Youth in Peril: Faults and hopes of the Philippines’ educational system

Words by Gabriel Dolot and Antonio Ongdueco

Celebrated every January 24, the International Day of Education emphasizes the importance and right to education. In the context of the Philippines, education is likened to an heirloom that is passed on from generation to generation. A reason for this could be that in a country where roughly 9% or 3.6 million out of 39.2 million Filipinos aged 6 to 24 years old are out of school as of June 2018, education is considered as a privilege. According to the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), around 7 million students are unable to enroll due to lack of resources to suffice learning needs. Apart from its inaccessibility, education in the Philippines is said to be heavily colonial, commercialized, and fascist. 

Education as a colonial weapon

Education, in a sense, was used by our colonizers for their propaganda. African scholar, Çağrı Tuğrul Mart, detailed how their British captors employed formal schooling to indoctrinate natives into their “superior” culture and religion, while preparing them for work in the economic wringing of the colony. 

Similarly, the history of education in the Philippines is regarded to be one of exploitation.

The Spaniards used education to exploit the Filipinos by indoctrinating the ideals of Christianity as well as creating a “civilized” society anchored on western standards. Religion-based education was used as a tool in the formation and control over their colonies. The Americans made public schooling compulsory to expand the reach of this indoctrination. Stateside teachers taught English and embedded American exceptionalism, placing themselves at a pedestal which then became a deep-rooted ideology in our very state and society. Briefly, the Japanese told us to turn our backs on our colonizers, cunningly excluding themselves from the Philippines’ history of exploitation and enslavement under the Japanese occupation.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon extends to the present. Filipino historian Renato Constantino detailed in his essay entitled “The Miseducation of the Filipino” that through student and teacher exchange programs as well as unilaterally beneficial foreign policies, education in the Philippines did not only fall to colonial tendencies, but also embraced them with open arms. The Department of Education’s (DepEd) policies might just prove this claim.

Since the K-to-12 curriculum was enacted in 2014, teachers and its related sectoral groups denounced the removal of Philippine history as a subject at the secondary level. Despite organizations such as the Philippine Historical Association circulating petitions reversing this removal, Filipino high schoolers are forced to graduate without studying a more comprehensive account of their history. 

Another point of protest stems from the removal of Filipino, Panitikan, and the Constitution from the roster of required subjects in college. The backlash was understandable, considering that the use of native languages in classrooms is now only mandated up to the third grade, a policy DepEd is considering to revise in favor of English being dubbed as “the language of the rest of the world.” In response, the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) released Memorandum Order No. 20, promising “incentives” to Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) that will opt to use Filipino and other local languages in teaching academic courses. Still, many lamented the move as a glorification of the English language and some perceived it to be a step towards “our collective death as a free country.” 

These policies are just glimpses into how our educational system willingly bleaches its own flag, marking our surrender to “greater powers.” Filipinos are being taught how to fit in with the global trend, but never how to better themselves with the skills and tools already at their disposal. Such an education corresponds not for the Filipinos of tomorrow, but still for the once-oppressed citizens of the country’s unfortunate past.

Commercialized education and neoliberalism

The Philippines is known to export labor through Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) of which, to some extent, has become one of the goals of the current education system. The implementation of the K-12 program by the Aquino administration added an extra two years of senior high school for the purpose of creating “globally competitive” Filipinos. The government claims that senior high school will help students to be eligible to work after graduation, yet in 2018, the Philippine Business for Education (PBEd) reported that businesses are still hesitant to take in senior high school graduates. One of the reasons is that businesses preferred to hire unemployed college students instead. 

According to IBON Foundation, an independent research think tank, the principle of education as a right of all Filipino citizens, as set down by the 1987 Constitution, was replaced by decades of neoliberal globalization’s market-based logic that treats education as a “commodity sold by businessmen for profit.” 

Private schools in the Philippines are already inaccessible as is due to high tuition fees and continuous tuition fee hikes throughout the years. From 2017 to 2018, 268 colleges and universities increased tuition fees, while 237 had an increase in “other school fees,” according to CHED. Amidst the pandemic, in the year 2020, 89 schools applied for a tuition fee hike. Having private schools run by known oligarchs, businessmen or even controlled by religious groups encourages a career-oriented curriculum where education becomes individualistic and not one built for the community or the nation. 

The ongoing pandemic has made it difficult for parents to continue to pay for tuition and school fees of which is one of the reasons for the transfer of 398,754 students from private schools to public schools according to the Philippine News Agency (PNA)

The health crisis also shed light on the lapses of the public education system in the country. For one, congested classrooms make it impossible to socially distance if face to face classes are already permissible in the new normal. The congestion of classrooms is caused by the incapability of current educational infrastructures to support the growing student population. There are even cases where one classroom is divided into four by makeshift borders and inside, 200 students are forced to fit. 

Keep in mind that this growing student population is distributed to only a handful of teachers. As of 2017, the latest average teacher-student ratio is 1 is to 29 which included class sizes ranging from 28 to 31. But in 2019, there were cases wherein classes reach 50 to 70 which is said to be one of the reasons why teachers often encounter burnout and strained relationships with their students.

The issue of lack of manpower, specifically that of teachers and professors, all ties back to the educational system’s goal to globalize its citizens. One reason for the lack of teachers and educators is what others peg as “brain drain.” Opportunities in the country are scarce forcing professionals to “seek greener pastures” which then encourages them to migrate to other countries. Another is that students are discouraged from taking up teaching courses/degrees due to low wages and less opportunities. According to ACT, the estimated P23,660 monthly income of an academic instructor is not enough to support a family of 5.  

The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) found that 5 out of 10 families in 2017 have at least one member who did not complete basic education. This was aggravated by our current reliance on distance learning, where the number of enrollments dropped by 3 million from the previous academic year. 

Incompetency and ineffectiveness

In order to address the inaccessibility of education, the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act was implemented in which one of its programs included the free tuition law. Albeit a step towards free education, it is still far from the promised education that is both accessible and genuine. The marginalized are still at a disadvantage which forces them to put their studies on hold because they are unable to support themselves in terms of living expenses and school-related fees not included in the scope of the free tuition law. In addition, underprivileged students are still unable to access free tertiary education because they cannot even perform well enough to graduate through high school and to apply for state universities and colleges (SUCs) due to worsening living conditions and the current recession. 

Such is the tragic case of these students. Three months into the government’s rash implementation of online learning, three students committed suicide which involved a 19-year-old Sto. Domingo National High School Balik-Aral student last June 16, a 21-year-old student from Sitio San Antonio, Sto. Domingo, Albay, and a 21-year-old undergraduate from Sta. Elena, Iriga City. Last January 3, a student from the University of the Philippines Los Baños College of Engineering and Agro-Industrial Technology (CEAT UPLB) also committed suicide. Their stories all involved financial struggle and stress brought about by the current set up. (Read: Distanced Learning: How Philippine socioeconomic realities increase the gap to education)

Moreover, accessibility does not guarantee quality education. This is again highlighted by distance learning, wherein  30 validated errors were found in DepEd modules in the first academic quarter alone and two television episodes were even found to be misinformative. DepEd also televised two inaccurate episodes concerning Mathematics and Araling Panlipunan lessons and in another incident, an absurd answer key claimed that people with tattoos are criminals.

In response to the inevitable criticisms, DepEd formed the “Error Watch Initiative” in an effort to lessen social media posts about their mishaps and heeded assistance from the Department of Justice (DOJ) to chase “those who were attributing the errors to the government.” 

While disheartening, the lack of quality control and accountability, as manifested in the government’s broadcasted and recorded incompetencies, may explain why Filipino students scored significantly lower averages compared to other countries on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2018, and on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMS) in 2019.

According to the World Bank, these incidents translated into a slight decrease in the economic and professional potential of Filipino citizens. This is believed to lead to slower and less inclusive national development. Because of this, many academic institutions have been reduced to mere factories of professionals looking to work in other countries with greener pastures much like the case of the shortage of healthcare workers in the country.

Fascism trampling on academic freedom

The government’s mishandling of the education sector is intensified by their fascist tendencies. There were recent attacks on lumad schools committed by the military and under DepEd’s directives, 178 Lumad schools were forced to close down, leaving 1,500 students deprived of their right to education since 2016. 

According to the Save Our Schools Network (SOS), a children’s rights non-government organization (NGO), “DepEd violates its declared mission of ‘protecting and promoting the right of every Filipino to quality, equitable, culture-based, and complete basic education.” 

Uncannily, according to IBON, Lumad schools have a nationalistic curriculum designed to address community needs such as the development and sustainability of their farming community. It also teaches its students to assert their rights in order to protect their land from exploitation and oppression.

According to Chad Booc, a teacher from Agricultural and Livelihood Development, Inc. (ALCADEV), “Tinuturuan doon ang mga kabataan na magsalita, kung paano magpahayag ng kanilang mga saloobin, kung paano mag-express ng resistance against sa mga powers na nag-e-exploit o nag-o-oppress sa kanila.”

With DepEd and the military’s rampant red tagging of educational institutions, SOS added that “it has become an instrument of the fascist Duterte regime, consequently condoning state attacks unto Lumad youth and students.” 

The same narrative is now being used by the military to terminate the UP-DND Accord, an agreement which prohibits state forces from entering the University of the Philippines (UP) without permission from university officials. It was created in 1989 when Donato Continente, a student also a Philippine Collegian staffer, was arrested and tortured on campus grounds. The said accord safeguarded the university and guaranteed a space for mobilizations, organization, and even served as refuge for other oppressed sectors. 

Not only students but also university officials expressed their dismay over the termination of the accord. “It is in this light that we view the unilateral rescission of the 1989 UP-DND accord as an assault against the freedom of UP as an institution. It comes at the heels of earlier threats to discontinue funding for the University, which was intended to silence and intimidate us.” UPLB Chancellor Jose R. Camacho. Jr. expressed in his statement regarding its abrogation.   

The need for a nationalist, scientific, and mass-oriented education

For the longest time, the educational system in the Philippines groomed its students towards individual goals and achievements. Integral to the attainment of real national development is devising a nationalist, scientific, and mass-oriented education. In that way, independent aspirations turn into collective action for bettering tomorrow. 

A nationalist education prompts students to be educated not only in numbers and letters but also about the country’s long history of oppression and abuse. It encourages critical thinking and helps reach one’s full potential through the basic ideals of nationalism and patriotism; an education towards the empowerment of communities for nation building.

Education needs to be scientific so that students are able to provide or contribute tangible solutions for societal issues. Our country needs education that helps to properly identify, address, and solve its needs. It is using the potential of students by applying scientific methods in addressing the needs of society. 

It should also be mass-oriented to cater the marginalized and vulnerable sectors in our society. This promotes inclusivity wherein the urban poor, farmers, and indigenous people alike are given and able to receive free, genuine and quality education without fear and contempt like that of the rest of society. 

In terms of compensation, the salaries of public and private school teachers must keep up with the drastic inflation of basic goods and services and current living conditions. They must be provided with benefits, especially, during this pandemic due to challenges in the remote learning scheme. 

Due to the current societal conditions, institutionalizing a nationalist, scientific, and mass-oriented education remains an out of reach dream.  As student leaders and activists, upholding the rights of the oppressed and advocating a scientific method in addressing the pandemic, are either tagged as terrorists, imprisoned, or worse killed. Learning, during a period of a deadly pandemic, heightened repression, and an unstable economy, make it seem impossible for the youth to continue. 

But all the more we should strive for improvement and change in our educational system because the impoverished cannot afford to fight hunger anymore, the indigenous community should not lose more lives and our farmers should be able to defend themselves whenever their unfamiliarity in oppressive laws, brought by education, is used against them. 

The youth has always been touted as the hope of our nation, but how can we achieve this without an education that is for and by the masses? [P]

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