The Crisis of Public Education in the Philippines
By Ronald Meinardus
According to the human capital theory, the economic development
of a nation is a function of the quality of its education. In
other words: the more and better educated a people, the greater
the chances of economic development.
The modern world in which we live is often termed a "knowledge
society"; education and information have become production
factors potentially more valuable than labor and capital. Thus,
in a globalized setting, investment in human capital has become
a condition for international competitiveness.
In the Philippines, I often hear harsh criticism against the
politics of globalization. At the same time, regarding the labor
markets, I can hardly think of another nation that is so much
a part of a globalized economy than the Philippines with nearly
ten per cent of the overall population working beyond the shores
of the native land.
Brain drain. Apart from the much debated political, social
and psychological aspects, this ongoing mass emigration constitutes
an unparalleled brain drain with serious economic implications.
Arguably, the phenomenon also has an educational dimension, as
the Philippine society is footing the bill for the education of
millions of people, who then spend the better part of their productive
years abroad. In effect, the poor Philippine educational system
is indirectly subsidizing the affluent economies hosting the OFWs.
With 95 per cent of all elementary students attending public
schools, the educational crisis in the Philippines is basically
a crisis of public education. The wealthy can easily send their
offspring to private schools, many of which offer first-class
education to the privileged class of pupils.
Social divide. Still, the distinct social cleavage regarding
educational opportunities remains problematic for more than one
reason. Historically, in most modern societies, education has
had an equalizing effect. In Germany, for instance, the educational
system has helped overcome the gender gap, and later also the
social divide. Today, the major challenge confronting the educational
system in the country I come from is the integration of millions
of mostly non-European, in most cases Muslim, immigrants. Importantly,
this leveling out in the context of schooling has not occurred
in this part of the world. On the contrary, as one Filipino columnist
wrote a while ago, "Education has become part of the institutional
mechanism that divides the poor and the rich."
Let me add an ideological note to the educational debate: Liberals
are often accused of standing in the way of reforms that help
overcome social inequalities. While, indeed, liberals value personal
freedom higher than social equality, they actively promote equality
of opportunities in two distinct policy areas: education and basic
For this reason, educational reform tends to have a high ranking
on the agenda of most liberal political parties in many parts
of the world.
This said, it is probably no coincidence that the National Institute
for Policy Studies (NIPS), liberal think-tank of the Philippines,
invited me the other day to a public forum on the "Challenges
on Educational Reform." With the school year having just
started and the media filled with reports on the all but happy
state of public education in the country, this was a very timely
and welcome event. I was impressed by the inputs from Representative
Edmundo O. Reyes, Jr, the Chairman of the Committee on Education
of the House of Representatives, and DepEd Undersecretary Juan
Miguel Luz. Both gave imposing presentations on the state of Philippine
Although I have been in this country for over a year now, I am
still astonished again and again by the frankness and directness
with which people here address problems in public debates. "The
quality of Philippine education has been declining continuously
for roughly 25 years," said the Undersecretary -- and no
one in the audience disagreed. This, I may add, is a devastating
report card for the politicians who governed this nation in the
said period. From a liberal and democratic angle, it is particularly
depressing as this has been the period that coincides with democratic
rule that was so triumphantly and impressively reinstalled after
the dark years of dictatorship in 1986! Describing the quality
of Philippine school education today, the senior DepEd official
stated the following: "Our schools are failing to teach the
competence the average citizen needs to become responsible, productive
and self-fulfilling. We are graduating people who are learning
less and less."
While at the said forum, more than one speaker observed that
the educational problems are structural in nature, I missed propositions
for reform that are so far-reaching to merit the attribute structural.
Gargantuan problems. While the Undersecretary very patiently
and impressively charted out the four policy directions of the
political leadership of his ministry (taking teachers out of elections,
establishing a nationwide testing system, preserving private schools,
raising subsidies for a voucher system), to me -- as a foreign
observer -- these remedies sound technocratic considering, what
one writer in this paper has recently termed, "the gargantuan
magnitude of the problems besetting Philippine basic education."
Let me highlight two figures: Reportedly, at last count more
than 17 million students are enrolled in this country's public
At an annual population growth rate of 2.3 per cent, some 1.7
million babies are born every year. In a short time, these individuals
will claim their share of the limited educational provisions.
"We can't build classrooms fast enough to accommodate"
all these people, said the DepEd Undersecretary, who also recalled
the much lamented lack of teachers, furniture and teaching materials.
In short, there are too little resources for too many students.
Two alternatives. In this situation, logically, there
exist only two strategic alternatives: either, one increases the
resources, which is easier said than done considering the dramatic
state of public finances, or one reduces the number of students.
This second alternative presupposes a systematic population policy,
aimed at reducing the number of births considerably.
But this, too, is easier said than done, considering the politics
in this country -- or to quote Congressman Reyes: "Given
the very aggressive and active intervention of the Church addressing
the population problem is very hard to tackle."
Dr. Ronald Meinardus was the former Resident Representative
of the Friedrich-Naumann-Foundation in the Philippines and a commentator
on Asian affairs. E-mail comments to
Business World Internet Edition: June 30, 2003
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For more information on the crisis of public education in the
Philippines, please refer to: Liberal
Perspectives on Philippine Education.