Improve Education Agenda, Especially for Higher Education

From the eight-point economic agenda of “the Duterte camp”, “the sixth agenda includes the strengthening of the basic education system, providing scholarships and tertiary education which are relevant to the needs of the private sector employees.”

It is good that education is among the eight agenda points. It is also good that the strengthening of the basic education system is mentioned. One of the true gains of the Aquino administration was the K-12 basic education reform, despite the controversy in its implementation. As this is the first year of the universal implementation of the Senior High School (SHS), there shall certainly be much we can improve on based on the hard experience of this year. We will have to understand, for instance, whether the prescribed curriculum is realistic, and whether the relevance of the reform to immediately employing graduates of SHS who opt to work after graduation is real or illusory.

What is a matter of concern for me is the apparent superficiality with which tertiary education is treated in this agenda point. It seems that all the planners have to say about tertiary education is that “scholarships and tertiary education relevant to the needs of the private sector employees” should be provided.

First, why are these economic planners apparently privileging “the needs of private sector employees?” Are they really talking about the needs of the employees, or are they really talking about the needs of the private business sector, the enhancement and protection of the investments of the private sector, and the hope that through better and more education the economic strength of the private sector might be enhanced? If so, the statement does not clearly state what it is about. But even if it were the case that it is talking about the advantage of the private business sector, why would it be singling out only “the private sector employees” as if Philippine higher education were only for employees and not for owners, innovators and entrepreneurs? Are these necessarily to get their education from abroad? But if the statement is actually about “the needs” of the private sector employees, are we only talking about their need for gainful employment, or should we consider a need meaningful employment, or a need for moral uprightness, for friendship or love?

Obviously, as far as tertiary education is concerned, the agenda point limps pathetically. Philippine higher education is not aimed at addressing the economic needs of the private business sector, nor the economic or humane needs of the private sector employee, but aims at addressing the needs of Philippine human society – a much more profound and urgently necessary enterprise than backstopping the interests of the private-sector economic elite. Philippine higher education provides the nation not only its teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, priests, nuns, politicians and (in many cases, though admittedly not all) statesmen.  It also provides it its critics, philosophers, theologians, innovators and (in many cases, though admittedly not all) revolutionaries.

In this context it would also be helpful to clarify what the agenda point means by “providing scholarships and tertiary education.” This is very vague. The 1987 Constitution provides for free basic education for all Filipinos and Filipinas. It does not provide for free tertiary education. But it does provide for a “complete, adequate and integrated system of quality higher education” “accessible to all” in the Philippines (cf. par. 1, sec 2, Article XIV of 1987 Constitution), where the complementarity between public and private education is recognised (par. 1, sec 4, Art. XIV, 1987 Constitution).

Does the agenda point mean a continuation of the dubious practice of providing scholarships to State Universities and Colleges (SUC) because these charge tuition, even though the State takes care of the salaries, facilities and utilities expenses of the SUCs through the national budget? Most of the CHED-mediated scholarships went to SUCs under the Aquino administration. Shall this continue? Wouldn’t it be simpler to abolish tuition in SUCs where its collection is not necessary? Or does the agenda point mean that that the Duterte administration shall more proactively provide scholarships for students in private higher educational institutions, especially where these private HEIs provide quality higher education in remote areas, or where private higher education is innovative? Because higher education is a public good, government scholarships should support students desirous of and qualified for higher education, whether they choose to go to a state university or a private university.

Those planning for tertiary education under the Duterte administration would do well to study where the problems of higher education are. There are many. These include academic freedom and quality assurance, the complementarity between public and private education, the problems relative to higher education governance. The over-centralisation of higher educational policy in CHED undermines academic freedom, which the Constitution vests in the HEI, not CHED.  CHED has failed to bring about a national consensus on quality assurance. There is an uneven playing field between public and private HEIs. There is yet a need to find a healthy way of governing academically free HEIs, so that the excellence and innovativeness of HEIs responding to stakeholders according to their mission and vision is enhanced, and government regulation reasonable. The last COA report on CHED reveals serious inefficiency, mismanagement and probable corruption in the higher-education body.  Ultimately, what the Constitution calls for is an adequate, complete and integrated system of education for all.

These have all been discussed by organizations such as the Coordinating Council for Private Educational Associations (COCOPEA).

Beyond this, the Duterte government might articulate its own challenges for higher education – which has to be much more profound than “the needs of private sector employees.” Among these for the Philippines are the needs of the environment, the exigencies of climate change, the discernment of the common good, the re-presentation of Philippine history to clarify for all the historical injustices committed against the Filipino Muslims, the urgent challenge to a religiously inclusive society, the happiness of the Filipino people, the requirements of waging peace in the Philippines, and, as Pope Francis has recently recommended, the joy of loving (Amoris Laetitia) in our families.

About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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