The Philippine education system has failed. This isn’t a revelation; it’s been an open secret for a very long time. It’s just that the extent of it – and the economic ramifications resulting from it – have always been denied, ignored, obscured or underplayed by those in the education business, and others. This deficit in quality education provision – while no such shortage in the quantity on sale – is the ultimate in cans kicked down the road. The problem is, the Philippines is fast running out of road.
Colleges, universities and other tertiary-education institutes – more concerned with adding to the black on their balance sheets – have provided poor standards of teaching and limited opportunities for real competitive learning. And in the area of technical and vocational education the situation is becoming critical.
Little more than education retailers, these institutions have managed to charge high prices for inferior products while extolling their virtuous mission as knowledge providers. This isn’t the cutting edge of education; it’s the blunt edge – and it will blunt any attempt to build the vibrant and competitive industrial base the country needs for it to compete in the technology age.
Successive governments, meanwhile, have aided and abetted this quest for the mediocre by their utter failure to grasp the long-term implications of a system that can be described as sub-standard at best. Their inaction in dealing with – and even arrogantly defending at times – an impoverished environment for learning is a classic example of the law of diminishing returns.
There’s been no accountability from governments, university chancellors or boards of education. All have sat by and fiddled as scholarship burned – allowing the opportunity for acquiring knowledge to stagnate while keeping the country’s economic development in a time warp.
This appraisal may jar some nerves and ruffle some feathers among those involved in higher education in the Philippines. But good if it does, because this wretched protectionism that allows ‘learning’ institutions to grow wealth through an apparatus that stunts the facility to acquire vital knowledge – and government endorsement of universities and colleges which amounts to little more than good old-fashioned patronage – needs to end.
Now the chickens are coming home to roost as industry discovers it has a yawning deficit in employment prospects capable of driving the sector forward in an age of increasing competition; in a modern world where there are fewer hiding places for the also-rans.
Manufacturing, unquestionably a required driver of future growth, has serious concerns. Admittedly, the sector expanded by around 10% in the first six months of the year on the back of improved domestic and external demand. But this was largely low-end manufacturing – foodstuffs, leather goods, fabricated metal products, construction materials and the like. It’s not the stuff that’s going to lead the Philippines out of the low-end products market and into high-tech products with greater value added where it needs to be.
Like everywhere else – particularly the emerging economies; those late to the race – the Philippines, with its monumental economic potential, needs men and women who can deliver highly honed skills born of real-and-present knowledge to the challenges of sustainable economic development. The manufacturing sector, widely regarded as essential to boost and consolidate economic growth, lacks skill-power. And particularly in the use of current technologies.
But while academia and a less-than-inspiring political class over the years lie at the root of the problem, industry can also thank itself for this situation. It’s stunning failure or reluctance to invest in research and development (R&D) over time, its disinterest in fostering innovation and its lack of encouragement of entrepreneurs have also made a large contribution to the present state of affairs.
The ambitious programme of nation building being undertaken by the current administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, has unmasked the paucity of competitiveness that exists in his country. Now, the corporate sector, which has been in denial for years, is starting to come to terms with the reality of their situation.
Speaking at the 2017 Manufacturing Summit at the Fairmont Makati hotel at the end of last month, no less a captain of industry than Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala, chairman and CEO of Ayala Corporation – the country’s oldest and one of its largest conglomerates – sort of summed up that situation.
Here’s what he said: “The Fourth Industrial Revolution [Industry 4.0], characterised by rapidly growing interconnectivity and accelerating pace of digital transformation, is fundamentally altering business landscapes, societies, and human interaction itself. It has brought forth a host of disruptive trends that challenged incumbents in a number of key industries”.
What that actually means is that Philippine industry’s traditional players who sat back and ignored the advances of the technological age are now – as if waking from a long sleep – finding that they have to operate in a different climate where the epoch of rule by corporate fiat is over and their once seemingly inalienable right to dominate the country’s industrial sector is being tried and tested.
Well, he’s right. And he’s also right about this, that “a paradigm shift is required in how we view ourselves in the manufacturing value chain – from a provider of low-cost labour to an agile and nimble manufacturing hub highly adaptable to technological changes”.
Unfortunately, Zobel doesn’t have a magic wand to bring about that “paradigm shift”. That can only be achieved by importing foreign knowledge and creating an education revolution that puts learning excellence ahead of considerations such as education profits and blinkered education arrogance. The price tag for that fools’ paradise has already been high but it’s about to get a whole lot higher.
Automation, robotics, data analysis – all of which feed into modern manufacturing – are not luxury add-ons; they’re basic components of industry today. However, they require skilled operators and the hard cold fact is that the Philippines doesn’t have them – at least not in the numbers which industry requires.
Zobel put it like this: “With lack of sufficient access to affordable quality education, leading to massive dropout rates across all educational levels in the country … we need to overhaul our technical and vocational training system to match the skill sets required in an automated and digitised environment”.
Meanwhile, could someone in the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) – the top administrative body for all post-secondary education in the country – for example, explain why Philippine universities rank so low globally?
Actually, we can help them with that. The answer can be found in the 2017 Global Innovation Index which showed that out of 127 countries worldwide, the Philippines managed to spend less on education than all but 21 of them. It was also the lowest expenditure of any country in Southeast Asia bar Cambodia.
We’re not sure how many universities there are in the Philippines, we lost count at 300, but only one of them – the University of the Philippines (UP) – managed to struggle onto the 2018 World University Rankings compiled by the Times Higher Education, the benchmark index for rating universities world wide. UP achieved a ranking range of 801-850. And out of 298 universities Asia-wide it made it into the 201-250 range. Lack of investment in quality teaching staff will have been a contributory factor to these results.
Also, could someone from the National Economic Development Authority or perhaps from its resource agency, the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, explain how it is that R&D has managed to lag so much of the world including most of its Southeast Asian neighbours?
On the 2017 Global Innovation Index the Philippines is ranked 98th out of 127 countries for gross expenditure on R&D as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). According to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, developing countries should have an R&D budget of no less than 0.3% of GDP. The Philippines has never come close to that.
Maybe the Federation of Philippine Industries could shed some light on this. Its self-proclaimed mission is to be “an effective partner of the Philippine Government in promoting and developing globally competitive Philippine industries” – indeed, it claims its “advice and counsel are support” in that endeavour and that it is “the prime mover of Philippine industries responsive to the challenges of the global economy”. Really? So how’s that working out?
No-one’s in any doubt that an educated workforce is a major contributor to economic growth –economies with higher proportions of educated and highly trained workers are more efficient, more innovative, more entrepreneurial and consequently more productive.
In a fast-changing world, their input is essential to constantly regenerate economies to suit the pressures of the times. And for the Philippines right now – given its ambitious development plans – large numbers of workers of this calibre are essential.
The point is, not just one thing went wrong here. The present situation has been caused by a confluence of errors, negligence and misjudgments for which academia, government and industry can all share the blame. And it’s going to need a confluence of effort, commitment and investment to haul industry out of the hole it now finds itself in.
In fact, Zobel has correctly identified the answer which, in his words, is this: “Successfully transitioning to the rapid changes of Industry 4.0 requires a cohesive and integrated country strategy that ensures that all stakeholders are well involved in the process – government, the private sector, the academe, as well as the existing workforce”.
That’s fine as far as it goes. But now we’ve had the speeches – and there’s never been any shortage of those – it’s the time for real commitment and action. The era of the apologists in academia, the blame merchants in public service and the Luddites of the old Philippine Inc. should be drawn to a close.
Education curriculums need to be rewritten taking into account the demands of industry and the pace of technological change. Factories need to be retooled; workforces re-skilled. And both government and the private sector need to invest in innovation and fully sponsor the culture of entrepreneurship.
If this country is going to succeed as an industrialised nation, it has to throw off the shackles of the past and compete with the rest of the world. And it can’t do that while it’s wearing blinkers with one hand tied behind its back.
Old-guard ‘educators’ (we really don’t like using that word), along with politicians and corporate bosses with vested interests in maintaining the ‘old ways’ have become a major liability. In short, the Philippines can’t develop its industries while that mindset continues to drive the agenda.