Towards Legislative Initiatives Benefitting PH Higher Education as a Whole

Fr. Joel Tabora, S.J., Chair, COCOPEA, President, CEAP

 

During last Wednesday’s public hearing of the Senate Committee on Education, Arts and Culture (26 Oct. 2016), one of the important things that its chair, Sen. Bam Aquino, went out of his way to stress was that the proposed legislation to make education free in all State Universities and Colleges (SUCs) was only one of many interventions that the Senate was interested in in order to improve the quality of higher education in the country.

He said this in the face of reservations raised by many that making education free in SUCs would not really solve the problem of higher education in the country. Throwing more money at the SUCs to give more students access to SUCs may only mean grandly insuring that the poor have funded access to poor quality higher education.

 

Raising the Quality of Higher Education

Indeed, raising the quality of higher education, as urgent as this is, is not something that can be done by quick legislative fiat. No matter how much legislators may want to enjoy the benefits of a fully blossoming tree, it takes time for the sapling to grow, mature and be productive. The complex higher education reform project requires, as all higher-education administrators know, multiple interventions to improve faculty, facilities, laboratories, student performance, research, governance, etc., in order to achieve an appropriate culture of higher education necessary not only for higher degree courses but for an institutional culture of independent critical thought, effective instruction, robust research, innovativeness, leadership development as well as self- and socio-cultural transformation. This means working not only with policies but with people, their visions pertinent to the nature of higher education and their appropriate role(s) here, the balance between their private and professional lives, the even more delicate balance between compensation and inspiration, and their life-long commitments.

That is why, as the pros and cons for free tuition in SUCs were considered, I requested that Sen. Aquino already state what all the planned legislative interventions to improve higher education and access of the poor to it would be. Comprehending the whole, it would be easier to appreciate the part.

Such a manifestation would help clarify the attitude with which the legislators regard the private educational sector in their plans. Are they focusing mainly on the SUCs and not therefore on Philippine higher education as a whole? Are they looking at the private sector as partners or as sacrificial lambs? What is their view of the private educational sector: as mainly La Salle, Silliman, Ateneo, Sto. Tomas and St. Louie, whose demise is unimaginable, or as these and many other small schools whose existence is dispensable?

The view from the administrative offices of these private universities is of great vulnerability as costs rise, policies shift, and the educational landscape changes quickly. Perhaps it may be admitted: there is more private-sector fear of what government can do to their operations through legislative or executive fiat. The K-12 reform brought great upheaval in the private sector schools costing billions of pesos; despite active support and participation of the private sector in this reform, much in the government implementation disregarded many of the multi-sectoral agreements in planning. Traumatizing for the private schools was the sudden increase of teacher salaries in the government schools from P10,000 to P18,000; carefully cultivated salary scales of private schools based on the market were outdone by administrative fiat using the relatively unlimited power of taxpayers’ money. The effect of this was a migration of teachers from private schools to DepEd schools, salutary for the public schools but devastating for the private. Here, the painstaking plans of private schools administrators to develop faculty, help them with their teaching licenses, improve the performance of their instruction, and balance compensation with inspiration, were thwarted. No inspirational reference to mission could counter the argument of almost a doubled salary in public schools using taxes also paid by parents of private school students.

 

Valuing the Role of Private Higher Education

So as Sen. Bam Aquino assured us that providing free tuition was only one of many planned legislative interventions, we wondered what the others were, and how they would affect the operation of the private schools. Even as the demise of the private sector schools in general was unimaginable for Sen. Aquino, would the improvements in the SUCs mean salary upgrading from the General Appropriations Act that small schools could not compete with because the parents and clients of small private HEIs could not afford the tuition levels this would entail? This would in particular kill the small private HEIs in the service of the poor. They operate on the income private persons provide through tuition and fees. Were they now being sacrificed in the greater scheme of things with a shrug?

In the end, it is my conviction that not even the best of our private schools dependent on tuition can survive competition against SUCs with unlimited funding through tax payers’ public funds.   If this is the direction free tuition in higher education is signaling, confirm it, so that the private sector can invest its resources elsewhere

A realistic question therefore is: what are the limits of public funding available for free public higher education? Is it to be spent in the context of efforts to improve higher educational in the country in general or just that of the SUCs? Is it to be complemented by funding to support the free education of the poor in qualified private schools? Is it accompanied by credible interventions to improve the quality of higher education in general? What would this entail?

 

Wrong Signals?

In this context I voiced my reservations about the signal the legislation for free education in SUCs would give. Since there was no mandate in the Constitution that government should provide free higher education to all, was government in this legislation signaling that it was willing to take up cudgels for universal free higher education? Could this not be read in funding being made available for the free education of students in UP even though they are manifestly capable of paying this tuition or taking out an educational loan and paying for it later? Was the signal being given that government would take this course toward free higher education even if the participation of the private sector in educational provision would be adversely affected – first with the demise of the smaller schools, eventually with the demise of the bigger? This adverse impact on the private schools would increase as government would – necessarily! – improve the quality of its SUCs, causing the foreseeable migration of students from private to public schools. It would do this by offering compensation packages superior to anything the small schools could afford, thus inflating the cost of general educational compensation through use of taxpayers’ money and effectively placing qualified teachers out of the reach of the private sector. Was therefore the signal being given that government did not understand, was overlooking, or, worse, did not care about the impact of its policies on the private sector? Was it thus effectively discouraging the further operation of the private schools, and strongly discouraging robust private sector from further investments in private schools that would increase their number and quality? After all, all the high costs of free quality higher education could be taken over by government.

It was urgent then that the planned package of legislative interventions in the improvement of higher education as a whole be understood. The “whole” is the “complete, adequate and integrate system of education” – including higher education – that the Constitution mandates the State to provide recognizing the complementarity between public and private education.

 

Framework for the Complementary Roles of SUCs and private HEIs in the PH

I believe my remarks were well taken. At that point one of the very welcome interventions all around came from Dr. Ricardo E. Rotoras, President of the Mindanao University of Science and Technology (MUST) and concurrently President of COCOPEA’s public-sector counterpart, the Philippine Association of State Universities and Colleges (PASUC), calling attention to a paper he had submitted to the Committee entitled, “Re-Defining the Role of State Universities and Colleges in the Philippine Higher Educational System.” The paper is remarkable because it looks at the system of higher education in the Philippines, addresses the uneven playing field between public and private HEIs, and looks at the ASEAN integration as a window of opportunity to work towards the goal of an “even playing field.”

In this context he proposes a policy framework for the complementary roles of SUCs and Private HEIs in the Philippines. Just the proposal is already a significant contribution to the discussion of higher educational reform in the Philippines. The higher educational community should appreciate this breakthrough to begin a formal process aimed at achieving consensus between the public and private HEIs.

Dr. Rotoras’ proposal speaks of four Policy Framework principles:

  • The government provides full funding requirements to SUCs with clear mandate of providing quality education to the marginalized sector and offering differentiated that complements private HEIs
  • Private HEIs shall serve the greater mass of the higher education market; ensure sustainability and growth
  • A level playing field between private and public HEIs is defined in terms of differentiated markets and curricular programs
  • Regulations of SUCs are defined by their respective charters, while regulations of the private HEIs are defined by the State through the Commission on Higher Education.

Certainly these four points would already generate a wealth of discussion – like how is the playing field leveled for public and private HEIs not only in terms of market but in terms of quality. But they are an invitation to a dialogue between public and private HEIs on the complete, adequate and integrated system of higher education in the Philippines that would be respect the complementarity between the public and private contributions to the system ultimately serving the common higher-educational good.

 

Proposal to Move Forward

After the close of the hearing Sen. Bam Aquino, Commission Popoy de Vera, Dr. Rotoras and I were in agreement that the Senate, the CHED, the PASUC and the COCOPEA could co-convene soonest a dialogue towards coming to greater consensus on this long-overdue Framework.

This could also be the Framework that could suggest the package of holistic legislative initiatives that would advance the whole of the comprehensive, adequate and integrated system of higher education rather than just one of its parts to the detriment of other parts.

 

 

 

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About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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