The Crisis of Public Education in the Philippines

By Ronald Meinardus

According to the human capital theory, the economic development of a nation is a function of the quality of its education. In other words: the more and better educated a people, the greater the chances of economic development.

The modern world in which we live is often termed a “knowledge society”; education and information have become production factors potentially more valuable than labor and capital. Thus, in a globalized setting, investment in human capital has become a condition for international competitiveness.

In the Philippines, I often hear harsh criticism against the politics of globalization. At the same time, regarding the labor markets, I can hardly think of another nation that is so much a part of a globalized economy than the Philippines with nearly ten per cent of the overall population working beyond the shores of the native land.

Brain drain. Apart from the much debated political, social and psychological aspects, this ongoing mass emigration constitutes an unparalleled brain drain with serious economic implications.

Arguably, the phenomenon also has an educational dimension, as the Philippine society is footing the bill for the education of millions of people, who then spend the better part of their productive years abroad. In effect, the poor Philippine educational system is indirectly subsidizing the affluent economies hosting the OFWs.

With 95 per cent of all elementary students attending public schools, the educational crisis in the Philippines is basically a crisis of public education. The wealthy can easily send their offspring to private schools, many of which offer first-class education to the privileged class of pupils.

Social divide. Still, the distinct social cleavage regarding educational opportunities remains problematic for more than one reason. Historically, in most modern societies, education has had an equalizing effect. In Germany, for instance, the educational system has helped overcome the gender gap, and later also the social divide. Today, the major challenge confronting the educational system in the country I come from is the integration of millions of mostly non-European, in most cases Muslim, immigrants. Importantly, this leveling out in the context of schooling has not occurred in this part of the world. On the contrary, as one Filipino columnist wrote a while ago, “Education has become part of the institutional mechanism that divides the poor and the rich.”

Let me add an ideological note to the educational debate: Liberals are often accused of standing in the way of reforms that help overcome social inequalities. While, indeed, liberals value personal freedom higher than social equality, they actively promote equality of opportunities in two distinct policy areas: education and basic heath care.

For this reason, educational reform tends to have a high ranking on the agenda of most liberal political parties in many parts of the world.

This said, it is probably no coincidence that the National Institute for Policy Studies (NIPS), liberal think-tank of the Philippines, invited me the other day to a public forum on the “Challenges on Educational Reform.” With the school year having just started and the media filled with reports on the all but happy state of public education in the country, this was a very timely and welcome event. I was impressed by the inputs from Representative Edmundo O. Reyes, Jr, the Chairman of the Committee on Education of the House of Representatives, and DepEd Undersecretary Juan Miguel Luz. Both gave imposing presentations on the state of Philippine education.

Although I have been in this country for over a year now, I am still astonished again and again by the frankness and directness with which people here address problems in public debates. “The quality of Philippine education has been declining continuously for roughly 25 years,” said the Undersecretary — and no one in the audience disagreed. This, I may add, is a devastating report card for the politicians who governed this nation in the said period. From a liberal and democratic angle, it is particularly depressing as this has been the period that coincides with democratic rule that was so triumphantly and impressively reinstalled after the dark years of dictatorship in 1986! Describing the quality of Philippine school education today, the senior DepEd official stated the following: “Our schools are failing to teach the competence the average citizen needs to become responsible, productive and self-fulfilling. We are graduating people who are learning less and less.”

While at the said forum, more than one speaker observed that the educational problems are structural in nature, I missed propositions for reform that are so far-reaching to merit the attribute structural.

Gargantuan problems. While the Undersecretary very patiently and impressively charted out the four policy directions of the political leadership of his ministry (taking teachers out of elections, establishing a nationwide testing system, preserving private schools, raising subsidies for a voucher system), to me — as a foreign observer — these remedies sound technocratic considering, what one writer in this paper has recently termed, “the gargantuan magnitude of the problems besetting Philippine basic education.”

Let me highlight two figures: Reportedly, at last count more than 17 million students are enrolled in this country’s public schools.

At an annual population growth rate of 2.3 per cent, some 1.7 million babies are born every year. In a short time, these individuals will claim their share of the limited educational provisions.

“We can’t build classrooms fast enough to accommodate” all these people, said the DepEd Undersecretary, who also recalled the much lamented lack of teachers, furniture and teaching materials.

In short, there are too little resources for too many students.

Two alternatives. In this situation, logically, there exist only two strategic alternatives: either, one increases the resources, which is easier said than done considering the dramatic state of public finances, or one reduces the number of students.

This second alternative presupposes a systematic population policy, aimed at reducing the number of births considerably.

But this, too, is easier said than done, considering the politics in this country — or to quote Congressman Reyes: “Given the very aggressive and active intervention of the Church addressing the population problem is very hard to tackle.”

Dr. Ronald Meinardus was the former Resident Representative of the Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation in the Philippines and a commentator on Asian affairs. E-mail comments to liberal@philippines.fnst.org

Business World Internet Edition: June 30, 2003
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For more information on the crisis of public education in the Philippines, please refer to: Liberal Perspectives on Philippine Education.