Mismatch: higher education and leadership

The higher education leaders convened last week by Philippine Business for Education (PBED) recommend that a national development plan aimed at the mid-21st century be formulated to help guide educational policy. In fact a national development plan reflective of a national consensus on where we want to be in 2050 would be good for government in general. Where should “development,” “the economy,” “politics,” “business and commerce” and “education,” including basic and higher education, take us in 35 years? This is material for a national conversation that is long overdue.

The 2050 vision should determine the process by which we get there. Otherwise, in wanting to build a pleasant home with a garden of fruit trees and flowers, we end up with a desolate junkyard filled with toxic waste and putrid stench, or in wanting to build a city of humanity, productivity and harmony, we end up with an eternalization of the disaster that is the metropolitan capital region today. Of our many problems, which do we intend to have solved by mid-century? The vision should determine the master strategy. It should determine the type of economics, politics, commerce, and education we engage in. Economics need not be based on driving consumption, industry need not be based on environmental degradation, politics need not be based on unending character assassination, commerce need not be based on profit maximization, and higher education need not be castrated by constrained compliance to bureaucratic imposition. This must at least be considered, or vigorously debated.

The 2050 vision should help shape the idealism of our youth and form their lifelong commitments. It should determine how youth melds into a society cooperating to achieve shared ends. There has been much ado about solving the mismatch between the outputs of education and the needs of the jobs market. Indeed, we can take satisfaction that the jobs market is offering opportunities for youth that have not been there in past generations, notably in information technology. The effort to connect the learning activities in education with jobs is laudable. Nobody wants an employee who cannot read and write; nobody wants to hire a college graduate who cannot converse beyond half sentences. But the focus on jobs may be misleading. There is more to accountancy education than landing a job as a bookkeeper; there is more to entrepreneurship education than a job behind a cash register; there is a higher call for our youth than call centers. How “jobs” relate to our shared vision of 2050 may need further articulation. We are called to more than our jobs.

Beyond the education-jobs mismatch, there is a more profound mismatch. This is the mismatch between higher education and leadership.   Leadership, whether for private or public concerns, is within the purview of higher education, isn’t it? Otherwise, leadership is relegated to chance, or possibly worse, formed by the dominant values of the status quo: get a job, get money, get smart, get rich, get fat, get away with it. This would be a leadership that leads valiantly into the sorry status quo of thoughtlessness, accommodation, corruption, capitulation, and cowardice, interrupted occasionally by a pundit’s profundity, a preacher’s prophecy, or the news of yet another incendiary radio commentator murdered for his insight. Make noise only if it advances your interests; shut up lest your vulnerabilities be exposed. Let development develop rapidly onwards, even if it is going nowhere, as long as the right people are making a killing off of it.

Higher education must recognize the mismatch between what it does and the leaders it forms – or fails to form. Certainly, it must prepare the technicians, engineers, doctors, social scientists, business managers, civil servants and teachers of the future with awareness of and due respect for the rules and disciplines of their professions. But it must also form the leaders of the future. This cannot be done by practically imposing on them a soporific subservience to the “rules of the game” that defines personal and familial value in terms of income, house, car(s), clubs and trips abroad for shopping sprees, whereby “the game” is indifferent to the manner in which one plays it. Like: corruption is okay as long as you benefit from it; the free birthday cake is cut, please, not only for the senior citizen! Higher education that is reduced to preparing students for this game in the interests of “jobs” is disastrous. Even when it burns holes in private pockets or burns taxpayers’ money for private gain. Get it?

Leaders lead into a future, presumably. What is the future envisioned that our higher education institutions (HEIs) propose to the students to consider as their vision for future leadership? How are they prepared and exercised for leadership in the future? In this future, what is their take on the relationship between private gain, family interests, and the common weal, between the national interest and the global community, between national ends and the ends of powerful multinational interests and dark underground borderless economies? Presuming that this future must go beyond selfishness, self-interest and private gain, how do the colleges and universities mediate selflessness, service and the promotion of the common good beyond empty sloganeering? How do HEIs encourage among future leaders deep desires, courageous visions, critical attitudes, out-of-the-box thought, innovativeness, the readiness to risk not just money but one’s life in the service of others – especially if those presuming to “steer” higher education are inordinately focused on jobs, bureaucratic compliance, and monetary rewards? These are not simple questions; they are abiding challenges for the Philippine HEIs.

They have to do with the nature of higher education itself, and demanding from Philippine HEIs what higher education must actually do. The presumption that a massification of higher education can take place because of an increasingly widespread public demand for free higher education and because legislators wish to benefit from this demand by creating, funding and recklessly re-funding public HEIs, despite lack of qualified teachers and administrators and lack of objective external quality checks on these institutions, must be re-examined, re-thought and reformed even towards achieving a shared vision for 2050. How public scholarship money benefits not only the poor for jobs, but the capable in all HEIs for local and national leadership must be seriously considered. Finally, HEIs which prepare leaders for the future must themselves be examples of the institutional health, fiscal probity and moral integrity they would wish to recognize and applaud in the leaders they form. Perhaps, by 2050?

About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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