“For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.” – Amanda Gorman, Poet
Our education is in an existential crisis.
It is unclear when the rot started. In 2017 a study among 79 countries ranked the Philippines last or second to last in science, math and reading among 15 year olds. This means the decay predated when these kids entered primary, before the turn of the century. Since then as a result of failure of vision, policy, execution and governance the quality and real wages of teachers have declined, 7,000 classrooms are in disrepair and over 20,000 thousand backlogged.
COVID highlighted and accelerated the crisis. Our distance learning has been a disaster with some 3 million children missing class and 20 million essentially missing an education. The economic hardship has decimated enrollments in the 1,710 higher education institutions (HEIs) swelling the 237 already overcrowded state schools. Top private schools are reporting overdue tuitions of up to 60%.
Where, how and when do we address the problem?
Our education problems are structural, economic, management and ethical at the first level. Further down is nutritional in the very young.
On the structural we have a two-tier model with a few good schools catering to the rich, the powerful and a small number of remarkable students on scholarship from the lower middle class and the poor. On the other side we have everybody else.
In the last decade many corporates – the Ayalas, SM, Phinma, STI, the Yuchengcos among others – have diversified into education as a core business. Whether from altruism or capitalism they established new platforms or bought up existing schools. Business and education are in some fundamental ways conflicting. Elsewhere for-profit-schools have generally produced lower quality outcomes. All the best universities worldwide are non-profits. In a 2017 world ranking of 1012 HEIs, only UP made it (39th).
Pre-COVID private HEIs had profit margins of upto 56%, a luxury for most businesses. They pay no property taxes and an income tax rate of 10% (versus 30% for everybody else). Their tuitions are essentially unregulated and have climbed by 5-7% compounded annually. HEIs can be cash cows: In 2019 the four listed HEIs -FEU, Mapua, STI and CEU – reported cumulative cash holdings of P4.1 billion. The business model is based on scarcity which allows for higher tuition.
Financially, our Constitution mandates that the Dept. of Education always be allocated the biggest share of the National Budget. That we are where we are means either the Budget is insufficient, we are spending money in the wrong way or a lot of it goes to waste and corruption.
Turning our educational system around is a generational endeavor which requires both short term improvements and longer term quantum changes. We need to think broader, deeper, and smarter.
In the immediate we need to introduce new management in the DepEd that has vision, energy and the ability to execute. Organizationally the DepEd should be divided into its educational, its operations, and its infrastructure components. The first will deal with learning and quality control, the second with human resources, money, administration and technology and the third with building the facilities.
The educational part should be headed by an educator. Operations should be run by a professional manager with business experience. Infrastructure should have a doer who can roll out the classrooms. The latter is currently outsourced to the DPWH which has its own big ticket priorities. As a result outlying areas never get the facilities they deserve.
Historically our DepEd Secretaries have invariably come from the education sector. Yet most of the problems are in management, finance and capacity building which educators are arguably the least qualified to do. The DepEd Secretary should be responsible for vision, leadership, governance and relationships with stakeholders. He must have a 30,000 feet view and experience that goes beyond learning. He needs to understand strategy and the holistic way financial needs of teachers and students, curriculum, human capital, technology, infrastructure, and organizational processes come together in a seamless way.
When people talk of education they generally reference higher learning when in fact good education starts at the primary level. Today poorly taught, under nourished children are pushed up a frayed educational ladder resulting in our 15 year-olds ranking the worst in the world. We are feeding unprepared students into HEIs resulting in garbage in, garbage out. Multinationals report that the intellectual capacity and maturity of Philippine graduates they interview are at least 3 years behind those in India.
We have Private-Public Partnerships (PPP) in infrastructure, why not in education which is soft infra that is at least as productive and as vital as roads and bridges?
There is currently a huge divide between most private and public schools. That gap will only widen through time as the latter work with the lowest common denominator in classrooms. Even as we improve our public schools we need a PPP model that will blend the skill sets and resources of the private sector with the needs of the public system using quick-deploying modalities. For example we might establish Charter-like schools between LGUs and the private sector that can fast track the better students or offer technical, vocational or custom designed curriculum for specific communities and industries. With the Supreme Court decision on bigger Internal Revenue Allocations for LGUs the latter will have more money for local initiatives in education and elsewhere. Property taxes should be raised to help fund the program since property values correlate positively with educational excellence in the community.
On the demand side, Government should look at a viable student loan program. The endeavor will admittedly have high defaults but if structured properly – repayment based on ability to pay, direct collection from employers, etc. – is no less wasteful and certainly more productive than other Government subsidies. The Agriculture Reform Program where loans were given to farmers to buy their land has default rates of some 50% but the program was implemented nonetheless. Student loans will mean higher education and opportunity for our young, less stress on state universities, more employment and better pay for teachers, more investment in facilities, a lifeboat for the 1,700 tier-two schools experiencing a mass exodus in enrollment, and narrower economic and social inequality.
The private sector must do its part. Private schools and corporates must be willing to share their processes, money and thinking with the public system. To start they could undertake continuing education for public school teachers leveraging their faculty and infrastructure in the off-season and off days. They could expand their virtual classrooms using technology. Private schools currently enjoy various privileges so they should give back to the community. They also have an interest in doing so for the alternative might be mandated scholarship quotas for indigents similar to what banks have for agri-agra loans.
There are some points of light. I currently support a school for indigents, Mano Amiga, which is reaching for the stars. We believe the underprivileged can and should aspire not only to be call-center agents but doctors, lawyers and professionals. Its principal medium of instruction is English with teachers, an enhanced curriculum and students that pound for pound match Ateneo and Xavier. For more go to https://manoamiga.org.ph.
Education is and will be the single largest cause of social and economic inequality in this country. It is an existential threat that will define who we are as a nation. The extension of K-12 was a good initiative but more is required. We must attain the escape velocity we need to compete in the new world of knowledge. The alternative is unthinkable and unacceptable, a surrender to mediocrity, a nation at the bottom of the world intellectual chain, 109 million hardly educated Filipinos serving the one million elite of this country.
That is not only unjust, it is socially, politically and economically untenable. The privileged must step up because they will not be protected from the disruption that will ensue.