Quality versus access in expanding higher education

Undoubtedly, the greatest competitive challenge facing schools, colleges and universities today is adjusting to non-stop change brought about by the external environment. As representing one of the key players in national development, higher education institutions are expected to transcend limitations in their thinking and practice and eventually evolve as world-class universities.

Transforming today’s higher education institutions into world-class universities has challenged top-level managers to address the need for what Jamil Salmi – when he was the World Bank's higher education coordinator – described as three complementary sets of factors: a high concentration of talent, abundant resources and favourable governance.

Specifically, Salmi offered three distinct strategies in terms of options for establishing world-class universities: picking winners (upgrading a small number of existing universities that have the potential to excel); adopting a hybrid formula (encouraging a number of existing institutions to merge and transform into a new university); and taking a clean-slate approach (creating new world-class universities from scratch).

The decision as to which strategy will be employed is context- and resource-specific. In a developing country like the Philippines, efforts to transform institutions into world-class universities come up against political reality.

I will address here one of Jamil Salmi’s key questions on establishing world-class universities: “What strategy would work best in the country context – upgrading existing institutions, merging existing institutions or creating new institutions?”

The Philippine educational system is a clear example of a boat sailing on a sea of changes and challenges. It has, in fact, followed the same pattern of education as that of the rest of the world.

It has passed through various stages of development and undergone dramatic changes depicted in its various stages of educational evolution. Its long years of exposure to and contact with the Spaniards, Americans and Japanese have created a spectrum of educational variations and lines of emphasis.

The Philippine school system is considered to be among the largest in the world. The country’s higher education system is among the world's unique. Probing the dynamics and politics of the sector can yield interesting insights that can inform research and practice in comparative education.

The World Bank, in its 1994 survey, identified the Philippines as having the largest percentage of students and schools in the private higher education sector. As of August 2011, higher education in the country had 2,247 colleges and universities, of which 534 were state colleges and universities, or SUC.

According to Dr Lily Garcia of the Commission on Higher Education: “The SUC in the country have attracted much attention over the last two decades because of the rapid increase in their number and public concern that the quality of education that some SUC offer is inadequate, considering that their budget share is 15% to 18% of the government’s allocation to education.”

Proliferation of state institutions

As reported by Garcia in her article “Rationalisation of the public higher education system”, only four SUC were present in the country from 1901–50. However, after 1960, a significant increase in the number was noted.

The proliferation of SUC has been brought about by the conversion of secondary schools into collegiate institutions. These institutions are established (often converted from technical high schools) by legislative fiat at the behest of parties interested in the perks and prestige associated with being, or with having, a ‘university’.

In the Philippines, SUC are primarily established to improve access to education in areas where there are few private schools. As mandated, they are to offer priority programmes necessary for national development, such as agriculture, fisheries, science and mathematics.

However, it is alarming to note that programmes offered by SUC are undersubscribed, and fields such as commerce, education and nursing that were identified by the EDCOM Report in 1991 as popular disciplines, remain oversubscribed.

Issues and concerns relative to the proliferation of SUC, such as undue competition with the private sector and variable performance in government examinations, all come back to the problem of quality education.

Transformation of the high school system into a four-year state college system necessitates the expansion of facilities to provide opportunities for the increasing number of students expected to enrol, as well as the need for continual re-evaluation and enrichment of courses and curricula to suit the needs of students and the community.

While it is true that conversion guidelines in areas like institutional capability, faculty resources, programme offerings, quality of instruction, accreditation level, laboratory and library facilities, research and extension, physical infrastructure, and enrolment are in place, Garcia reported that “the conversion guidelines are followed strictly by the private higher education institutions, but this is not the case for SUC".

She added: “Rationalisation of the public higher education system has been a very slow and a tedious process. There are many reasons for these difficulties, such as political realities and the lack of political will, faculty tenure and vested rights, student fee levels, and access versus quality issues.”

There is no doubt that SUC in the Philippines are here to stay. Although certain political dynamics have become an integral part of their establishment, aggressive moves are needed to rationalise higher education in the country vis-à-vis efforts to improve quality standards while increasing access to quality higher education.

The Philippine Commission on Higher Education is firm in its commitment to rationalising the system through alignment with national development goals, development of higher education typologies, programme mapping, higher education institution amalgamation, a moratorium on new higher education institutions and programmes, harmonisation of public and private institutions, and rationalisation of credentials.


Improvements in quality are being achieved through sound and strict policies on accreditation, deregulation, effective technical panels in various fields, faculty development, and closure of sub-standard and non-performing programmes and institutions.

In addition, introduction of a strong support system for deserving institutions, and alignment of the Philippine curricula and policies with international benchmarks, are being undertaken.

Finally, efforts to improve and expand assistance to students and faculty alike, in the form of alternative learning systems, equivalency programmes and programme ‘ladderisation’, are clear indicators of efforts to increase access to quality higher education across the region. Considering that the country has started the implementation of a 12-year basic education cycle through its K-to-12 programme, the playing field has a lot to offer in terms of strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities.

Today, more than ever, strong political will and the exercise of transparency and open communication as well as commitment to service and excellence can create a good and recognisable balance between quality and political reality.

While the creation of world-class universities in the context of a developing country like the Philippines may take some time and may entail a lot of investment in structure, training, resources and policy mechanisms, what is important is having certainty about where we are, where we want to go and how we can get there.

Ultimately, the issues behind quality and political reality are the very lessons learned in the process of risk taking and sound adherence to the dictum “doing more with less”.

* Dr Allan B De Guzman handles pedagogy, management and research courses at both graduate and undergraduate levels at the University of Santo Tomas. As a prolific writer in educational policy studies, adult learning and teacher education, he has published 78 articles in various ISI-listed journals. He also serves as editor, board member and reviewer of international journals. He has received various prestigious awards, including the 2007 SEAMEO-JASPER Research Award given by the government of Canada and South East Asian Ministers of Education Organisation, the 2006 National Research Council of the Philippines-Department of Science and Technology Achievement Award, and the 2011 Metrobank Foundation Outstanding Teacher Award in Higher Education. Currently he is a research fellow of the South East Asian Ministers of Education Regional Centre for Innovation Technology, SEAMEO-INNOTECH. This paper was presented in the recent QS Showcase 2013.