It is a cruel paradox that a college education helps to escape poverty, but Filipinos have to be rich to afford one. Furthermore, those who do manage to go to college run the risk that the education they pay for may turn out to be sub-standard or defective. By Alan C. Robles
Critics say the root of the problem is that Philippines’ system of higher education follows the American model. Most universities and colleges are private and profit-driven. JC Tejano, the national spokesperson of the Student Council Alliance of the Philippines (SCAP), says: “All schools want to do is earn money.” In the SCAP’s view, they do far too little to ensure quality.
According to government data, there are 2,247 Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the Philippines, and 88 % of them are private colleges and universities. Of the country’s 2.9 million higher education students, 1.74 million (60 %) are enrolled in private schools. Though they are smaller in number, public HEIs tend to be crowded, underfunded and overstretched.
The government’s Council on Higher Education (CHED) currently estimates that, on the average, a student in a private school will pay 237,600 pesos (€ 4,200) for a four year course. On average, however, public schools, are not much cheaper. The CHED reckons that tuition for a complete four-year course will cost 233,600 pesos.
At a top tier university, however, the costs will amount to 400,000 pesos. The best and most expensive schools are in the private sector – but that is equally true for the worst and cheapest ones.
Compared with what a typical Filipino household earns, the costs of higher education are stiff. According to the official Philippines’ 2009 Family Income and Expenditure Survey, the average family’s annual income is a mere 206,000 pesos. The survey notes that for the families in the bottom 30 % the average is only 62,000 pesos.
HEIs tend to increase tuition every year. In the Philippines, college subjects are taught in small “units”. In 2005, according to the online magazine Bulatlat, the average cost per unit was more than 330 pesos. By 2011, the average tuition per unit had risen to more than 500 pesos.
Tuition isn’t the only financial worry of college students of course. The CHED figures do not include board, lodging, transportation and other expenses. These are not trifling outlays. For example, professors tell stories of students skipping classes because they cannot pay for transportation to go to school; there have also been reports of students who can’t focus because they’re weak from not having eaten properly.
Aggravating matters, HEIs are creative in devising ways of padding their bills. Among other things, they levy fees for “laboratories”, “energy” and “development”. Last year, Antonio Pascua Jr., an official of the youth group Anakbayan, claimed one school was charging a “restricted fee”, the purpose of which was not clear to students. He says this is “completely baffling”.
Patricia Licuanan, the CHED chairperson, wants “all HEIs to carefully study their tuition and fee increases each year”. On behalf of the government, she insists that every HEI should “spend wisely and judiciously in order to lessen the costs to its most important stakeholders – its students”.
The sad truth, however, is that many students discover at some point or another that they are no longer able to afford tuition and drop out of the HEI they have been attending. They either stop studying altogether or transfer to a cheaper HEI. The new schools are worse, of course, but they are also in the habit of increasing fees.
In 2005, the Bulatlat report stated the dropout rate was as high as 73 %. Today, student leader Tejano demands a freeze on tuition and other fees. His organisation wants the burden on ordinary people to decrease. It also wants to ensure that more youngsters get a good education.
Private HEIs respond by saying they have to raise tuition fees or go bankrupt. CHED’s Licuana agrees and says that “quality education has a price”. She points out costs for faculty salaries, laboratories, equipment et cetera. Therefore, she argues, tuition hikes are “necessary”. At the same time she wants them to be “justified, reasonable and transparent”.
Apart from the cost of education there is also the matter of quality. Among the private HEIs, there is a handful of top tier universities. Their graduates can probably compete with those of other elite schools around the world. Most other private-sector HEIs, however, basically seem to seek profits at the expense of substance.
A university faculty member, who asks not to be identified, says: “Some of them shouldn’t even be schools at all – there’s a proliferation of HEIs which are not qualified.” This educator speaks of fly-by-night operations” and “diploma mills”. While some do not charge high tuition, their quality is below standard.
Other teachers, who decline to be identified, tell disturbing stories too. One school, for instance, does not stock books in its library because its president argues that books are obsolete and everything can be downloaded from the Internet. A few semesters ago, another HEI was still using a textbook on international studies dated 1976. The world has changed since. 1976 was one year after the Vietnam War, 13 years before the fall of the Berlin wall and 25 years before September 11.
Another professor tells of a school that refuses to give faculty members money for photocopying exam papers. They either have to pay for copying themselves or write everything out on a blackboard.
The government of President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III is not blind to the problem of low standards in higher education. In fact, it has ambitious reform plans for the education sector. They include adding extra years to primary and secondary schooling.
There is indeed room for improvement, as CHED Chairperson Licuanan says: “The Aquino administration inherited a chaotic higher education system.” In her view it is marked by too many higher-education institutions and programmes, a job-skills mismatch, oversubscribed and undersubscribed programmes, deteriorating quality and limited access to quality higher education.
For these reasons, the CHED is pursuing a Higher Education Reform Agenda. Among other things, it aims to improve standards and expand access.
At the same time, the commission’s political clout is being tested at the ground level. For some time, it has been trying to close down a Manila school called the International Academy of Management and Economics. This school uses the acronym IAME, which sounds a bit like the vastly more prestigious Asian Institute of Management (AIM). The CHED accuses the IAME of “gross and serious violations, continued defiance and failure to comply with existing laws, rules and regulations”. Nonetheless, IAME is still in business. It claims to have close ties to President Aquino himself.
Shady schools, however, are not the only challenge. Because secondary education tends to be poor in the Philippines, HEIs take off from a rather low level. The writer and scholar Isagani Cruz, who is a visiting fellow at Oxford University and has taught at various top-tier HEIs in the Philippines, asserts that first year college in the Philippines is really only equivalent to high school in other countries in academic terms.
All these issues prevent education from effectively contributing to economic growth and national development. The issue is well understood. Bill Luz of the National Competitiveness Council states: “Many in the business community have complained about our state of education. Indeed in global competitive indices, we have been rated poorly in terms of quality of basic education, quality of science and math education.” He points out that cooperation between industry and academia must improve.
Indeed, many graduates lack the kind of skills and knowledge that employers expect of professionals. “A large number of college graduates are taking low productivity jobs,” was the assessment of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in a country study of the Philippines in 2007. In the same document, the ADB bemoaned a “scarcity of skilled workers in industries such as information technology and business process outsourcing”.
Earlier this year, the World Bank made basically the same point about the Philippines in a report on higher education in Asia. It argued that there was a disconnect between the education system, government programmes and private sector needs. Unsurprisingly, the report recommended improving the quality of higher education in order to boost the professional competence of graduates.
My thoughts on why it pays to rethink the meaning of education:
I’m sure I’m not the only one frustrated by this. But what can we do to be part of the solution?
If anything I’m not against education; just with the highly archaic system that puts a premium on tried-and-tested systems over innovation. Most of our schooling is based on grades and that one right answer; but when we go out we realize that there is more to life than getting straightforward answers. Life is not black and white, after all.
I’m not yet a parent but I think it’s important that parents nurture their kids to treasure learning rather than formal education. It starts by leading by example. What’s a degree when we cannot even stand up for ourselves when we lose our jobs, experience a state financial meltdown, or when conflict strikes?
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