asian Development Fund (ADF) loan, sought to pull together the existing agencies and to tackle problematic issues of quality, access, and efficiency across the sector.

Education milestones

The project, which ran from 1999 to 2007, achieved a number of landmark milestones. It successfully consolidated the operations of the ministry-led institutions under one umbrella body - the Maldives College of Higher Education - rationalizing costs and administration. The project also paved the way for the Maldives Qualifications Authority, which enabled the private sector to offer government-recognized courses to the public, and spurred the growth of six private colleges. The project established a national quality-assurance framework to help develop curricula and courses of international standard. Overseas scholarships were given to talented teachers to improve their skills, and an internationally recognized software system for managing student information was put in place.

The result has been a turnaround in postsecondary education, with the Maldives College of Higher Education transforming into the fully autonomous Maldives National University in February 2011.

"People now have confidence in higher education, that we have the ability to run courses of international standard." - Hussain Haleem, deputy vice-chancellor, Maldives National University

"People now have confidence in higher education, that we have the ability to run courses of international standard," says Hussain Haleem, deputy vice-chancellor of administration and finance for the university. "Before the College of Higher Education, there were no degree programs. Now every faculty runs them and we offer master's and even PhD programs for some."

Gender inclusive

Reaching out to students, including girls, from isolated atolls where poverty is higher and educational opportunities limited, was another broad project goal. The project funded classrooms in two outer atolls, which have now grown into full-fledged campuses, providing accommodation and an expanding range of courses for students who cannot afford to come to the capital, Malé. In some instances, students from Male have taken up specialized courses in the outreach campuses, helping to ease pressure on MNU facilities in the capital.

Female students from outer islands, in particular, find it difficult to come to the capital, Malé, where they have to live with relatives, or in costly boarding houses. Accordingly, ADB supported training programs at several outreach campuses in outer atolls, providing incentives for trainee teachers to study there.

According to Faculty of Health Sciences dean, Aishath Shaheen Ismail, the project funded three nursing trainee teachers to continue their studies at outreach campuses on the condition that they remain bonded to the faculty for 2 years afterwards.

From 2006 to 2008, the fledgling university produced an average of 1,200 graduates a year, with females making up nearly 60%, and students from outer atolls about 85% of the total―sharply higher than the original targets of 45% and 50% respectively.

In the Faculty of Health Sciences alone, over 780 female nurses received training during the project, well above the goal of 300.

Kicking the expat habit

Mariyam Shifaana Hussain, an enthusiastic 24-year-old who is studying nursing in Malé, says she wants to help address the current imbalance in the profession, in which up to 60% of nursing positions are filled by expatriates.

"I joined this faculty because I think there is a real need in the community for local nurses at the moment. Expat nurses are competent but sometimes there are communication and religious issues that make us better suited." - Mariyam Shifaana Hussain, 24, nursing student

"I joined this faculty because I think there is a real need in the community for local nurses at the moment," she said. "Expat nurses are competent but sometimes there are communication and religious issues that make us better suited."

Key parts of the workforce, including tourism and construction, are dominated by expatriate workers─who number about 100,000─while many Maldivians, especially women and young people, are excluded due to a range of factors, including limited access to skills training. Minister of Education Dr. Asim Ahmed estimates that as many as one in four people are out of work.

Skills training

To help provide marketable skills and to get more Maldivians into the labor force, ADB followed up the postsecondary initiative with the Employment Skills Training Project, funded by a $6 million ADF loan.

The project, which established technical vocational skills training programs, focused on five key sectors, and trained 5,829 youths out of a target of 6,000. Maldives Polytechnic staff estimate that 50% of those trained now have jobs.

It also developed competency-based skills standards for vocational training in both the public and private sectors, and paved the way for the establishment of the sector regulatory body, the Technical Vocational Education Training Authority.

"A key aspect of the project was putting in place a system where training is provided by both educational institutions and private enterprises and is driven by the real needs of employers," says Mariyam Noordeen, assistant executive director of the Technical and Vocational Education and Training Authority.

However, the project was not without its problems, including lengthy delays in implementation. In addition, broader issues continue to weigh on education and employment. Dr. Asim, estimates that the gross enrollment ratio in degree and higher level programs in Maldives is under 5%.

Many young Maldivians continue to shun blue-collar jobs, such as those in the construction sector, viewing them as low-paid, low-status positions. Many jobs are in tourist resorts on remote islands, where commuting is difficult, especially for women. There are also limited technical and vocational training facilities.

"The Technical and Vocational Education and Training Authority has established the standards for vocational training both in the private sector and other institutions," says Dr. Asim. "The challenge for the Maldives now is to improve the profile and appeal of vocational jobs and to provide vocational courses in schools so that more students can learn technical skills."