OPINION: Time for Quality Education in the Philippines

Richard Heydarian

Posted at Dec 22 2016 03:02 PM

First of Two Parts

I can’t stop remembering how some (Ivy League-trained) professors back in college never stopped reminding us, with much lament, how the University of the Philippines (UP) used to be among the best in the world. This was the ‘golden age’ of Philippine education, around the 1960s and 1970s, when we stood atop the regional pecking order. 

The educational legacy of America, our linguistic grasp of the lingua franca (English), and countless bright minds that populated UP and other leading universities -- all of these collectively made us a center of educational excellence in Asia. I grew up with this vision of UP, an impression that would soon be shattered when I realized, with profound sorrow, how our even our country’s flagship university barely rang a bell beyond our borders. 

This realization dawned upon me, with a shattering force, when, during my visits and talks at leading universities around the world, the conversation shifted to my academic training. We have among the oldest institutions of higher learning in the world, and yet it is the much younger universities in neighboring countries, including the National University of Singapore, which are now knocking on the door of the world’s best. Many of our peers are now light years ahead of us. In the words of one professor and mentor, Felipe “Pepe” Miranda, our beloved UP was, nowadays, more of a ‘glorified high school’. 

Of course, I welcomed, wholeheartedly, the recent news about ‘free education’ at our state universities and colleges. Access to education remains a big concern in this country. News of students taking their lives over tuition fee struggles are heart wrenching to say the least and totally unacceptable in our democracy. Economic status should never be an obstacle to educational attainment. Our low-income students should have maximum possible access to education. This is the essence of our egalitarian constitution.

At the same time, we should not forget about the other crisis in our educational institutions: quality. Much to my horror, as a UP alumnus and educator in private universities such as Ateneo De Manila University (ADMU) and De La Salle University (DLSU), I have witnessed the dramatic decline of the prestige and competitiveness of our universities on the global stage in recent years. 

This is a strange and paradoxical phenomenon, considering how our country has emerged as one of the fastest growing economies on earth in the past 5 years. Theoretically, improved economic conditions should translate into qualitative improvement in institutions of a specific country. We clearly see this in the case of rapidly growing economies such as China, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, which saw an impressive uptick in the ranks and competitiveness of their universities sin the past decade. 

In the Philippines, the trend seems to be the opposite. Back in 2009, for instance, ADMU ranked a respectable 234th among the world’s elite universities, ahead of UP, which ranked 262nd, in the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) university ranking. DLSU and the University of Santo Tomas, among the oldest in the world, managed to be included in the rankings too.

By 2013, none of the ‘Quartet’ of elite Philippine universities featured in the Times Higher Education (THE) survey of top 400 institutions of higher learning in the world. The QS Survey reflected a similar alarming trend. In more recent years, only UP has managed to register some presence among the global elite schools. The rest have effectively fallen off the global radar. By and large, nowadays, our presence is confined to the Asian rankings.

In the more rigorous Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), which measures research output and impact, Philippine universities have been essentially absent throughout the years. Obviously, no ranking is perfect. We can always raise questions vis-à-vis the validity and reliability of global rankings. But it is undeniable that even the Philippines’ leading universities are struggling to keep up with globalization. 

In many ways, the sorry state of the Quartet is the tip of the iceberg of educational crisis in this country. Aside from educational democracy, the government should also focus on enhancing the quality of education in this country. Beyond free education, we also need quality education. 

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.