La República de Panamá is a small country of approximately 30,000 square miles and 3 million inhabitants, bordered by Costa Rica and Colombia. It forms a bridge between Central and South America, and is home to the Panama Canal.
The history of education in Panama is considered to have progressed through three distinct periods: (1) the Colonial Era (1501-1821), (2) the Colombian Era (1821-1903), and (3) the Era of the Republic (1903 to the present).
Education in Panama began with the arrival of the Jesuit priests in 1519, the year the city of Panama was founded. The Jesuits established various primary schools over the years, followed by a high school in 1744 and the Universidad de San Javier in 1750.
This period came to an abrupt end, however, in 1767 when the Jesuits were expelled from the country by order of King Carlos III of Spain.
The second noteworthy period of education development in Panama began in 1821 with Colombia's independence from Spain while Panama still formed part of Colombia. In 1841, the Universidad del Istmo was established to provide studies in Spanish and Latin
grammar, rhetoric, theology and law and maintained operations until 1852, after which there was no formal higher education in Panama until the beginning of the next century.
Education as a national endeavor revived after Panama's separation from Colombia in 1903. The constitution mandates obligatory public primary education and pledges support for secondary and professional education; thus, education at all levels began to
flourish during the 1900s and, by the late 1990s, the literacy rate had grown to over 90%. According to the constitution, higher education falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministerio de Educación,
but authority for curricular oversight resides with the University of Panama by law.
Primary and Secondary Education
Education is free and compulsory from ages 4 to 15. Escuela primaria (Primary school) is 6 years beginning at age 6. No credential is awarded upon completion of primary school. Educación pre-media (Lower secondary school) is 3 years
and, upon completion, students are awarded a Diploma de Pre-Media. Educación media (Upper secondary school) is 3 years and students are awarded a Diploma de Educación Media or a Diploma de Bachiller upon completion
The University of Panama was established in 1935. Predating this, the first higher education institution in the Republic of Panama was actually the Panama Canal Junior College (aka Panama Canal College) founded in 1933 by the United States to offer classes
to the military and civilian personnel of the U.S. Canal Zone, but not to the general public of Panama. When the Panama Canal reverted to Panama in 1999, Florida State University - Panama was allowed the use of the PCC campus and currently awards
a few undergraduate degrees to students of all nationalities. Additionally, with the reversion of the Canal Zone territory, the "City of Knowledge" was founded. Governed by a private non-profit organization, the City of Knowledge is an international
complex for education, research and innovation that was developed to promote and facilitate synergies between universities, scientific research centers, businesses, and international organizations.
In 1965, Panama's second university, the Universidad Católica Santa María la Antigua (USMA) was founded through a law passed by the government, making it the only private university in the country established in this manner. This has meant
that the USMA holds quasi-official status and is listed in Panama's official NGO registry for international technical aid programs.
Panama continued with two universities in its higher education system until 1981, after which four more public universities were established: the Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá (Technological University of Panama, UTP) in 1981, which
evolved from the School of Engineering of the University of Panama; the Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí (the Autonomous University of Chiriqui) in 1994; the Universidad Especializada de Las Américas (the Specialized University
of the Americas), concentrating in special education, in 1997; and most recently, the Universidad Marítima Internacional de Panamá (the International Maritime University of Panama) in 2007, which evolved from the original Escuela Nautica
The last two decades have witnessed an explosion of private universities in Panama-of both domestic and international origin-many of which operate as for-profit entities. Currently, the Ministry of Education recognizes a total of 36 universities operating
in the country. The Public Registry, however, lists over 80 universities currently operating in Panama. In response to this growth, Panama is now beginning to create structures related to quality assurance; the Consejo de Rectores de Panamá
(Council of Rectors) was established in 1995 and the Consejo Nacional de Evaluación y Acreditación Universitaria de Panamá (National Council of University Evaluation and Accreditation - CONEAUPA) was formally established at the
end of 2006, but its secretariat is still in the preparatory stages of organization.
The Panamanian government spends a total of 5.7 percent of GDP on education of all levels (UNESCO 2003). Nearly all Panamanians (94 percent) of primary school age are enrolled and 92.5 percent of the age group completes primary school. At the secondary
level, 57.8 percent of those in the corresponding age group are enrolled and of those, only half complete their studies. University level study has progressed from the 7 percent enrollment rate prevalent in the 1950s to a current rate of 25 percent.
Nevertheless, there are still significant socioeconomic discrepancies as only 3 percent of the poor attend university compared to 31 percent of the non-poor (PREAL-COSPAE 2002).
First Cycle, Academic
First-level university programs are 4-5 years long, depending on the program of study, and require a Diploma de Educación Media or a Diploma de Bachiller for admission, plus an entrance examination. Students are awarded a Licenciatura (licentiate) upon successful completion of studies.
First Cycle, Vocational/Technical
Vocational post-secondary programs are offered at higher studies centers and institutes. They are 2-3 years long and students are awarded a Técnico upon successful completion of studies.
Second-level university studies require a licenciatura for admission. Diplomado and Postgrado (Post-Graduate) programs are 1-2 years long. Programs leading to a Maestría are 1-2 years long.
Doctoral studies are at least 3 years long and require a maestría for admission. Upon successful defense of a dissertation, students are awarded a Doctorado (Doctorate).