By Michael Tan

OUR oldest government tertiary institutions are the Philippine Normal School and the Manila Trade School (now the Technological University of the Philippines), both established in 1901. The Manila Business School (now the Polytechnic University of the Philippines) was established in 1904. The University of the Philippines was actually a latecomer, starting out as the American University of the Philippines in 1908.

It took years to build up a nationwide network of public tertiary educational institutions that were seen as the best in the country. Yet today, we see the quality of these schools deteriorating, as national and provincial governments cut back on their budgets.

This trend runs counter to what’s happening elsewhere. Even in this era of privatization, most countries in the world continue to emphasize public education, with substantial government subsidies, so their state universities have continued to improve, and are climbing up to join the ranks of the world’s best.

In future columns, I’m going to write more about different models for state universities, including corporatization, but today I wanted to run through three main reasons why our government needs to reverse the trend of abandoning public tertiary education.

Fairness

The main and overarching reason we need public education is fairness. Even in developed countries, there will always be families that need subsidized education. When it comes to tertiary education, it’s not just a matter of taking in “bright but deserving” students. State universities should be giving a chance to those who thrive in the most adverse of conditions, and who would be better suited for that than those who come from disadvantaged families? These survivors of hardship are bound to become the trailblazers and innovators.

This takes us to the second reason we need public education: niche courses that encourage alternative thinking. Because private schools need to make money, they tend to cater to short-term market demands. That’s why we have all these private schools offering computer courses (or facsimiles thereof) and why some of these computer schools are also now offering nursing.

State-run universities are there to transcend those flavors of the month, anticipating long-term needs for the country. Singapore, for example, identified biotechnology many years ago as an opportunity for national development, and developed this field in its state universities. All that foresight is paying off now with a corps of Singaporean experts as well as expatriates they’ve been able to lure in to develop the country’s biotechnology industry.

I’m not just talking about high-tech courses. The University of the Philippines, for example, is the only university in the country that offers the full complement of social sciences: anthropology, sociology, geography, history, political science, linguistics and demography, with philosophy thrown into the deal. The social sciences and the humanities are there to excite students about new worlds, new ways of thinking, so that we produce scientists rather than just technicians.

We forget, too, that the bulk of our elementary and high school teachers come from public educational institutions, led by the Philippine Normal University. Private universities tend to concentrate on graduate education courses, for which people are willing to pay as a way toward promotion, but it’s the public normal schools that provide much of the basic training for teachers. As government cuts back on the budgets of these teacher training schools, it’s not surprising to see the entire educational system deteriorating.

Non-sectarian

One last reason we need state universities is the non-sectarian education that these institutions offer. Under the Spaniards, we only had schools operated by Catholic religious orders. The Americans came in and established the Manila Trade School, the Manila Business School and the Philippine Normal School, all essentially vocational institutions to fast-track the development of civil servants, office workers and technicians.

The American University of the Philippines offered higher education courses, such as medicine, but it was still set up around a colonial agenda, a need to produce Filipinos who, they thought, could best implement the United States’ blueprint for the Philippines. To a large extent, the Americans succeeded, yet, precisely because all these institutions were non-sectarian, they were hot houses that produced the shakers and movers who would dare to agitate for independence and, later, the activists and leaders who would challenge corruption and dictatorships.

It all boils down to issues of fairness and equity. The state schools’ subsidized tuition should allow poorer families access to quality education, but it is also the state schools’ independence from government interference that allows for a safe and nurturing environment for inquisitive and innovating minds. In the long run, the benefits aren’t just for individual households, but for the nation as a whole, as Filipinos acquire a fighting chance to chart our own development course, rather than following the whims and priorities of other nations.

Originally posted at www.inquirer.net
PINOY KASI, Inquirer
Published on Page A13 of the November 3, 2006 issue of PDI