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There’s the Rub

Making the grade

Quacquarelli Symonds, a British organization specializing in education, confirms what most of us pretty much know or suspect. The quality of our education is falling.

Proof of which is that even as our economy is getting better, our schools are getting worse. Only the University of the Philippines remained among the top 100 of 300 schools in Asia. Ateneo de Manila University, De La Salle University and the University of Santo Tomas, though still in the middle ranges, slipped during the past year. Specifically, UP improved from 68th to 67th while Ateneo fell from 86th to 109th, La Salle from 142th to 151th, and UST from 140th to 150th.

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Rep. Luz Ilagan, a former university professor, says this is due to schools preferring quantity to quality. Many universities are really just diploma mills offering popular courses based on public demand. Poor-quality elementary and high school education lead to poor-quality students entering college. Some of them have barely passable comprehension and writing skills.

Rep. Antonio Tinio says it’s funds, or the sore lack of them. “In Asia, public universities rule. In order for our higher education sector to become competitive, the government must drastically step up its funding and other support for our state universities and colleges. Unfortunately, government higher education policy over the last two decades has gone in the other direction, towards budget cuts, contractualization of faculty and commercialization.”

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Ric Reyes of the Freedom from Debt Coalition puts the case of lack of funds for public education more forcefully. Last year, the budget for debt payments was P739 billion, three times more than the budget for education, which was only P224.9 billion. The latter was only 2.2 percent of GNP, well below the world benchmark of 6 percent. Unesco notes that the Philippines has the lowest expenditure for education in proportion to total budget. Since 1955, education has dropped from 30.78 percent of the budget to 15 percent post Edsa. This year’s education budget at 14.97 percent is lower than the post Edsa average of 15 percent.

I share their sense of apprehension, if not alarm, at the state, and future, of our education. With some caveats.

Certainly, I agree that we need to revise the budget and give education the utmost, ultimate, first-and-last priority it deserves. Which, not quite incidentally, the Constitution decrees. Debt payments are not the national priority, education is. Which, not quite incidentally as well, shows the continuing horror of martial law: To this day we are still paying for the Marcoses’ debt. Next time Imelda throws a party, know that you and your children are paying for it.

I don’t care if government makes all sorts of excuses to defer payment (“Sorry, but we have mouths to feed and minds to open”), or more conciliatorily negotiates to restructure payments again and again, but education should be three times more than debt payments. Hell, education should have half the budget, if we are going to have half the chance to curb, if not eradicate, poverty.

That brings me again to wonder at the wisdom of pouring a fortune into military upgrading to meet the Chinese threat in the Spratlys instead of doing that to education to meet the far more grievous, the far more terrifying, the far clearer and more present threat of ignorance and illiteracy.

My caveat is plugging for universal education as the thrust of education and not just improving the quality of higher education. I myself don’t greatly mind that our universities aren’t gaining rave reviews for their brilliance. But I do mind that the majority of the population of this country is mired in ignorance, and often enough illiteracy. In the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao alone, 21 percent of barangays have no schools. That is unacceptable. There is an urgent need to pour enormous amounts to educate as many of this country’s kids, if not all of them, as possible.

Which means, as I said in a previous column, conscripting the private sector to the task. Which means luring big business, foundations, foreign aid-givers, philanthropic organizations, and whatever else you can find, to the task. Indeed, which means inspiring volunteers, the ones abundantly found during disasters and People Power, to the task. We need a foundation to build education on. Literacy is such a foundation. The three ’Rs are such a foundation. Universal education is such a foundation.

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A foundation for better things—including raising the quality of higher education.

This is one case where quantity truly translates into quality. I do not believe that improving the quality of higher education will impact on universal education, or literacy. What it is more likely to do is widen the gap between the educated and the uneducated, the lettered and the unlettered. What I believe is the opposite: Universal education, or literacy will impact tremendously on the quality of higher education. You create a mass of literate people and the discourse of this country will improve. You create a better discourse in this country and the quality of the culture will improve. You raise the culture of this country and the quality of education will improve.

You will create the need, the demand, the imperative for education to improve. The push will not come from above, it will come from below. People who have glimpsed the vistas that being able to read and write opens will want to see more. People who have known the wonders that the light of learning brings will want to have more. People who have tasted the joys that enlightenment brings will want to push their boundaries more. Not immediately, not even in the short run, but it will happen, slowly and surely. The push will come from below, the swell will come from below.

That is what it takes to improve the quality of education. That is what it takes to make the grade.

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