Higher education in the Philippines: in transition

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Higher education in the Philippines

By Dr Clarita D Carillo
Vice Rector for Academic Affairs
University of Santo Tomas, The Philippines


Higher education institutions (HEIs) in the Philippines cater to the educational needs and requirements of a population relatively diverse in socio-economic status, religion, and culture. Distributed among the 17 regions of a country that consists of approximately 7,100 islands, Philippine HEIs deliver educational services that demand responsiveness not only to national developmental thrusts but also to regional and community needs, as well as to specific institutional philosophies as articulated in their vision-mission.

As mandated by the Philippine Constitution, higher education institutions in the country, whether public or private, operate within an environment of laws and policies that aim to guarantee and protect the right to education of all citizens by ensuring that institutions of learning promote access, equity, quality, and relevance even as they exercise their institutional academic freedom.

There are currently 1,935 higher education institutions in the country, 1,708 (88%) are private; 227 (12%) are public. Private higher education institutions are either sectarian, i.e. owned and operated by religious groups or organisations, or non-sectarian, or owned and operated by private entities that are not affiliated to any religious organisation. Private HEIs generally fund their operations from their own capital investments, tuition fees and other school charges, grants, loans, and subsidies. Public higher education institutions operate through national and local government subsidies.

The governing body that covers both public and private higher education institutions in the Philippines is the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), established on 18 May 1994 through Republic Act 7722 and created in view of the broad agenda for reforms that resulted from the Congressional Commission on Education (EDCOM) report.

The EDCOM report led to the tri-focalisation of the education sector in the country, separating the Department of Education, Culture and Sports (DECS), into three separate agencies: the Department of Education (DepEd) for basic education, the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) for technical-vocational and middle level education, and CHED for tertiary and graduate education.

Challenges and reforms

Higher education issues, from pre-EDCOM report to post-CHED creation, can be categorised broadly into two persistent areas of challenges: (a) quality, and (b) thrusts. Quality issues may involve unemployment and underemployment due to the lack of desired competencies by the annual cohorts of graduates from the industry standpoint; local colleges converted into state universities, and their eventual expansion into satellite campuses, regardless of their compliance with the criteria for university status; the opening and offering of programmes, unmindful of CHED policies and minimum standards; the lack of a robust faculty profile in terms of academic preparation and training as well as advanced research capability; or the evident need to improve access to quality education for the marginalised sector to translate a higher education degree into real opportunities for social mobility.

Thrust issues result from the perceived purpose of higher education. At the macro-level, higher education remains key to economic growth and national development, spurred by research and innovation; hence the desired emphasis on science, technology, engineering, agriculture, and mathematics. At the micro-level, higher education is an investment not only for the individual, but for the basic social unit. An immediate return on investment becomes necessary as employment opportunities are culturally synonymous with affording education for core and extended families. Career pathways and decisions are determined according to the comparative requisite time, material and physical resource in honing scientists and scholars on one hand, and the ready industry practice and market participation on the other.

As expected, globalisation has added more challenges to higher education in the Philippines as the country contends not only with local quality assurance measures but with regional and international benchmarks. World and Asia university rankings, international programme accreditation and quality assessment, faculty and student exchange, research publication and citation, and international networking and linkages have become essential considerations that are inevitably transforming the academic landscape.

Addressing these challenges, higher education in the Philippines has undertaken the following reform programmes in recent years:

  • The Philippine K to 12 Program was implemented in 2012, adding two years in basic education and effecting an educational structure comparable with the rest of the world even as it resulted in a minimum 5-year transition period for higher education. DepEd, TESDA, and CHED collaborated on the effective curricular alignment of the three tracks of Senior High School (Grades 11 and 12) – academic, technical-vocational-livelihood, and sports and arts – in order to rationalise the expected competencies at each level of the Philippine Qualifications Framework (PQF) vis-à-vis the ASEAN Qualifications Reference Framework (AQRF).

  • The ASEAN integration in 2015 prompted higher education institutions to do faculty qualifications accreditation and curricular review and upgrading, rendering these competitive in view of mutual recognition agreements (MRAs) in the areas of engineering, nursing, surveying, architecture, dentistry, medicine, and accountancy, and which MRAs are currently at varying stages of development. Together with the economic sector, universities and colleges brace for the anticipated mobility, if not fluidity, of professionals and students with the commencement of the MRAs.

  • CHED has embarked on several initiatives under four key tactical points: (1) expanding access to quality education; (2) enhancing student and faculty competence; (3) promoting excellence; and (4) upholding ethical and innovative governance.

Better access to quality education is being delivered through financial assistance and scholarships for students, regulation of private universities’ tuition and other fees, upgrading of instructional and laboratory facilities of state universities and colleges, and availability of equivalency, ladderised, and distance programmes.

Enhanced student and faculty competence is being developed through curriculum planning and enhancement, in consultation with experts from concerned areas or disciplines as technical panel committees and working groups, and with emphasis on outcome-based and competency- based education; revision of the general education curriculum for higher education; strengthening of academe-industry partnerships to remedy the mismatch between academic preparation and employment needs; availability of faculty development grants for both private and public sector, for the pursuit of graduate degrees, research, and industry immersion and engagement.

Excellence is being promoted through the exercise of regulatory and supervisory functions, allowing CHED to close down substandard programmes; extension of financial support to private universities and colleges for intensification of internationalisation initiatives; granting of autonomous and deregulated status as recognitions of HEIs’ excellent performance; recognition of centres of excellence and centres of development, following stringent criteria for selection; creation of collaborative avenues such as the Philippine Higher Education Research Network (PHERNet) and higher education regional research centres (HERRC) for research capacity building.

A more ethical and innovative governance is being applied through anti- corruption mechanisms within the bureaucracy to promote efficient and effective allocation and management of resources; institutionalisation of the CHED Strategic Performance Management System; regional amalgamation to rationalise state universities and colleges; and through board governance, compliance of state universities and colleges to CHED policies and standards.

With all these, higher education in the Philippines is undoubtedly transitioning as it is made to view itself through additional external and varied lenses. The changing times, and together with it, changing demands and expectations, pose a transformative reality that is shared by the Philippine higher education with its counterparts around the world.

Science laboratory

A private university’s perspective

Universities and colleges in the Philippines welcome recent governmental efforts, through CHED, to level the playing field for private and public higher education institutions, particularly in the form of funding assistance for research, faculty development, upgrading of facilities, sectoral engagements, and internationalisation.

In the case of the University of Santo Tomas (UST), a 405-year old institution of higher learning, the attainment of its mission over the years has been sustained primarily through its own generation and management of resources. As the largest Catholic university in one campus, the University of Santo Tomas remains to be a favourite case study for sustainability management as it continues to attract at least 40,000 freshmen applicants on a regular academic year, with only 25% qualifying for admission.

Providing access and quality forms part of the balancing act done by UST. As a private institution, it maintains very reasonable tuition fee rates, allowing access to quality higher education among students who come from various socio-economic statuses. This is to adhere to its mission-vision as a Catholic University and as a Dominican institution of higher learning. The undeniable preference of students and parents for UST can be traced from its uncompromising stand not only on pursuing excellence but also sustained relevance, coupled by the holistic formation of students.

In acknowledgment of the university’s contribution to the promotion of excellence in higher education in the country, CHED has granted it an autonomous status since 2001. To date, it has the most number of CHED- recognised centres of excellence (biology, chemical engineering, chemistry, hotel and restaurant management, medical technology, medicine, music, nursing, pharmacy, philosophy, psychology, teacher education, tourism) and Centers of Development (civil engineering, communication, electrical engineering, electronics engineering, industrial engineering, information technology, journalism, library and information science, literature, mechanical engineering, physical therapy) among the private universities.

Awarded with an institutional accreditation by the Federation of Accrediting Agencies of the Philippines (FAAP), UST has since taken initiatives towards international programme accreditation and quality assurance assessment. To date, the University of Santo Tomas is the only Philippine University awarded a 4 Stars QS Rating.

These quality badges have been achieved through unyielding efforts over the years, and in the face of external and internal threats and opportunities. UST’s longevity must have taught it to pursue timeliness and timelessness amid historical, political, and social reforms. Among its long-time and recent initiatives to fulfil its goals and objectives are the following:

  1. Consultation with stakeholders, including alumni and industry partners, for the review and upgrading of the curricula;

  2. Integration of thesis/paper requirements and internship, on-the-job training and/or practicum in the curricula to address the need for research- capable as well as employment-suitable graduates;

  3. Inclusion of a general education curriculum, as well as institutionally mandated courses, in all programmes in order to educate students both in the technical/professional field and the liberal arts;

  4. Institutional support for faculty development such as grants-in-aid, study leave with pay, thesis/dissertation grant;

  5. Availability of various types of scholarships to reach a wider spectrum of deserving but financially challenged students;

  6. Institutional support and incentives for research projects and research activities, such as paper presentations and publication;

  7. Maintenance and even creation of additional research centres covering clusters of disciplines for a more dynamic research environment and whenever applicable, multidisciplinarity of projects;

  8. Voluntary accreditation of programmes, locally or internationally, whether for STEM or for industry-based disciplines, as part of quality assurance;

  9. Continuous upgrading of instructional facilities and laboratories, including those for educational technology;

  10. Creation of a separate Office for International Relations and Programs for better focus on internationalisation projects and activities;

  11. Strengthening of relationship with international networks of universities for more off-shore learning experiences of students, whether formal or informal;

  12. More strategic international benchmarking activities.

With the University’s emphasis on the holistic formation of students, all academic programmes as well as student organisations also provide exposure and direct experience in community development projects, leadership training, and various advocacies, fulfilling its three-fold thrusts of instruction, research, and community development and extension.

In its own capacity as a private university, UST supports the national agenda for educational reforms in higher education in the Philippines and commits to walk in-step with CHED and the rest of the Philippine HEIs in transitioning towards heightened excellence and relevance, consistent with regional and global competitiveness.

Dr Clarita D Carillo has served as vice rector for academic affairs at the University of Santo Tomas (UST) since 2006, the youngest and first woman lay administrator to hold the position. She obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the same university, and her PhD in educational administration from the University of the Philippines, Diliman. Her previous administrative positions at UST were director of the Center for Educational Research and Development and as assistant dean of the College of Education. She became an accreditor of the Philippine Association of Colleges and Universities Commission on Accreditation (PACUCOA) in 1999 and was elected as one of its commissioners in 2010. She was a member of the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) Technical Working Group (TWG) on Autonomous and Deregulated Universities in the academic year 2007–2008. Her research interests and publications are on teacher education and educational management, administration, and leadership.