Business World, 16 October 2011

A firestorm has been unleashed by the Department of Budget’s cuts in the proposed allocations to state universities and colleges (SUCs), including UP. As a result, the government—though the barbs are directed more at poor Butch Abad—is now accused of abdicating its duty to education in general. Most of the “cuts”, however, really have to do with the impounding of allocations for unfilled plantilla items. This plugs the same loophole that allowed the AFP to give those infamous pabaons and pasalubongs to its chiefs of staff. The well-known trick of asking for budgets for positions that are then deliberately left unfilled has long provided administrators, including those of SUCs, with slush funds to finance their pet priorities, good or bad. Well, kiss goodbye to that—if you want to tread the daang matuwid. (I say, good job, Butch!)

More importantly, however, the controversy has refocused attention on government’s proper role in higher education, which until now is ill-defined. By contrast, the reason for society’s complete support of basic education (up to high school) is clear-cut and frankly egoistic: to ensure the quality of the citizenry that will make up society. A democracy, after all, should be especially concerned to ensure that social decisions are not made by cretins and idiots (in the original Greek political sense). This is why basic education is not only free but also compulsory.

The case for public support to higher education (i.e., college and beyond) is something else. Private returns to tertiary education in the Philippines are higher than those to basic education, so in the first place no persuasion is needed to convince people to want it, if they think they can hack it. Second, considering its level of income, the Philippines is not really badly placed relative to other nations when it comes to college enrolment: about one-third of all who graduate from high school go on to college. Sure, Thailand recently raised its college enrolment rate to more than 50 percent of high-school leavers. But consider that Singapore’s ratio was never more than one-third, yet it has still managed to attain developed-country status. Indonesia and Vietnam have also overtaken the country in terms of income with much lower college-enrolment ratios. A recent World Bank report on higher education, which otherwise urges greater public investment in college education, observes that there is “no immediate overall quantity gap” in the Philippines, although there may be a problem of quality. Third, the bulk of higher education—about sixty percent of college enrolment—is already being provided by the private sector.

So, in what sense is there a case for tertiary education to be supported or supplied by the government to begin with? One can think of three reasons: first, to support the basic science and R&D which the private sector typically ignores; second, to encourage critical skills that are economically important but bypassed by individuals when making their schooling decisions (e.g., too much law and too little engineering); and finally, equity, i.e., to ensure that the erudite and eloquent in society do not consist of only of those with fat wallets. (Economists might want to interpret these, respectively, as arguments based on public goods, externalities, and equity.)

Not one of these purposes, however, is being served by the government’s current policy. That policy, deliberate or not, is one of proliferation: in the number of SUCs; and in the number of concentrations and programmes on offer.

For how is basic R&D encouraged when budgets are spread thinly across many campuses, each with one or two Ph.Ds. working in ill-equipped labs, yet each endowed with the conceit of making some significant finding? Like it or not, good science is an elitist project requiring a small but critical mass of a few good scientists assembled to work on common projects with the right equipment. Without this, the result is exactly what we now observe – mediocrity.

And in what sense are critical skills being encouraged when virtually each SUC strives to become a “comprehensive university” offering an entire menu of programmes from liberal arts to hotel management, rather than specialising in those which private education is failing to provide? Not even U.P. can escape this criticism: one must wonder why the premiere state university, which is striving to be a “research university”, is not primarily a graduate school and must burden itself with such large enrolments in undergraduate programmes that private colleges already provide in sufficient number and quality.

Ultimately, however, it is probably the equity objective that is weightiest in people’s minds, and tertiary proliferation is explainable by the desire of politicians (and the public) to afford a cheap college education to their poorer constituents. At best, however, this is a well-meaning but misguided approach. First, because resources are spread thinly, what it typically provides is a below-standard college education for the poor, which creates a stigma of having come from an SUC and devalues Philippine higher education overall (not the least internationally). But more importantly, it fails to solve the problem of access for the poor. Tertiary proliferation draws attention and money away from the real problem: that really poor students fail to even reach the point where they graduate from high school. Only half of all pupils that begin elementary education ever even finish high school. For the other half that has already dropped out, therefore, any government support to tertiary education is already useless and irrelevant. It is also irrelevant for those who go on to enter private colleges. All in all only about one-tenth of the post-high school age population is probably being served by the government subsidies to SUCs. And most of these will obtain a diploma with a question mark. This is no way to run the country’s public university system. And no way to serve the poor.

To achieve true equity, the first task should be to improve quality and completion rates in basic education. Learn to walk before you run. As a next step, at the college level, an honest-to-goodness policy for equity is to help poor students regardless of where they enrol—whether in public or private colleges—through a comprehensive programme of financial assistance. Much like Philhealth for comprehensive health care, we should consider something like a “Phil-Ed”, a means-tested programme to provide loans or subsidies to poor students qualifying for college, whether in private or in public colleges.

The current policy is objectionable because it neglects the larger problem and caters for a few almost as a mere symbolism. In short, it is a policy of mediocrity and tokenism. To expand such a system without first reforming it is to throw good money after bad. It should be reformed and soon—before more university vice-presidents get killed.