A shift towards good quality higher education for all

At a time when there are significant challenges to achieving the education-related Sustainable Development Goals, the Philippine higher education sector may serve as an example in terms of progression towards quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Over the past years, the country’s shift to a kindergarten through to senior high school (K to 12) structure, from its previous 10-year compulsory education system, its increased focus on internationalisation and its recent legal directive to grant free tuition across all state universities and colleges have combined to increase its path towards the goal of quality higher education offered for all.

Funding, implementation and sustainability issues, however, still pose significant challenges.

Quality higher education for all

The Enhanced Basic Education Act of 2013 and the Universal Access to Tertiary Education Act of 2017 have led to a systematic redesign of the Philippines’ entire education system.

The former, which shifted compulsory education to a K to 12 structure, has also incorporated student-centred learning and an outcomes-based curriculum of teaching and learning, and has brought liberal arts and technical and vocational education into the curriculum.

Further, the shift in the basic education structure has also catalysed curriculum and programme reforms in higher education, which are not limited to teacher education and aim to align higher education with basic education reforms and to increase the relevance and quality of higher education in the country.

The reforms provided free tuition for students enrolled in undergraduate programmes in public higher education institutions and established subsidies for disadvantaged Filipino undergraduate students across the entire higher education system.

The Philippines’ higher education sector has seen a renewed and deepening focus on internationalisation in recent years. In 2016, the Commission on Higher Education established a policy framework for and strategies on the internationalisation of higher education in the Philippines.

In 2017, 10 universities, including private universities, were selected to start transnational education partnerships with their counterparts in the United Kingdom. In late 2017, a memorandum of understanding was signed with Russia to increase academic exchange and a memorandum of cooperation was signed with New Zealand to begin the process of mutual recognition of higher education qualifications.

In 2013 in response to low research productivity in the Philippines, the country launched the Balik (Returning) Scientist, a brain gain programme to encourage highly trained scientists to return and contribute to the Philippines.

However, a low level of incentives and research funding in comparison to other developed and developing countries may mean few take up this initiative. Indeed, in 2017, the Department of Science and Technology was still openly encouraging highly trained Filipino scientists to return to the Philippines.

On the other hand, in response to challenges facing universities and faculty members due to the shift to the K to 12 structure, the Commission on Higher Education of the Philippines (CHED) has negotiated and delivered, in conjunction with partner countries and institutions, various CHED-linked scholarships and fellowship programmes targeting university faculty, enabling them to take time out to get postgraduate qualifications abroad before returning home.

Given its target participants, this programme should see a significantly high return rate and, in theory, increase internationalisation at home for participants’ respective universities. Nevertheless, Philippine universities should introduce mechanisms to attract foreign academics to their institutions to further enhance internationalisation and hopefully improve the quality of curricula, programmes and the teaching and learning experience.

The above-mentioned initiatives set the foundations for the Philippines to progress towards quality higher education for all. Of course, there are limits on this progress, for instance, with regard to the higher education provision available and the number of students getting the grades for higher education and with regard to how quality is defined in the context of the Philippines.

I believe, for instance, that quality needs to be defined more broadly than in terms of graduate employability and should incorporate aspects of socio-cultural awareness, sustainability and global citizenship. Equity issues still need to be addressed beyond financing those who are disadvantaged economically so they incorporate other issues, such as gender and minority-related issues and include appropriate policies, programmes and environments.

Challenges and sustainability

In my 2012 article entitled “Democracy, Decentralisation and Higher Education: The Philippines case”, I argued that the Philippines has been beset by systemic problems of political instability, a lack of political will, and the inequitable distribution of power and resources.

Despite an increased political will to advance quality higher education for all, challenges related to systemic political instability and the inequitable distribution of power and resources, especially in relation to local government, make the implementation and sustainability of the above-mentioned initiatives an uphill struggle.

The provision of good quality higher education has been a perennial issue, not just in the Philippines and has been particularly challenging at a time of massification of higher education, with the expansion of both public and private higher education sectors, and given the mismatch between graduate learning and the requirements of industry.

Increased collaboration among the different stakeholders, including industry, in redesigning the higher education curriculum, instituting international benchmarking and increasing internationalisation of higher education (both abroad and at home) should address part of the quality issue.

Weeding out diploma mills and closing down higher education programmes and institutions that do not meet quality standards, as CHED has been doing over the past years, needs to be continued and to become institutionalised.

Furthermore, initiatives to enhance quality in higher education, such as the Centers of Excellence and Centers of Development initiatives and international benchmarking activities, need to be scaled up and funded to enhance peer to peer learning and domestic and international collaboration to improve and sustain quality higher education.

The CHED’s increased focus on its developmental role, on top of its regulatory function, and its multi-stakeholder approach to spearheading higher education innovations to advance an equitable, quality higher education for all provides an excellent foundation for sustainable higher education innovation.

Recent reforms have increased collaboration between CHED, the Department of Education, the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority and other stakeholders. This makes it the most ambitious and complex education sector reform process ever undertaken in the history of Philippine education.

The sustainability of the above-mentioned initiatives to advance quality higher education for all may, however, face obstacles in terms of sustainable funding, implementation and the equitable application of these initiatives to disadvantaged populations and socio-economically challenged geographical areas of the country.

The time necessary to realise and demonstrate the impact of education-related policy reforms and initiatives may decrease political support and slow the momentum they have created. Despite being mandated by law, funding to support initiatives for quality higher education for all may be reduced and-or appropriated to other equally important policies, such as health and social welfare, especially in times of political change.

Investment and SDGs

In the context of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the consolidation of the ASEAN – Association of Southeast Asian Nations – Community, the Philippines’ move to advance quality higher education for all is highly commendable. It should be seen as an investment in the capacity of the country’s citizens to contribute to national and regional development, and should not be limited to economic development.

It should also be viewed as a contribution to the global agenda of ushering in a sustainable peaceful and progressive global community. Education, and not just higher education, still remains a significant pathway for social mobility and is the route to shared peace and prosperity in an increasingly complex world.

As such, the effective implementation and sustainability of this Philippine initiative should be supported by national policy-makers, education stakeholders and the international community.

The country’s success in this massive and complex endeavour may facilitate the promotion of good quality higher education for all beyond national borders and serve as a case study that can be replicated and-or localised in other countries and regional contexts to support the achievement of the education-related Sustainable Development Goals.

Roger Chao Jr is an international education development consultant. He was formerly the senior consultant for the UNESCO International Centre for Higher Education Innovation, China.