Bernardo M. Villegas
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Addressing the Philippine Education Crisis (Part 1)

          Among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations, quality education ranks fourth after (1) No poverty; (2) Zero hunger. and (3) Good health and well being.  It is obvious, however, that the SDGs are highly interdependent and cannot be addressed in isolation.  As we shall discuss in greater detail in this series of articles, quality education for all, for example, is unattainable if a large number of children are undernourished or malnourished in the first years of their lives.  Lack of sufficient nutrients in early childhood does significant damage to the brain, making learning difficult in later years.  The same thing can be said about unhealthy children (SDG 3).  For that matter, at least the next three other SDGs are also closely intertwined with quality education.  These are (5) gender equality; (6) clean water  and sanitation; and (7) affordable and clean energy.

         Before we examine the ongoing education crisis the Philippines is facing, exacerbated by the pandemic during which some 2.7 million students were forced to drop out of school for economic reasons, let us fully understand the role of quality education in the attainment of integral human development, which is the goal of every society.  Let us avoid the mistake of thinking of education as just a means of providing workers for the economy, especially a free market economy.  Especially as an economist, I try hard not to think of education solely as a means of addressing the supply side of the labor market, considering human beings as mere factors of production.  Especially after being traumatized by a TV series entitled “North and South” produced in the United Kingdom, which depicted the inhumanities of the industrial revolution in the late 18th century in England, I want to follow the lead of the Department of Economics and Social Affairs of the United Nations in the manner in which it explained the fourth SDG goal which is “quality education.”

         It is heartening to know that the United Nations considers education as a human right of every individual, independently of his or her economic utility to society.  Every human being has a right to education because of his or her inherent dignity.  In introducing the fourth SDG, the mission-vision statement (to use a business terminology) reads as follows:  “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote llfe long learning opportunities for all…Education liberates the intellect, unlocks the imagination and is fundamental for self-respect.  It is the key to prosperity and opens a world of opportunities, making it possible for each of us to contribute to a progressive, healthy society.  Learning benefits every human being and should be available to all.”  As a strong advocate of liberal education, I am especially glad to read such phrases as “lifelong learning opportunities” and “education liberates the intellect.”  A very practical consequence of these statements is that it is the responsibility of the State to provide free education to all at the K to 12 level, which is what the Philippine Constitute mandates.    This free basic education for all is geared towards making every Filipino citizen capable of living a fully human life, whatever special skills he or she may decide to acquire through additional formal, informal or non-formal education to earn a living.

         In formulating the curriculum for the K to 12 phase of education, the responsible authorities must focus on equipping the students with the appropriate skills so that they will be enabled to engage in lifelong learning. That is why there is the emphasis on competences in reading, math and science, which are the foundational skills that will make it possible for an individual to continue learning for the rest of his or her life.  Especially during the junior and senior high school years (Grades 7 to 12), the core curricula should consist in what is known as the liberal arts, precisely  consisting in those subjects that “liberate the intellect” such as the humanities, math, science, literature, philosophy, history, the social sciences and languages, among others.  What used to be covered in the first two years of college before the onset of the K to 12 curriculum should be taught during the junior and high school years.  As an economics educator for more than 50 years, my admittedly  biased recommendation is that if economics is taught as part of an over-all social sciences subject during  junior high school, every effort should be exerted to include Economics as a separate subject during the senior year level.  Objectively,  an introductory course to Economics as a separate academic discipline, is arguably the most  effective means to help a young adult to integrate the different disciplines such as math, science, history, philosophy and the other social sciences as they are helped to analyze the complex economic problems faced by every nation and the entire globe.  If the teaching materials used in this introductory course in economics are judiciously prepared and the teachers are trained properly to take a multidisciplinary approach in teaching Basic Economics, it is going to be more possible for the students to  “contribute to a progressive, healthy society.”

         The conditio sine qua non to providing quality education for all is “to ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.  This is easier said than done because of widespread poverty which has worsened because of the pandemic.  During the first four years of the Duterte Administration, poverty incidence was cut down from 21 percent of the population to a little over 16 percent.  Today, it is estimated that because of massive loss of jobs and business opportunities for micro and small enterprises (witness jeepney and taxi drivers turning to begging on the streets), poverty incidence is back to the 20 percent level.  In fact, some 2.7 million students have dropped out of school because of the lack of employment and income of their parents.  More than ever, our Government has to devote funds for the Social Amelioration Program (SAP) or the four Ps to make sure that as many of the children possible are able to continue with schooling, no matter how imperfect under the blended learning system.  This will be possible only if the parents are given cash assistance to provide for the most basic necessities, especially food.  As a condition for the cash transfer, the parents will  ensure that their children will continue to attend classes in whatever form possible.  In this regard, because of the paucity of digital devices and internet connections among the poor households, it is imperative that physical classes be resumed as early as possible once herd immunity is reached.  Blended learning will not work for the vast majority of C, D, and E households (who  constitute as much as 60 percent of the population) because of lack of internet connections and inadequate digital devices. Only the children of the upper-middle income and high-income classes can continue with blended learning (three days attending physical classes and two days working from home).

         I am pessimistic about the UN target of providing equal access to quality pre-primary education which ensures that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.  This is supposed to happen by the year 2030.  We have to keep in mind that 75 percent of those who fall below the poverty line are in the rural areas where decades of neglect of agricultural and rural development have forced many parents to look for employment opportunities either in the urban areas or overseas.  Parents have an indispensable role in quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education.  Although there are signs that our government officials have finally realized how important it is to improve rural and agricultural incomes, especially under the present leadership in the Department of Agriculture, increase in agricultural productivity will be a slow process.  At least for the next decade or so, we will continue to see massive migration of parents and other adults, especially to countries in Europe and Northeast Asia that are suffering from a serious demographic crisis.  It will not be easy to give equal access to quality pre-primary education to the girls and boys in economically depressed areas. 

         What should be given a high priority is the goal of giving equal access to affordable technical and vocational education.  This is the biggest gap in our pool of human resources.  It is paradoxical that, despite our having a young and growing population, certain technical skills—especially in the construction industry which is booming because of the Build, Build, Build program of both the public and private sectors—are getting scarcer. There must be greater efforts of both the government and the business sectors to convince many young Filipinos to take up technical courses in TESDA-type of schools instead of being obsessed with acquiring college diplomas that are no guarantee to employment.  I have discussed this issue many times in the past and am now reiterating that this is one of the most serious challenges to our educational sector:  how to convince both parents and the youth that even before being overly concerned  about being ready for Industrial Revolution 4.0, at least in the next ten years, our greatest need for human resources will still be those related to Industrial Revolution 1.0 (people with mechanical skills); Industrial Revolution 2.0 (those related to the electricity industry); and Industrial Revolution 3.0 (those that have electro-mechanical skills such as those being produced by leading technical schools like Dualtech, CITE and MFI Training Institute.  These are the skills that are going to be  in greatest demand as we transition from a low-middle income to an upper-middle income economy which has to provide more job opportunities for the marginalized sectors of society. 

         Because of the greater role of technical education in combatting mass poverty and attaining a more equitable distribution of income, I would recommend that we reduce the number of low-quality state universities and colleges and instead put up more state-sponsored technical and vocational schools, including schools that produce agribusiness technicians needed in modernizing our agricultural sector.  These technicians will not only be employed in the farming sector but in the whole value chain of agribusiness including post-harvest, cold storage, logistics, food processing, and retailing.  Since it is the private universities that account for the larger percentage of students enrolled in tertiary education, the State can just subsidize the costs of tuition and other education-related expenses of poor but deserving students in the best private universities in addition to supporting scholars to the various campuses of the leading state university, the University of the Philippines.  As we shall discuss in a future article, instead of taxing private schools that are established for profit, the State should consider them as valuable partners in delivering quality education to more and more post-secondary graduates. To be continued.