Bueinsee World, 17 February 2014


The brouhaha over the shift in the academic calendar is an unnecessary and tedious distraction. For the change contemplated is unlikely to accomplish what its proponents say it will, i.e., impart an “international character” to Philippine higher education — which some of them believe is a reason Philippine universities perform poorly relative to their peers

No one will argue that Philippine universities today lack an “international character” and that this feeds into their low prestige. The fanatical pride of their alumni notwithstanding (witness the UAAP basketball games), no Philippine university appears in the most stringently defined international league tables — neither in the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities (which puts the greatest weight on science awards and publications) nor in the Times Higher Education Supplement’s list of the world’s top 400 universities. Only a handful of Southeast universities from Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand make a showing.

It is only in the more liberal (i.e., more lax and subjective) rankings that Philippine universities finally appear, and not even in the top tier. The Quacqarelli Symonds (QS) rankings of the world’s “best 400 universities” places the University of the Philippines at 380th in the world (in the bottom 5%) and 67th in Asia. Ateneo (rank 501-550th), La Salle (rank 601-650th), and University of Santo Tomas (rank 750th or worse) fail even to make the cut of the best 400. Even in this generous list the best Philippine university (UP) is surpassed by better universities from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and even Indonesia.

What gives? Using UP as an example a fortiori, the data point to two deficits relative to the best Southeast Asian counterparts: (a) a low research output, as measured by the number of papers published by its faculty; and (b) low indicators of internationalization, as seen in the small proportions of international faculty, international students, and exchange students. The international student population of UP Diliman is all of 1%, compared to 34% at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Indeed, some 62% of graduate students at NUS are foreign students, compared to 1.4% in UP. Or then again consider: as much as half of the entire teaching staff at NUS is of foreign nationality; in UP it is all of 27 people in a faculty of more than 1,500 (not even 2%). There is no dispute, therefore, that the country’s best university lacks an “international character.”

But there are two misapprehensions of these data by proponents of an academic calendar shift. The first is to think that “internationalization” or an “international character” is even materially affected by something as superficial as changing an academic calendar. Calendars are of little or of no consequence in defining a university’s “international character” — this is a statement that has been statistically tested (by me).

The second more serious misconception, however, is to think that “international character” is something that leads to excellence. Actually, it is quite the opposite: it is excellence that lends an international character. A university’s degree of internationalization indicates the extent to which it is able to compete for and attract talent from the rest of the world. It is the result, not the cause, of achievements and proven capabilities.

Only think about it: faculty and students from the rest of the world will affiliate with a Philippine university only if it offers them superior or comparable career prospects. For foreign faculty this means gaining an opportunity to collaborate with scholars with reputations comparable or superior to theirs; the chance to interact and mentor bright students, especially graduate students with whom they can publish; and, obviously, the presumption that this can be done with respectable compensation packages and living accommodations. For foreign students, studying for a foreign degree means gaining an education at a quality-price tradeoff that justifies the extra expense and discomfort of leaving home for an extended period. Common sense will tell us that such major career decisions will have very little to do with whether the academic calendar begins in June or September. They will have everything to do, however, with the conditions of research and scholarly existence in a university.

Unfortunately, such conditions are far from being fulfilled even in the country’s best university. The faculties of most Philippine universities — including UP — are almost entirely pre-occupied with teaching undergraduates and professional-degree seekers (i.e., law, education, MBAs, medicine, accountancy, engineering). This leaves little time for research — much less research collaboration with foreign colleagues (asa pa kayo [dream on]) — or for mentoring PhDs and graduate students. Every year UP graduates an average of 74 PhDs; NUS in 2013 produced 520. The fact is that UP, the country’s best university — and which purports to be a research and graduate university — is still mainly a college producing undergraduates, and it will never develop an international character as long as it continues to be so.

Yet other factors obtrude: UP should but does not (and cannot) recruit the best and brightest faculty regardless of nationality. This is only partly a money problem (which might be partly relieved by support from private funds); more importantly legal barriers and inequities abound, however, such as civil-service rules preventing foreign professors being appointed permanently and granted tenure; tedious immigration requirements; and then the problems of faculty accommodation, adequate laboratories, research funding, etc. — problems which UP has not even resolved for its own Filipino faculty. Nor does this even take the students into account: classroom congestion, decent accommodations, transport, campus safety, remedial classes, rates of graduate degree completion, etc. Again, these have not been solved even for UP’s Filipino students, much less for foreign ones. The list of large and small vexations that need to be addressed if one is to attract foreign faculty and students is almost kilometric — that is, if one is at all serious about “internationalization.”

In all this, therefore, what is the role of a shift in academic calendar? One can at most offer the following Zen story: Bodhidharma asks his disciples what they understand to be Buddha’s teaching. The first seeks to summarize the doctrine’s essence in the most succinct way, to which Bodhidharma replies, “You have my skin.” Another makes an even more magnificent and profound statement. And Bodhidharma says, “You have my flesh.” Two other students surpass their predecessors in the truth and beauty of their statements, to which Bodhidharma responds, “You have my flesh” and then: “You have my bones.” But the last student simply makes three bows and stands still. To which Bodhidharma replies, “You have my marrow.”

The point (at the risk of spoiling the koan) is to move beyond mere signals and symbols towards being and doing. Some otherwise smart university people, however, have imbibed too much of a lechon (roast pig) culture and therefore think the best part of anything is always the skin.