OPINION: Time for Quality Education (Part 2)

Richard Heydarian

Posted at Jan 02 2017 02:14 AM

Social media is a unique platform of human communication. It is where one observes visceral expressions of ignorance and remorseless disdain. In recent months, I have constantly come across comments such as “[y]ou professors, what have you done for the country aside from complaining all the time?” or “they [the government] should close the University of the Philippines, since they are a waste of tax money on ungrateful scholars”. 

Of course, I simply paraphrased often-cruder articulations of these types of acerbic impressions ubiquitous online. Many seem to have a narrow and misguided understanding of the role of universities in a modern society. Being an educator is a tough job. A lot of responsibility rests on your shoulders, especially if you are entrusted with nurturing the minds of bright (yet young and still-impressionable) souls. 

Add to this, the often-pitiful compensation educators receive in exchange for their tireless dedication to their profession. What is even more painful is when some folks not only show little appreciation for educators, but also demean and smear their profession. Yet, this piece isn’t about Facebook rants or Twitter harassment against outspoken and fiercely independent-minded academics. 

It is about the declining quality of our educational institutions, largely thanks to lack of state support, widespread misconceptions of universities’ role in national development, and lack of appreciation for our measly-compensated educators. But how do we measure ‘quality’ of education? What are our barometers? And why is it important to invest more in our universities, particularly our flagship institutions of higher learning? 

The Declining Tide

Various reputable international surveys (see part I of this column) demonstrate a steady decline in the rankings of our leading universities, which have enjoyed respectable presence on the global stage in recent decades. More commercialized and less rigorous surveys such as QS World University Rankings primarily look at academic peer review (40%), which pertains to the evaluation of a university’s standards among other academics; faculty-to-student ratio (20%), which looks at the commitment of educators; and citations per faculty (20%), which objectively measures the impact and traction of research output of universities. Then there are the ‘softer’ indicators such as employer reputation (10%), international student ratio (5%), and international staff ratio (5%). The Times Higher Education World University Rankings Survey (THES) adopts a similar methodology. 

In the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), largely seen as the most ‘objective’ rankings, the focus is on the quality of education (10%), which looks at the performance of the alumni (whether they have won any Nobel Prize or other prestigious awards); quality of faculty (40%), particularly in terms of the research output and related awards; research output (40%), which looks at scientific paper production and citation intensity; and per capita performance (10%) of affiliates of the specific educational institution. 

Almost all major emerging economies, from China and India to South Korea and Turkey, have done progressively well in both the commercialized (QS and THE) and more rigorous (ARWU) types of surveys. Thanks to massive state investments, legendary primary education standards, ‘tiger’ parents, and notorious competition for excellence among students, Singaporean universities have done particularly well. 

Today, the National University of Singapore (NUS) is considered among the best in the world. An astonishing achievement for a relatively young institution that is on the cusp of going head-to-head with Ivy League institutions and the Oxbridge in almost every single field of inquiry. 

Refuge for Reason 

With all due respect to social media bashers, universities are more than indispensable to national development as well as sanity. They are the last refuge of critical thinking in an ocean of herd mentality. Thinking is ultimately about inquiry and evaluation rather than conformity and blind praise. This is precisely why it is preposterous to expect academics to be all-praise for politicians and devoid of constructive criticism. After all, no leadership is perfect. Absent universities and academics, we are simply at the mercy of fake news on social media and corporate agenda in mainstream media.

University is also a haven for reflection and systematic study of knowledge, whether in physical or social sciences. It is in universities where the young are given a unique opportunity to make sense out of the world based on empirical evidence and logical triangulation rather than emotions and rumors. This is where their minds and souls are molded along the Enlightenment values of rationality, humanity, tolerance and decency. 

Our greatest leaders and influencers are by and large the product of our universities, particularly flagship institutions such as UP. Beyond instilling the greatest values into the soul of our youth, the universities, however, are also the intellectual banks of national development. As Nobel Laureates such as Joseph Stiglitz have shown, they are the primary engines of (non-purely-profit-oriented) research and development for common good. They are the training ground for our future leaders, whether in the realm of government, business, or civil society.

Our broken politics, declining global educational rankings, and alarming state of public discourse are a testament to the ‘quality of education’ crisis in this country. To address this primordial conundrum, our people need to better appreciate the indispensable purpose of universities, local educators should stop turning a blind eye to this self-evident crisis, and our government, above all, should focus not only on providing affordable education, but also investing in quality education. What we need is no less than a paradigm shift in our archaic conception of higher education if our country is to have any realistic chance of climbing the ladder of development. 

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