Business Matters

Returns on higher education


Unfortunately, across most of the Asia-Pacific region, the returns on higher education are not high enough when viewed in terms of economic returns. The parallel problems of unfilled job vacancies together with unemployed tertiary graduates showed that higher education was not yielding the expected benefits.

The reason, according to the report released by the World Bank last month, was the failure of the stewards of higher education to bridge the “disconnects” between the sector and five other sets of institutions: (1) the employers; (2) the companies looking to use university research; (3) other research institutions; (4) other training providers, including the disconnect among the universities themselves; and, (5) the basic education sector.

The Philippines stood out as the deviant among the 15 countries covered in the report. While 70 percent of the students in the region enrolled in public higher education institutions (HEI); in the Philippines, 70 percent of this enrollment was in private schools. Private higher education has been expanding in the region; the Philippines has been expanding the public education sector. The Philippines also remained the only country in the region permitting entry into higher education after 10 years of basic education.

Notwithstanding these differences, the World Bank diagnosis applied equally well to the Philippines, which faces all the “disconnects” identified in the report. But the most dysfunctional and detrimental disconnect is between basic and higher education. Until this fundamental disconnect is addressed, it will be difficult for the country to bridge the gaps in the higher education system, including that between the output of colleges and universities and the needs of the employers.

Fortunately, President Aquino, responding to the call for an Education President, has committed to implementing the K12 system, a change first decided upon some 75 years ago. The delay has already caused considerable damage.

The truncated basic education cycle exerted a perverse effect on the entire educational system.  Filipino teachers have to cover in 10 years content and skills that other countries deliver in 12.  Filipino students, while studying more, were learning less; because they were not getting enough time to master basic concepts. Moving forward without mastery of the fundamentals made it more difficult for the students to absorb more advanced materials.

The report stressed the need to recruit more students into the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program in college. Additional funding and incentives for these STEM courses would be welcome. But not enough students graduate from high school with the solid preparation to pursue STEM degrees. Academically challenged students tend to take the courses perceived to be easier to complete.

The Philippine system compensates for the deficit in basic education by extending the time required to earn a college degree. Hardly any tertiary program now can be completed in eight regular semesters of course work. Engineering, Accountancy, Pharmacy and Nursing take five years to complete. Additional time is needed because the first two to three semesters of college mainly cover materials which should have been learned in high school.

Shifting the academic burden from high school to college also shifted the cost from the government to the students and their families. The Constitution provides for free primary and secondary education in public schools. But higher education, still mainly delivered in private schools, must be paid for by private funds.

As the countries in the region expand the private higher education sector, they are likely to face some of the problems encountered in the Philippines. Variable fee structures, as the World Bank noted, offer a way of managing the burden of higher education. Private schools have greater flexibility than public schools and greater incentive to adopt this approach. But, as in the Philippines, private schools may be tempted to compete on price.

Variable fee structure is key to private school strategy, particularly if they are for-profit organizations. But this strategy places educational systems on a slippery slope. Without careful stewardship, the government will find itself dealing with diploma mills. And without scholarship funds, not just the academically challenged, but also the financially challenged students, will avoid the STEM courses, which tend to be more expensive.

The World Bank commended the improvement across the region in the access to higher education. But it recognized the trade-off, under conditions of resource constraints, between access and quality, a point politicians often ignore. They demand quality from the educational institutions, even world-class quality, but the political default mode favors quantity. It is easy to keep track of enrollment figures. Quality is more difficult to measure and monitor.

Low- and middle-income countries in the region have suffered, in the assessment of the World Bank, from the governments’ poor management and stewardship of the higher education sector. Its timely report validates the agenda that education reform advocates in the Philippines have been pursuing.

Finally, the government appears to be listening and responding.

Edilberto C. de Jesus is president of the Asian Institute of Management.

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  • Jao Romero

    the US is the best example that K12 does not work. the whole education system there is virtually crumbling.

    it’s not the length of time of study. it has always been about how we teach the kids and the subjects we choose to teach them.

    just removing non-core subjects such as religion or catechism from the curriculum would free up much time for the students. basic education should exactly be what it says: BASIC. so let’s do without all the non-core subjects. i identify only 4 core subjects necessary in basic education: Science, Math, History, Language. and in History, you can already incorporate the history of all world religions without resorting to religious catechism.

    • Anonymous

      I agree take away religion and catechism classes in schools especially in public schools. As Daniel Dennett suggested, if we want to teach religion, we should teach ALL RELIGIONS including their core beliefs and their prohibitions. Otherwise we should stick to core subjects like the ones you mentioned.

    • Anonymous

      K12 in the US is not just about curriculum, its also about the influence of teachers and teachers union. In the documentary “Waiting for Superman”, there is a ‘lemon dance’ where ineffective teachers in ‘tenure’ are not taken off the school system but just dumped in other schools. Teacher unions have resisted changes in the education system, they lobbied in Congress and even endorsed Presidents. This ‘tenure’ system is crippling the education and future of students.

  • SK

    Blame neo-liberalism and free markets. 

  • Diosdado

    It is not an accident that Finland is ranked the number one country in the world -that country puts premium on education.  Education there is free from Kinder to College with free lunch.  Even private schools are not allowed to collect any tuition and other fees.  I know because my daughter studied there and another one will go there study master’s degree next year.  In fact the government pays generous allowance to those who will pursue higher education.   But there is a catch: teachers should be very academically competent.  I have suggestions for us:
    1.  Our public school teachers should be very academically competent.  I have observed that many of our public school teachers are not academically competent.  They seem to regard their profession primarily as livelihood only.  The government should root out academically deficient teachers.  I have high regards for new teachers.
    2.  Give free lunch from kinder to college.  I am sure this will mitigate hunger and encourage poorer children not to drop out from school. 
    3.  Give full scholarship and generous allowances to those who will take engineering and science courses.  (I remember some years ago, the Finnish ambassador said that the problem of this country is the lack of engineers and scientists).
    4.  Send bright students to study master’s and doctoral degrees in other countries.

    Of course this will entail a lot of money, but I am very sure this will propel this country to a higher status.

    • Jao Romero

      i’ve made many of the same suggestions you made. esp the feeding program. this is obviously a very basic requirement for student learning. a hungry kid learns nothing.

    • Marlou Wang

      you said “send studens to study in other countries”? ginawa na natin ito… at ang iba ay hindi na bumalik pa ng bansa… “mga walang-utang-na-loob”!

  • Anonymous

    If there is a higher demand for competent, creative, high skilled workers in the labor market, more students will enroll on courses that require for the job. 

    If most job offers in the Philippines require just speech skill like sales, call center agent, marketing, customer service, there is no reason for graduating high school students to take up engineering courses.

    If a country is an industrialized one and focus on manufacturing, engineering and sciences graduates are more in demand. Unfortunately, the rich and business elites like the oligarch in the Philippines hate to invest in manufacturing. It is easier to manage and earn high profit in real estate business like condo, subdivision and on putting up shopping malls.

    • Jao Romero

      rent-seeking is what you are talking about. oligarchs in the philippines love rent-seeking.

  • Richard

    K 12 will be fully implemented to answer the clamor of Multinational corporations for Filipino skilled workers. We always attune our education to foreign market labor demands. Why not make our educational system serves the actual needs of the country like strengthening our basic industries and food sufficiency?Do we need to always send our new graduates abroad?

    • Anonymous

      bull’s eye there!

  • Anonymous

    i doubt if the changes like k12 will straighten the crooked stucture of our present education.i’ve seen how public schools grind in the daily manner, especially the secondary level.the problems are so intertwined that you can’t untangled them because you’ll get confused where the head and the tail are.anyway, why not make STEM the norms in elementary, secondary and higher education?so that transition from every level won’t be hard for the teachers who are very good at these? pilot classes achieved these agenda but how about the larger part of the students’ population?if these will be consistently agreed upon, followed, then matters like finances, jobs will get untangled later.

  • Anonymous

    Teachers who have dedicated their lives to teaching are being retired earlier than they wish. Ched is pushing senior citizen teachers closer to their graves just to yield to fresh graduates, Ched can’t wait to see veteran teachers die idly in bed in stead of using them productively to the hilt. This is one factor for the deterioration of education, particularly college, in our country,

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