For the year 2000, adult illiteracy was estimated at 8.1% of the population (males, 7.4%; females, 8.7%). Education is free and compulsory for children ages 6 through 15. At secondary, vocational, and university levels, fees may be charged for the development of libraries and laboratories. Primary education lasts six years. In 1996 there were 2,849 primary schools with 371,250 students. The pupil-teacher ratio at the primary level was estimated at 26 to 1 in 1999. Secondary education has two stages, each lasting three years. In 1996, secondary schools enrolled 221,022 students, taught by 12,239 teachers. As of 1999, 98% of primary-school-age children were enrolled in school, while 61% of those eligible attended secondary school. A major school construction program began in 1999, and the percentage of students completing the sixth grade is projected to rise from 78% in 1997 to 90% by the year 2002.
The leading institution of higher education, the state-run University of Panama, was founded in Panama City in 1935. A Catholic university, Santa María la Antigua, was inaugurated in May 1965, with an initial enrollment of 233. In 1996, at all institutions of higher learning, there were 4,979 teaching staff with 80,980 students enrolled. Approximately 16.3% of the central government budget was allocated to education in the period between in the latter half of the 1990s. As of 1999, public expenditure on education was estimated at 5% of GDP.