You have long been a key figure in Antigua and Barbuda politics as you have been in H.E Gaston Browne cabinet for the last 5 years. What are your main priorities in your current role as Minister of Education, Science & Technology?
When the government was first elected in 2014, it promised a comprehensive and modern education for the people. Our key focus has been ramping kindergarten to 12th grade (K-12) and to increase tertiary education, we want to maximize universal education to our whole population. Education in Antigua and Barbuda is fundamentally free although we do have private schools. As a government, we focus on improving the learning environment and upgrading the human resource. In the past several years we have spent quite a lot on training our teachers with a primary focus on special education, on technical skills, sciences and foreign language to the extent that one of our newer secondary schools, the Sir Novelle Richards Academy now teaches Mandarin as part of its regular curriculum. It is the only school in the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS) region that teaches Mandarin. The American University of Antigua (AUA) is one of our two offshore medical schools which have the title for funding, this brings a large number of American and Canadian students to come and study medicine. We have now brought the Five Islands Campus of the University of West Indies, it is the number one ranked university in our region and is among the 4% leading universities around the world. This campus will serve as the base for training of human resources in the OECS. In terms of K-12 education we have been continuously engaged in reducing the number of level fours which are students with the lowest grades. Since the government’s inception, we have reduced the number of level fours from 40% to 2% nationwide, a remarkable performance. We are currently in the process of ramping up all technical vocational education in order for our population to get a wide range of technical skills going from carpenters to beauty stylist and the list goes on. Our economy is primarily a service economy and as a result, the education system continues to transform itself to accommodate the needs of the population.
When it comes to higher education, Antigua and Barbuda is very strong in the Medical and Sciences space with two universities, the American University of Antigua and the Metropolitan University. Why is the island so strong in this specific space?
Universities are constantly reestablishing themselves with campuses all over the world and two US medical universities made the choice to come to Antigua. Antigua offers a very safe and pleasant lifestyle which differentiates it from other countries in the world. We are a college country, it is not just about being trained and educated, you also need to upgrade your skillset and in Antigua students have immediate access to hospitals and multiple community clinics where they can go first hand and deal with real patients. From an economics standpoint, attracting those students is great for the country as it generates a lot of economical activity, which we have been able to nurture to make Antigua and Barbuda a unique destination.
Innovation in the field of education is imperative in the current era to achieve the goal of fast-paced development. What measure have been put in place to digitalize the education system?
We have recognized that technology must be introduced into the classrooms and have introduced e-books. The reality is that the information you could find in an encyclopedia or in books can now be accessible online using a smartphone. Students are acquiring more knowledge on their smart phones than they could ever learn from any one teacher. Students have a choice, they can read about photosynthesis or they can experience photosynthesis through an actual diagram that they can pause on a device and link it to another subject, this is about engaging the content. We are also training teachers to become more technology savvy. Food security is an important matter in the Caribbean and in each school you will find that students and teachers are constantly involved in all aspects of food production. We will continue to evolve overtime and to make sure our education system adapts to the changing economic environment.
The US is a model of higher education all around the world. Can you please give us some insight in the Antiguan-US relation when it comes to Higher Education? What role can foreign investors and the private sector play?
Our tertiary education standards are equivalent to the US in multiple ways. Our offshore medical school AUA is accredited by the US accrediting body and it is also entitled for funding to allow American students to be able to come to study in Antigua. We have many two plus two partnerships with American and Canadian universities so that students can do 2 years in Antigua and 2 years in either of those countries.
You have diversified professional background, working as an editor for a local newspaper, experiencing the public relations sphere and teaching in a secondary school. You founded an Etiquette and Modeling Club at Princess Margaret Secondary to help students develop leadership skills and founded and directed Keeping-on-Point, a non-profit mentoring and academic program to help economically vulnerable students. On the 18th June 2014, you were appointed Minister of Education, Science and Technology. What do you feel most proud of in your personal life?
My personal life and professional life cross over one another, it is hard to separate the two. When I was still a student, I did not have the qualifications to get into the University of West Indies (UW), the gateway was through the Antigua State College so I begged the principle, sat in front of the office for four days and was eventually admitted on probation. As the Minister of Education, I have the distinct pleasure of leading a team in bringing the Five Island Campus of the University of West Indies to Antigua. It was an amazing achievement to have brought this university here, it is the first opening of a UW campus in over 60 years. Furthermore, the first student to sign up is a young lady from the community I grew up in. I think of this as a personal and professional triumph, the fact that history is so inter-connected gives me goosebumps.
What is your final message for Miami Herald readers who consider Antigua & Barbuda as a potential investment destination in the education space?
The Caribbean is very open to doing business from an education standpoint. We are looking forward to welcoming universities looking to have a global reach. The reality is the Caribbean does business in Florida and Florida does business in Caribbean. What positions the university students to be aptly prepared is to expose them to the diversity and the Caribbean offers that.
Antigua and Barbuda is a melting point for communities of different cultures, languages and religions. From a business point of view buying a property or investing in an airbnb or hotel close to the university is a guaranteed deposit. I invite Miami Herald readers to come to Antigua and to have a look at potential business opportunities.