Bernardo M. Villegas
Articles  >> more topics
More Appropriate Role of SUCs (Part 1)

             There are 103 state universities and colleges all over the Philippines.  In 2020, out of the national budget of P4.1 trillion. P73 billion was appropriated for the SUCs.  Could this amount have been more wisely used for the Government to comply with the constitutional mandate for the State to provide free education to all at the basic education level? There is no constitutional requirement for the State to provide free tertiary education.  Should not the Government first make sure that it is complying with the constitutional requirement that all children and youth of school age be provided quality education at the primary and secondary education level before it spends money in providing post-secondary graduates free education at the tertiary level?  This is a question that must be answered by those responsible in preparing the annual budget of the National Government.

            The most recent data that appeared in some position papers presented to the public by the Philippine Business for Education (PBEd) shows that there are 2.3 million children of pre-primary age, 13.5 million at primary school age and 12.7 million at secondary school age, all amounting to 28.5 million to whom the State is obligated to provide free education, according to the Constitution.  Of those at pre-primary and primary school ages, there is close to 100% enrollment. Of those who should be enrolled in high school, the rate of enrollment can range from 80 to 90%.  This means that there are these additional adolescents who should be provided with alternative learning systems also for free by the Government.  With these humongous numbers, it is easy to explain that the 2 to 3% of GDP spent by the Government in education is never enough.   The desirable ratio is that of our neighboring ASEAN countries that spend as much as 6% of GDP on public education.  In an ideal situation, any amount spent by the Government on tertiary education is better spent on basic education, with the private sector taking the cudgels in putting up colleges and universities. Admittedly, this ideal is not politically feasible.  Especially because of the unhealthy obsession of parents and the youth with obtaining college diplomas, there will always be pressure on both the national government and LGUs to put up state universities and colleges.  This explains the proliferation of SUCs, no matter—with the exception of the University of the Philippines and a few others—how poor is the quality of education be delivered by these institutes of higher education. 

            There are some 9.1 million workers in the labor force who are either unemployed (2.6 million) or underemployed (6.5 million).  There is an increasing clamor for the educational system to shift to programs that focus on skills and competencies rather than diplomas, especially college degrees.  There is a great mismatch between the products of formal education with the needs of a country that is just transitioning from a low-middle income economy to an upper-middle income one.  The greater need of the economy is for skilled workers in the construction, health care, hospitality, and agribusiness sectors rather than holders of college diplomas or professional certificates.  It is a good first step that the President has transferred the Technical Education and. Skills Development Authority (TESDA) to DOLE, highlighting the fact that skills development should be directly linked to employment. We have to stop the mismatch between education and employment.

            My first recommendation is for there to be a moratorium in the establishment of new state universities and colleges.  Among other reasons, this move will give a very important signal to parents and their children (especially those who are in their last two years of the K to 12 curriculum) that a college diploma is not the surest way to employment.  The focus should be on skills and competencies which are better formed among many adolescents in TESDA-type schools.  Then, the existing SUCs should be encouraged to partner with businesses and civil society organizations that are involved in agribusiness to address both food security and mass poverty in the rural areas.   Here, I will summarize the ideas of Dr. Napoleon K. Juanillo who obtained a Ph.D. in Agricultural Science from Cornell University in the U.S. and has a wide experience in both the academe and government (his most recent posting under the Duterte Administration was as Assistant Secretary in the Department of Trade and Industry).   He suggests that among the SUCs, we identify centers of excellence in research and development in food and agribusiness. Some select SUCs can be provided technical assistance (i.e., capacity building programs) so that their agricultural colleges can transition newly developed technologies from the R&D stage to commercialization, i.e. sold to users through technology licensing, spinoff companies, and startups.

            There is already substantial government investment or funding in SUC R&D in agriculture through various sources such as the Department of Science and Technology (DOST), CHED, and DA that can also be accessed by public sector researchers to conduct research and generate innovations.  The goal is to direct these investments towards what is needed in the markets—locally, regionally, nationally and globally.   In this setup, the R&D conducted in the SUCs should be demand determined, taking into account regulatory requirements, system and market realities, customer preferences and trends, including the growing importance of standards, labels and safety.  The scientists and researchers involved in R&D in these SUCs should be equipped with comprehensive skills and knowledge as well as an entrepreneurial mindset.  They should be provided with training in management skills which should include marketing, consumer/market analytics, financial analysis and exposure to cases involving producers who have already developed differentiated products, services or systems.  These SUCs should be able to create and strengthen institutional structures such as commercialization centers, Technology Business Incubators, Innovation and Technology Support Offices, among other physical structures, spaces and organizations for collaboration.  These SUCs should redirect their R&D especially towards agribusiness which, it must always be kept in mind, goes beyond farming but should cover the whole value chain of agribusiness, i.e. to post-harvest, cold storage, warehousing, logistics, processing and retailing. 

            Especially those SUCs that are established at the LGU level should design their Agribusiness Innovation Ecosystem Roadmaps that provide the blueprint for innovating and upgrading products, processes, and systems in local food production in pursuit of greater yields, higher quality products, cost savings and production efficiency as well as improved sustainability.  To cite a specific example, an SUC in the Bicol region should focus in their R&D program on the pili tree and fruit.  Given enough R&D that is demand driven that is conducted on the commercialization of the pili nut, there is no reason why this unique product of the Bicol region cannot compete with macadamia in the world market of edible nuts.

            The Agribusiness Innovation Ecosystem Roadmaps should set the stage for local stakeholders, such as producers or agripreneurs, knowledge generators, other human capital developers (e.g. TESDA and private schools), government institutions (i.e. DA, DOST, DTI, etc.), financing groups including venture capitalists, etc. to prioritize and focus on what specific action points in local food production can best address specific challenges and opportunities in the value and supply chains, including the growing importance of environmental protection, standards, labels and food safety.  To be continued.