On “Minimum Standards” in Higher Education in the Context of Academic Freedom

A position paper occasioned by the Dec. 10, 2014 hearing of the Congressional Committee on Higher and Technical Education on RA 3393: “A Framework for Quality Assurance for Higher Education in the Philippines” sponsored by its chairman, Hon. Roman Romulo.

By:  Fr. Joel Tabora, S.J., President, Philippine Accrediting Association of Schools Colleges and Universities (PAASCU)

 

RA 7722, entitled, “The Higher Education Act of the Philippines, does not enact higher education for the Philippines. Long before its creation of the Commission on Higher Education in 1994, higher education had been thriving in the Philippines. The Dominicans started the Royal and Pontifical University of the Philippines in 1611. The Jesuits began their Ateneo de Manila in 1839. The Presbyterians began Silliman University in 1901. The University of the Philippines, the Philippines’ national university, was founded in 1939.

RA 7722 does not create higher education. Nor does it presume to define “higher education.” Higher education in its private, sectarian and public modes was already existing and functioning when it was enacted. This was its inevitable context. It provisions were meant to be interpreted not only by lawyers and bureaucrats, but also and especially by those already actively involved with higher education.

RA 7722 was certainly not enacted to kill higher education, to reduce it to basic education. It was enacted rather to highlight and promote what is essential to higher education.

What RA 7722 did was to detach the public governance of higher education in the Philippines from the Department of Education, Culture and Sports, run by a Secretary of Education. This was required not just because the DECS under one Secretary had too much to govern. It was because the nature of higher education needed a form of governance other than the top-down prescriptive management of the DECS. RA 7722 was higher education’s emancipation from DECS. Where DECS then, and DepEd now, determines, controls and governs what is necessary for basic education, the Higher Education Act created a collegial Commission on Higher Education; it was collegial not only among the five commissioners, but also collegial within the higher educational community. Collegially, it is to mediate quality higher education in an ongoing collegial conversation with the higher educational community through two essential components: academic freedom and minimum standards.

 

Academic Freedom

I say mediate because our Philippine higher education is rooted undeniably in the medieval European universitas – where teachers and scholars came together in the universitas, meaning community, to search for truth in academic freedom. In academic freedom – freedom from the coercions of ideologies, dogmas and fixed doctrines – the scholars and teachers could search for the truth of everything – of God, of nature and of humanity. They were free to question anything and everything.   They pursued truth according to their self-imposed disciplines of reason and method, of discussion and debate, with truth and only truth as their only arbiter.

Higher education that pursues truth is properly not governed except by its own critical self-governance. It is not controlled exteriorly. Governed higher education is an oxymoron. Higher education “governance” is mediated from within. CHED’s position vis-a-vis the higher educational community is not over and above, prescribing and controlling, but within and among, encouraging and mediating. Its posture is not the governor. For the presuppositions with which the higher pursuit of truth is presumptuously governed can always be questioned in the imperatively persistent pursuit of truth. Higher education cannot be subjected to the rationalizations and mechanisms of a state ideology, a religious theology, a scientific paradigm, a pragmatic program for nation building, and especially not to the arbitrary preferences of a political administration. It cannot be lackey to the ends of a consumption economy nor to the creativity or whining of a business community. It can in freedom investigate, evaluate and promote any of these positions, allowing themselves to be convinced by their arguments, but should any ultimately prevail over higher education in governance, it prevails over a carcass.

Rather than the posture of governor, the posture of CHED is more of the midwife, the characterization of Socrates in his dialogues (Theaetetus, 150 b-c), not arrogating childbirth to his own wisdom and governance, but helping humbly, questioning, responding appropriately, coaxing, serving, encouraging, so that an other gives birth.

If higher education, therefore, has any essential component, it is academic freedom. This is why both our Philippine Constitution and RA 7722 strongly protect academic freedom. “Academic freedom shall be enjoyed in all institutions of higher learning” (Sec 5 (2), Art. 14, Constitution). This is clearly echoed and specified in RA 7722 in its Declaration of Policy:

“…The State shall likewise ensure and protect academic freedom and shall promote its exercise and observance for the continuing intellectual growth, the advancement of learning and research, the development of responsible and effective leadership, the education of high level and middle level intellectuals, and the enrichment of our historical and cultural heritage” (Sec 2).

It must be appreciated that the higher education law does not simply prescribe that the State shall promote intellectual growth, learning, research, leadership, the education of professionals, and our cultural heritage. It does not arrogate this ability to itself. The State is mandated to “ensure and protect,” to “exercise and observe” academic freedom. The reason is simply because without academic freedom in higher education intellectual growth is stunted, learning is petrified, research is shackled, leadership is tyrannized, professional development impaired, and our historical and cultural heritage ideologized. Teachers are held to teach only what is prescribed and in the manner that is prescribed, students are forced to learn only what authority imposes on them, higher education institutions are allowed to engage only teachers who toe the same line. Academic freedom, in jurisprudence, includes the freedom to determine whom to teach, who may teach, what to teach, how to teach.[1] At core, however, it is the freedom to search for truth relentlessly, to teach the truth, to teach the truth to deserving persons, to teach the truth well.

In the same Declaration of Policy, RA 7722 states:

“State supported institutions of higher learning shall gear their programs to national, regional or local development plans.”

The law respects that programs geared to national, regional and development plans imply a specific content that not all HEIs in the Philippines may choose to teach. This may include specific programs for economic advancement, mining engineering, fisheries development, nanotechnology, BPO agents, forest conservation, and the like. So it confines its mandate in this regard to those institutions supported by the State. It also supports its mandate financially. HEIs that find the resources to support themselves are not bound by this mandate. Emphatically, however, even this mandate cannot be construed as denying state-supported higher-education institutions academic freedom (cf. Sec 13).

Finally:

“…all institutions of higher learning shall exemplify though their physical and natural surroundings the dignity and beauty of, as well as their pride in, the intellectual and scholarly life.”

All HEIs are to be proud exponents of the dignity and beauty of the intellectual and scholarly life. Their physical and natural surroundings should promote this. I think what is referred to is not only the beauty of higher education campuses nor even the dignity of the ceremonies that celebrate higher education achievement. What is referred to is more the dignity of intellectual achievement, attained often through years of rigorous independent research, gruelling examinations, courageous publications reviewed by expert peers, and the beauty of higher education shaping the quality of human culture and the meaning of human industry.

The crucial importance of academic freedom for higher education is underscored through RA 7722’s Guarantee of Academic Freedom (Sec. 13):

“Nothing in this Act shall be construed as limiting academic freedom of universities and colleges.”

This is clear. Not the creation of CHED, not the powers conferred on it, not the Technical Panels that function only within limits of RA 7722, may abridge academic freedom.

Later, we will return to the specifications of this guarantee.

 

Minimum Standards

RA 7722 mediates higher education through the protection and promotion, exercise and observance of academic freedom. But also through setting minimum standards.

Minimum standards are not defined by the law. But the law does provide enough indication to construe how they must be understood.

Among the few clear powers of CHED is to:

“set minimum standards for programs and institutions of higher learning recommended by panels of experts in the field and subject to public hearing, and enforce the same.” (Emphasis provided)

Sec. 12 provides for the “panels of experts”:

The Technical Panels. The Commission shall reconstitute and/or organise technical panels for different disciplines/program areas. They shall assist the Commission in setting standards and in program and institution monitoring and evaluation. The technical panels shall be composed of senior specialists or academicians to be appointed by the Commission.” (Emphasis provided)

After the blanket guarantee of academic freedom in Sec 13, RA 7722 states:

“In particular no abridgement of curricular freedom of the individual educational institutions by the Commission shall be made except for: (a) minimum unit requirements for specific academic programs; (b) general education distribution requirements as may be determined by the Commission; and (c) specific professional subjects as may be stipulated by the various licensing entities. No academic or curricular restriction shall be made upon private educational institutions which are not required for chartered state colleges and universities.”

Respecting the crucial importance of academic freedom for higher education, as reviewed above, RA 7722 mandates CHED to two tasks complementary to academic freedom: first, set minimum standards for programs and institutions, and second, enforce them.   Program standards are norms against which performance in academic programs can be measured. Institutional standards are norms against which the performance of institutions can be measured. Minimum program standards, from the side of the HEI, are the standards, failure to achieve which by the HEI would warrant closure of the program by CHED; this is because CHED is mandated to enforce minimum standards. Minimum program standards, from the side of the student, are the standards, failure to achieve which by the student would warrant and necessitate failure of the student by the HEI.

Beyond minimum standards, standards indicate levels of performance from mediocre to excellence. This is not unfamiliar. In letter grades, F indicates failure to achieve minimum standards. D, C. B. and A indicate increasing degrees of excellence. In numeric grades 74 indicates failure, 75 to 100 increasing degrees of excellence. In RA 7722, it is against the minimum standards that acceptable and excellent performance is measured.

Minimum program standards are the absolute requirements for running the program. But according to RA 7722, they may not abridge the HEIs curricular freedom except in three cases: first “minimum unit requirements for specific academic programs” (Sec. 13 a). Notice that that for this large group of non-professional courses, the law does not say minimum requirements, but specifies minimum unit requirements. The law does not specify content or method; these already belong to the realm of academic freedom. For these programs, only the minimum requirements in units must be specified.

Curricular freedom may be abridged, secondly, for “(b) general education distribution requirements as may be determined by the Commission.” The Commission here may determine general education requirements and how they are to be distributed in a curriculum. These are courses all higher education students must take as a general requirement of higher education.

Finally curricular freedom may be abridged for “(c) specific professional subjects as may be stipulated by the various licensing entities.” For professional programs, the various licensing entities (and not the CHED Technical Panels) stipulate professional subjects which are required by the profession.

All else belongs to the realm of curricular freedom, part of academic freedom.

 

The Technical Panels

Sec 12 provides for the Technical Panels:

“The Commission shall reconstitute and/or organize technical panels for different disciplines/program areas. They shall assist the Commission in setting standards and in program and institution monitoring and evaluation. The technical panels shall be composed of senior specialists or academicians to be appointed by the Commission.” (Emphasis provided.)

The technical panels are constituted in the context of CHED’s mandate to “ensure and protect academic freedom” and to “promote its exercise and observance” and CHED’s key stated power “to set minimum standards for programs and institutions recommended by panels of experts…” (Sec. 8 d) which it is to enforce. The technical panels are the “panels of experts” referred to in Sec. 8 d. Therefore the “standards” referred to in Sec. 12 must be construed as “minimum standards.” On a continuum of F-D-C-B-A, if F is “Failure” and D is “Just Passing”, the standards that the Technical Panels must help the Commission must set and enforce are the minimum “just passing” standards. In enforcement, if the Program does not meet these standards, CHED must terminate the program (cf. Sec. 8 e).   It is similar with minimum standards for institutions and the possible closure of schools. (cf. ibid).

A reading of Sec 12 out of context may lead the technical panels to propose standards beyond the minimum, to propose that the particular standards of excellence to which individual panel members may be wont due to their evident and practiced expertise should be imposed on all higher education institutions by the Commission. The expertise of commission members must therefore include the ability to understand and make this distinction in their respective areas of expertise for the educational community. Minimum standards are not optimum standards. And the Commission must make sure, in its mandate to ensure and protect academic freedom and to promote its exercise and preservation, that it does not impose optimum standards on all. Beyond minimum standards, excellence may be achieved in myriad ways, through different pedagogies and schools of thought, all belonging to the academic freedom of the HEIs. CHED has no power to enforce standards of excellence, because it does not set standards of excellence. It sets and enforces minimum standards.

 

Academic Responsibility, Quality and Quality Assurance

Academic freedom, meanwhile, must be exercised responsibility. Academic responsibility is the reverse side of academic freedom. Academic freedom, driven by the pursuit of truth, and not by arbitrariness, profit, bureaucratic correctness, cooptation by external authority, posits academic responsibility, just as academic responsibility posits academic freedom. Academic freedom in responsibility seeks for higher education its own quality. This leads us to the pivotal definition of Quality in HB 3393 for higher education. Quality necessarily has four dimensions: the fulfillment of minimum standards enforced by government, the drive to excellence through learner outcomes, the ability of the HEI to realize its mission and vision, the responsiveness of the HEI to stakeholders.[2]

Minimum standards are enforced by government in all HEIs as a sine qua non of excellence.

Excellence, however, is achieved by the HEIs in academic freedom. It is checked and measured by external quality assurance bodies in the academic freedom and responsibility of the HEI. This is also true of the HEI implementation of its vision-mission and of its responsiveness to stakeholders.

 

Summary

Higher education flourishes in academic freedom. Without academic freedom, higher education dies. RA 7722 did not invent higher education. It emancipated it from the prescriptiveness of basic education governance. Higher education properly cannot be governed, except from within, through self-governance with truth alone as arbiter. CHED, therefore, mediates higher education, not exteriorly from above, but collegially from within, through genuine collegial conversations and consensus building. Its role is comparable to the Socratic midwife, not itself giving birth but helping the other, the HEI, give birth. It is in this context that it sets minimum standards for programs and institutions as a basis for the exercise by HEIs of academic freedom. The technical panels are to help the Commission to perform its limited mandate: to set and enforce minimum standards. They may recommend optimum standards, but their acceptance and realization belongs to the academic freedom of the HEIs. Part of the expertise of the members of the technical panels is to distinguish between optimum and minimum standards; part of the duty of the Commission is not to impose anything beyond minimum standards. Driven by truth, academic freedom in higher education must be exercised responsibility. Academic freedom posits academic responsibility, as academic responsibility to the truth posits academic freedom. In academic freedom, the HEI exercises quality assurance, internally, through its own self governance, and externally, through the service of expert external quality assurance bodies.[3]

 

 

__________

[1] Cf. ADMU vs. Capulong G. R. No. 99327, May 27, 1993: “…the essential freedoms subsumed by Justice Felix Frankfurter in the term ‘academic freedom” cited in the case of Sweezy v. New Hamshire 354 U.S. (1957) thus : (1) who may teach; (2) what may be taught; (3) how it shall be taught; and ‘who may be admitted to study.”

 

[2] CHED’s controversial CMO 46 s. 2012 misses two of these in its definition of “quality”: in Art. 2, sec. 6: minimum standards and responsiveness to stakeholders. Consider the nature of higher education and CHED’s mandate to “set” and “enforce minimum standards” this is a catastrophic oversight. The error, still uncorrected for over more than two years by CHED, underscores the necessity for the enactment of a framework on quality assurance for the Philippines as in Congressman Romulo’s HB 3393.

 

[3] As a external quality assurance body, the Philippine Accrediting Association of Schools, Colleges and Universities, has been providing the service of quality assurance through accreditation to schools for 57 years. It is the third oldest accrediting association in the world.

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About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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One Response to On “Minimum Standards” in Higher Education in the Context of Academic Freedom

  1. Great article. I will be dealing with a few of these issues as well..

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