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Thursday, October 6, 2022

The price of learning

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josef san jose
an ordinary man trying to do extraordinary things

To say that the modern public puts a premium on education is to state the truly obvious. It seems hard to imagine a world with high levels of ignorance and illiteracy.Especially with the advent of the “Experience Age,” where we are transitioning from being consumers of information to creator of experiences, one’s education determines the options that one has in life. A good life and a successful career are usually linked to the quality and level of one’s education; mavericks like Bill Gates and some Taipans – who never finished or took up a college education – of Southeast Asia are usually exceptions rather than the rule when it comes to accomplishment. So for most people, even a high school diploma is usually the key to a better future.

“Schools with more disadvantaged students receive less support than schools with more privileged students. Schools should be like hospitals, we should help those who are more in need”. – J-AYT

Discussing the price of educating a country’s public inevitably leads to the age-old debate on whether education is a right or a privilege. Most modern societies adhere to the principle of education as a right, and thus the proliferation of public schools. Indeed, in the world’s foremost democracy the grand majority of its young are reared in public schools. This creates a link between the quality of education for the masses and public expenditure, best exemplified in public outcry over decreases in the education budget. It would seem, to most people, that the efficacy of a country’s education program lives and dies by the amount of money allocated by the government to it.

In assessing the education situation of the Republic of the Philippines, its Department of Education (DepEd) noted that, despite wide and strong public support for education as well as constant prioritizing in the national budget, the sector still faces significant problems, foremost of which are the low cohort survival rate and the lack of facilities and “equipment” – e.g. classrooms, textbooks – for those in primary and secondary education. That the Department of Education has to postpone the 2020 class opening twice not just due to the pandemic but our educations system’s failure to transition to the digital era of education is just disappointing but not surprising.

One possible cause for the largely dismal state of Philippine education, according to DepEd’s own estimate, points to political support that is “focused more on capturing allocated resources, less on using resources for instructional effort, even less on attaining desired learning outcomes”. Funding from both national and local governments is often inadequate, inconsistently provided, and not clearly aligned with need, meaning it is insufficient to satisfy existing service standards. The country ranks 25th in the list of countries with the worst educational system which is chronically underfunded with only 2.7% of the country’s GDP.

DepEd officials admitted a few years ago that the education sector was “in crisis”. For every 100 children who enter grade 1, only 65 will graduate and only 58 will move on to high school. Only 19 out of every 100 public school teachers have confidence and competence to teach English. The Philippines is No. 41 in Science and No. 42 in Mathematics among 45 countries. One of the government’s policy responses is to expand the basic education cycle from 10 to 12 years. Before the K-12 law, the Philippines was one of the only three countries in the world (the other two being Djibouti and Angola) with a 10-year basic education cycle. The critics of the program say that the government gives emphasis on quantity over quality education.

The number of higher education institutions in the country is ten times higher than our neighbors yet we are lackluster in “producing innovators, researchers and solution producers needed to function effectively in a knowledge economy”. The bold decision of the government to make state universities and colleges tuition-free helped further boost participation but do not guarantee that we are preparing the youth for the challenges of the future.

Private initiative in supporting education has usually met with skepticism if not outright hostility. Recognizing that the Philippines’ premier state university, the University of the Philippines Diliman campus, was seeing a deterioration in the quality both of the caliber of its education and its facilities, endeavored to seek private support to augment the “meager” budget allocation it receives from the government. This was done through using idle land in the expansive campus for commercial purposes. Such a move was met with much opposition then, mostly from militant students based in the university. Instead, they have asked for an increase in the budget for education, echoing the general perception that the infusion of more public funds into the sector will solve its problems like some magic bullet.

DepEd could initiate several reform measures that veered away from further burdening the national budget. One of the best examples involved the construction of classrooms; in the Philippines, some classes are held in makeshift locations such as the school gym or garage, or even under a mango tree. Having a limited budget for the construction of new facilities, DepED could instead turn to the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce (FFCCC) as a model to building the classrooms. FFCCC-built classrooms cost P 300,000 less than the normal (graft-ridden) cost of P 650,000. The agency should also push for more funding for the voucher system, where certain students are sent to private schools, decreasing further the backlog for classrooms and other equipment.

One simply needed to think outside of the box in order to address the lack of funding for the education sector. This is, of course, contrary to the belief that solving the education “crisis” could be done simply by infusing more money into the system. Don’t get me wrong, I support increased spending on education which has actually more than doubled in 2014. DepEd budget in 2017 increased by 25% but of course this stem from the K-12 reforms. But the wise management of resources will always be a better alternative to more resources.

One area of reform that I am proposing is that the government must learn to let “market” forces in the education sector regulate itself rather than to call for increased allocations to education from an overburdened budget, or for greater regulation of the sector even to its private learning institutions. Private schools have seen the adverse effects of abnormally high tuition fees, as more and more students flee towards the public schools following a sharp spike in fees especially now that the Pandemic has created economic havoc to Filipino families.  Even given the realities of the situation, the private schools will most definitely react to this response of the “market” by improving their facilities, ensuring the quality of their curriculum, and/or lowering their fees. For State Colleges and Universities, I am proposing that they are given full fiscal autonomy instead of outrightly privatizing them. Only by giving them the power to look for their own resources and utilize their assets will they become independent and creative in managing their respective institutions.

It is true that, in a world facing the impact of increasing access to knowledge and information, education will play a key role in the viability of whole nations as much as they dictate the choices available to the individual citizens of these nations. Pouring in more money to old systems and habits will only waste the already-scarce resources of the State to a move that does not and cannot guarantee substantial positive results. It is only by going beyond the preconceived notions that higher capital infusion equals the higher quality of education – thinking out of the box, – will we truly be able to address the issues confronting the education sector today.

The second area of reform must be in the education curriculum which also needs a thorough review of its efficacy. Which subjects remain effective and able to be of use and of relevance to the studentry? Is the way of instruction for the basic knowledge of reading, writing, and arithmetic effective in keeping the population effectively literate? There will be no use in infusing the system with fresh capital while the system itself is ineffective in delivering its mandate. Curriculum creation and revision processes must include other stakeholders like the students, alumni, and parents. Students must be able to choose a subject that is of interest and will help them develop the career they want to take.

Lastly, social mobilization must be done if we still hope to see some genuine upgrading in the academic performance of the Filipino students. It is as imperative that the community’s resource holders whether individual or private businesses realize that education is too complex an issue to be left to the government alone. Students, Teachers, School Administrators, Parents and other stakeholders like the Business sector must be made aware that they have it in them to bring about positive change in the sector. We could very well devise a system on the mechanics of stakeholders’ involvement in pursuing reforms. Complacency and lack of imagination among these groups have allowed the system to perpetuate its inability to educate. If we all – even those in public schools – demand results at least to the level of their money’s worth, then school administrators and the government will be forced to act as they are the key constituency of this sector. Those in private schools can make use of the business aspect of such institutions to demand their “rights” as “consumers” of the “product” being offered. For those in public schools, just because it is relatively free education doesn’t mean demands cannot be made; it is, after all, a question of whether your hard-earned taxes are working for you.

These are the price we have to pay for education.

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