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Educating Philippine education

BusinessWorld logo BusinessWorld 9/13/2018

Education in the Philippines has been getting a boost, money-wise. For 2018, the budget for the Department of Education was set at P553.31 billion, making it the second highest (next to the military) in allocation. It will increase by around 12% in 2019, for a possible P659.3 billion. There is also the free tuition law starting this schoolyear 2018-2019.

What remains to be seen are the results. Put another way, rather than merely having gone to school, are Filipino students truly getting educated?

The Philippines has historically scored embarrassingly low in international math and science high school rankings. At the higher education level, only the University of the Philippines was mentioned in the 2018 Times Higher Education Asia University Rankings.

a drawing of a person: Educating Philippine education © Provided by Businessworld Educating Philippine education Meanwhile, no Philippine universities were included at all in the 2018 Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities, which examined 1,200 universities worldwide on the basis of “six objective indicators” (amongst which are quality of alumni, research and publications, grants, etc.) and then identifying the top 500.

Interestingly,’s 2017 survey saw graduates of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines besting highly touted UP and higher fee’d Ateneo De Manila University. Employers apparently favored those from PUP for their “quality” and “positive work ethic.”

Take that alongside the report (Fox Business, “More companies dropping college degree requirement for new hires,” Sept. 7, 2018) that “more and more companies are scrapping college degree requirements for jobs. They’re not saying you shouldn’t seek higher education, but not having a degree won’t be a barrier for you to work in certain jobs at their companies. Some of the 15 big companies saying ‘no bachelor’s degree is fine’ include Google, Nordstrom, Bank of America, Ernst & Young, IBM and Apple.”

Hopefully, our education system is not geared simply for our students to earn money abroad.

So it becomes reasonable to ask about Philippine education: what is its true import and purpose as it fits within our societal values and the common good? Only from there can one discuss improvements.

It also becomes valid to inquire whether more money is really necessary or if perhaps another factor should be given greater credence when discussing Philippine education.

Philippine policy makers have always declared their preference for additional funding and class hours. This column, meanwhile, has long adhered to McKinsey & Co.’s 2007 study for its commonsensical insights.

What McKinsey found was that, rather than increased budget or hours, to have better schools a country needs to focus on three things: hire the best teachers; make the best even better; and act quickly and vigorously whenever pupils start to lag.

This is not to propose increasing government regulation on education, which (frankly) we have too much of already and stifles innovation. Preference is given to self-monitoring for private educational institutions. For public schools, this column has long advocated for pushing responsibility over such to the local governments.

Emphatically, money was not considered a vital part of the equation. In fact, the brilliance of the McKinsey study is its reveal that Singapore spends a whole lot less on education than other countries.

Counter-intuitively, so the study goes, one doesn’t need to spend more for better hires. Indeed, the top performing countries education-wise pay only average salaries to teachers. The trick is to ruthlessly weed applicants, limiting from the very start the number of teachers to the very best. That in essence is the hiring program of Singapore, Finland, and South Korea.

By making it harder to become a teacher, you then get to attract the best.

More school hours (or school years) were also discarded as factors considering that Finnish students have shorter classroom time than other developed countries.

Indeed, to condition education improvement on increased funding and hours is really just passing the buck. As one aphorism goes, if a student doesn’t learn, it’s the teacher’s fault. Students can only go as far as their teachers.

Singapore’s approach a decade later is working brilliantly. As The Economist reports: “Today Singapore’s education system is considered the best in the world. The country consistently ranks at the top of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA),” and “Singapore does similarly well in exams of younger children, and the graduates of its best schools can be found scattered around the world’s finest universities.”

Interestingly, “Singapore favours traditional pedagogy, with teachers leading the class. That contrasts with many reformers’ preference for looser, more ‘progressive’ teaching intended to encourage children to learn for themselves.”

And again: Singapore’s secret is its insistence “on developing excellent teachers,” rigorously hiring the best and then rigorously training them to be better. Hiring a few but paying them high.

Furthermore, Singapore prefers “big classes taught by excellent teachers than smaller ones taught by mediocre ones.”

Something to consider for our cash-strapped but youth rich country.


Jemy Gatdula is a Senior Fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.

Twitter @jemygatdula

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