I often find myself reluctant to write about the University of the Philippines, aware that there is a love-hate relationship between the public and UP. Every time I write about UP, internet “rumbles” break out between supporters and detractors of UP, as I suspect there will be for today’s column. It has become all too predictable—the supporters, usually alumni, first expressing pride in UP, and then the detractors coming in about UP being a den of communists and radicals (which many UP alumni actually see as a source of pride), or a kind of Ali Baba lair for crooked politicians.
It doesn’t help that the media mostly tend to feature UP only when there are rallies and protest actions, or when something negative happens … like a drop in its international ranking.
So, yes, UP is in the news again because of the release of international university rankings from a group called QS (Quacquarelli Symonds). UP continues to lead in the Philippines, followed by Ateneo de Manila, De la Salle, University of Santo Tomas, Silliman, Xavier, Ateneo de Davao, and University of San Carlos.
But what does all that mean for Filipinos, and the Philippines? Should UP and other universities give more attention to the rankings?
The QS rankings are based on many metrics or quantified indicators, from internet bandwidth to number of professors with PhDs. But much of these boil down to reputation, among employers (mainly large companies) and among the universities themselves. The rankings are therefore based in large part on perceptions.
Which is where I’d start if we look at UP. Do people know we are the national university, and what that means? Do people know we consist of several constituent universities rather than campuses, reflecting expertise in different fields?
Through the years I’ve been shocked by reality checks when talking with people in communities and the streets to find out what they know of UP.
When I’m in a taxi traversing a street around UP Manila—for example, Padre Faura or Pedro Gil—I will play the naive balikbayan and ask what we just passed. And almost always the cabbie will say, “PGH” (Philippine General Hospital).
If I make a gentle correction—“Isn’t that UP?”—some will say yes, some will shrug their shoulders. I’m not surprised because many people even call the UP College of Medicine “PGH,” which is not quite accurate. PGH is indeed part of the UP system and is the teaching hospital of the UP College of Medicine, but it has its own budget and administration.
Even more startling, I’ve found that among the poor, UP is considered a private institution. They know UP is “magaling” (excellent) but is “siguradong mahal” (expensive for sure) because it is a private school! I’ve even had people asking me which family—and, once, which religious order—owns UP.
(Just in case there are still readers who don’t know, UP is funded by taxpayer money, which is why our students are called “iskolar ng bayan”—the people’s scholars.
I worry about the fixation on the numbers in the rankings, which can be even worse with foreign universities. When I have visitors from such universities, they’ll actually tell me what UP’s latest ranking is, and then give their own. Recently, an official from Xiamen University in China told me that Xiamen and UP are like two brothers, UP being the elder one (UP was established in 1908 and Xiamen in 1921). He then talked about how Xiamen used to rank in the 700s at a time when UP was 300-something (he was more exact), and how little brother Xiamen had been catching up.
I just had to beat him to it, sighing, “Yes, and soon, little brother will overtake big brother.” In the latest rankings, UP is 409th and Xiamen is 410th.
I don’t like the numbers game, but sometimes I have to play it, too, tongue-in-cheek. At UP Diliman’s recent commencement, I mentioned how the country’s top university beat the second and third best in the recently concluded UAAP (University Athletic Association of the Philippines) football championship games. (Never mind basketball.)
On the other hand, I recently congratulated Xavier University’s president, Fr. Roberto Yap, for making it to the QS list of Asia’s best universities, noting with genuine pride, being partly Jesuit-educated, that many of the Philippines’ Jesuit universities had made it as well into the list.
I do follow rankings and ratings and consider them wake-up calls and alerts to what we need to do to improve our own institutions and the educational systems. For example, CHEd (Commission on Higher Education) has a system of awarding “Center of Excellence” and “Center of Development” designations to the tertiary institutions, and I’ve seen how, through the years, Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology has been garnering more of these designations. I like congratulating their officials when we meet and share their pride because UP Diliman does have projects with them.
I’ve seen, too, how among private schools there have been emerging game-changers in CHEd’s list, including various Lyceum institutions. Which reminds me: If we want to use the number of presidents as another source of bragging rights for educational institutions, we would have San Beda and Lyceum—President Duterte’s almae matres—joining UP and Ateneo as “presidentiable schools.” Oops, I hope the
internet trolls don’t begin to incite rumbles again.
Some three years back, I listened to then Education Secretary Br. Armin Luistro speaking at an international education conference and was impressed by his reflections on the rankings. He warned against converting the rankings into a competition and urged universities in the Asean to instead find ways to help each other improve their ratings.
I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I wish we had some kind of rating system among UP’s eight constituent universities, not to compete but to see what areas and fields we excel in and what areas we need to improve on. UP Diliman, for example, will never attempt to institute a fisheries program; that is left to UP Visayas.
In the same vein, I would think a ratings system would be helpful for state universities and colleges, and among the growing number of city colleges, as a way again of seeing how we can help each other.
On the international front, as Brother Armin suggested, there are so many areas for regional cooperation, and beyond.
UP and Philippine universities have been doing that for years. From the 1950s into the 1970s, we were a hub of education in Southeast Asia, training students from all over the region in engineering, agriculture, education, medicine, dentistry, and many other fields.
We were, and to some extent are, still good at training, so good that our international graduates return home and become leaders in industry, academe and government… to overtake us.
We should be proud, and also concerned.
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