The Philippines: Education reforms to target science and technology

Major changes are expected in the Philippines’ higher education system as a drive to target courses that will meet the demands of the evolving economy gains pace.

The initiative, which is being driven forward by the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), the governing body for tertiary and graduate education, aims to address the current mismatch between graduates’ areas of expertise and the changing requirements of industry.

The shift in focus will see a greater emphasis placed on technological and scientific studies in the coming years, while some courses, which are undersubscribed or not providing participants with the skills needed, are to be withdrawn.

The CHED said there was now an oversupply of graduates in a number of fields, including nursing, business administration and maritime studies, while courses in other segments were either undersubscribed or, in some cases, not being offered. The commission added that it planned to shore up support in targeted areas, including science, technology and agriculture.

The CHED’s chairperson, Patricia B Licuanan, highlighted the need for the domestic higher education system to address shortfalls in certain disciplines, particularly those generating high interest among the private sector. “To improve quality in higher education institutions, we need to ensure that CHED minimum standards are met,” Licuanan told OBG. “We are closely monitoring various programmes and pushing for those that fall off the standards to voluntary phase-out or close. As part of the rationalisation of higher education, the CHED has imposed a moratorium on certain oversubscribed disciplines, not allowing certain programmes to start while we assess the landscape.”

Closing unsuccessful programmes and promoting the amalgamation of some smaller state institutions into stronger regional set-ups could strengthen the sector and improve results, she said. As part of its commitment to raising the bar in higher education, CHED has identified 37 maritime programmes that are deficient, and 82 nursing programmes are recommended for immediate phase-out. The decision to cut the number of programmes in these two fields was due to both an oversupply of graduates but also in some instances, the failure of the affected higher education institutions to provide graduates with the necessary skills sets needed in their professions.

Nursing and maritime courses are traditionally popular with Filipinos, providing them with the skills needed to obtain work overseas. However, it is their very popularity, which has lead to proliferation of these programmes, that has become the problem.

In late March, the European Commission is to carry out an audit of maritime education and training institutions in the Philippines to determine whether they meet the standards required for crews serving on European vessels. A fail mark would see the EU enforce a ban that would prevent the hiring of Filipino seamen on ships registered within the bloc. It could also produce further fall-out in the form of a significant drop in remittances, which represent around 11% of GDP.

The move to improve educational standards and weed out courses or institutions not making the grade is expected to raise confidence in the higher education system, while enhancing the standing of its graduates.

Brother Ricky P Laguda FSC, president and chancellor of De La Salle University, believes there is scope for academia and industry to cooperate more effectively on reshaping higher education to meet the changing requirements of the private sector, which he said were broad ranging.

“A lot of industry players argue that they need graduates with soft skills rather than technical skills,” he said in an interview with OBG. “Graduates, for instance, who are able to communicate more effectively, work with people as a team and be flexible have developed critical thinking skills and initiative in whatever discipline.”

Vincent Fabella, president of Jose Rizal University, acknowledged that the imbalance between graduates leaving institutes of higher learning and the demands of the economy was one of the most pressing challenges facing education today, but said the issue could be resolved.

“Industry and higher education are very aware of the market failures causing the mismatch of industry and graduates,” he told OBG. “However, they also recognise that they can be fixed quite quickly, which is unusual in education.” One way in which the balance could be redressed, he said, would be for industry to identify the entry-level skills required. The schools could then adjust their curricula to factor in the training, he concludes.

Efforts to raise educational standards are expected to benefit both Filipino students and rising numbers of foreign students. Data released by the Bureau of Immigration (BI) at the end of January showed that more than 47,000 overseas adult students were granted visas in 2012, up 14% on the previous year.

BI commissioner Ricardo David Jr said the increase suggested that the educational reforms were producing results. “More and more foreigners are coming here to study and it demonstrates recognition of the improved quality of our educational system,” he told local media.

However, Steven Dekrey, president of the Asian School of Management, told OBG that educational institutions may find they need to take action to further strengthen their standing, such as developing ties with overseas organisations or gaining international accreditations, if they are to remain competitive.

With the Philippines’ economy projected to maintain solid growth this year and into 2014, the need for skilled staff is expected to remain strong in the short term. As the economy continues its journey toward a more knowledge-based set-up that is heavily reliant on technology, demand for higher education from reputable institutions looks set for further expansion.

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