Business World, December 2012


The problems of Philippine higher education are well known by now—quality and cost. Good schools are not cheap enough, and cheap schools are not good enough. This means only the affluent or the lucky get good-quality education, which then creates the problem of social access and education inequality. In the few odd places where quality education is afforded at a manageable cost (through huge subsidies such as the University of the Philippines) one sees a huge crush and overcrowding, as one might expect.

Until now, the traditional approach to these problems has been twofold: stricter regulation of private institutions and larger budgets for public institutions. Regulation imposes minimum standards on institutions, especially private ones, even as it is hoped these will continue to provide low-cost education. On the other hand, there is a perennial lobbying effort for larger budgets on the part of public universities to expand enrolment, build more facilities, raise faculty salaries, and so on. Neither effort has succeeded completely. Higher education costs continue to rise without corresponding increases in quality, while public budgets have trouble keeping up with rising demand in state colleges and universities.

There is an obvious limit to these approaches, since there is little one can do about the cost-quality frontier which, once reached, is still upward sloping. From the viewpoint of private institutions, at a certain point, better quality will always mean higher fees. On the other hand, for state universities and colleges, the twin mandate of providing good quality at low cost must typically give way to the reality of limited government budgets (especially when basic education itself goes wanting). The more frequent result is for quality to deteriorate in both cases. Adding insult to injury is the fact that even the country’s “best” universities (i.e., the costliest or the most subsidised) are not even good enough to rank among the world’s best; not a single Philippine university is to be found in the top 300 of any world ranking.

Something more radical is clearly required, and the quality-cost curve itself needs to be tamed (a.k.a. “pushing the envelope”). In economics this is typically the result of technological innovation, which really means one should not simply look at doing more but rather doing better.

A promising game-changer (there are others one can discuss at another time) in the problem of congestion in Philippine universities is the current object of a great deal of interest: MOOCs, or “massive open online courses”. Private non-profit firms like Coursera and EdX currently offer free classes on almost anything, ranging from the design and analysis of algorithms, to genetics and evolution, to guitar-playing. (At the top of the economics and finance course-list at Coursera are financial econometrics and game theory.) These courses were designed in cooperation with and delivered by professors and scientists from the world’s top universities, so a good deal of the quality problem falls away. EdX, for example, is a joint venture between Harvard and MIT, while Coursera was formed by Stanford professors. Specific courses are pre-announced and offered online for a limited period (e.g., 6-8 weeks), during which exercises and tests are given for the student to self-monitor progress. At the end of the term, a student may choose (or not) to take a final examination; taking the examination produces a grade and a certificate.

At the moment, almost everyone enrolled in MOOCs does it for the quaintest of reasons—the sheer joy or utility of learning something useful. (How callow!) The obvious next step, however, is for credit to be earned from degree-granting institutions. This is already a possibility being explored by MIT, Harvard, and Stanford with respect to at least some courses. A likely future solution—and also a sustainable business proposition—is for bricks-and-mortar universities to share fees with MOOCs firms if and when MOOCs courses are to be credited to their enrolled students’ curriculum. That is, take the course for free; but for credit, pay a fee.

It’s important to see the difference between this and online education, which is nothing new, of course, not even in the Philippines. UP’s Open University, for one, modelled on the UK’s, has been operating for almost two decades. The big difference represented by the emergence of MOOCs is twofold. The old open university concept required students to be either enrolled in bricks-and-mortar or to be taking online courses. It was meant to solve the problem of physical presence (hence “distance learning”). The innovation from MOOCs, however, is that online courses are in principle available even to students already enrolled in physical universities. Allowing them to do at least some MOOCs for credit (especially the high-demand courses) should cut down the requirements for larger classes, larger buildings, larger faculties, and other logistical requirements entailed by high enrolment. Tens of thousands of students could in principle be served (they already are) by MOOCs without the need for new infrastructure. This may allow university presidents (and Butch Abad) to breathe easier. The proposition should obviously be attractive to students and their parents as well: they could take more courses for credit, avoid being rationed, and possibly finish their degrees faster. Remember: not finishing on time is one of the significant costs of a college education.

The second difference is that universities need not produce online courses in-house for their own use (which can be costly) but can instead pick and choose among already-existing online courses. The current palette is pretty impressive and can only expand. This lowers costs to schools even further. Coursera and EdX already demonstrate how the private sector can produce quality courses on a sustained basis, through a combination of current philanthropy and future profit.

More to the point: there is no reason that Filipino mass media and telecom enterprises cannot also get into the act, most likely in collaboration with degree-granting institutions, whether local or foreign. The Philippine mass media and telecoms industry players are certainly big, experienced, and competent enough to enter this emerging field. They would, of course, have to compete—as is only proper—with courses that foreign suppliers already provide. To be viable, therefore, local MOOCs must measure themselves against a global standard. The common adoption of certain MOOCs by several colleges and universities, individually or in consortium, can only enhance the viability of such private initiatives. Twelve UK universities have already taken the cue by forming a consortium to produce MOOCs under the single brand called FutureLearn.

To be sure, MOOCs will not work for everyone and are unlikely to completely supplant brick-and-mortar structures and personal student-teacher contact. Some experts suggest it will be the smarter, more self-motivated and disciplined students who are likely to profit from the type of training MOOCs provide. But it is also many of the same students who find the 144-hour chalk-and-talk classes too rigid, slow, and tedious. This includes Pisay students who fall by the wayside from being bored taking high-school level classes at UP. It is unclear that being taught “in person” by a lecturer in a huge auditorium with 300 other students is vastly superior to concentrating intently on an online lecture in the quiet of one’s own home or of an internet cafe. So why not unclog the lecture halls to allow students to learn at their own pace, saving them time and money—and the university besides?

This is only one example of an opportunity—there are certainly others—to make headway against mediocrity in Philippine higher education. Leaders of education and business would be foolish not to seize upon it. Very often, however, change falters not for lack of ideas, resources, or profit-opportunities, but of vision, i.e., the ability to see that things can be different. A vision of change is always a good way to end the year.