Higher Education: The Path Traversed and the Road Ahead*
By Professor Caesar I. Agnir
President, Northern Christian College
This gathering of Region 1's dignitaries in education reminds me of the fellow who was
assiduously trying to learn to speak Hebrew. When his startled friend asked him why, he said:
"Well, I understand that Hebrew is the language in Heaven; so when I die and go to heaven,
naturally, I will want to understand and be understood by everybody there."
"Suppose," his friend said, "instead of going to heaven, you will go to hell?"
The fellow said: "That should be no problem. I already speak Ilocano and Pangasinan."
While looking for materials for my talk, I came across some annual reports of the Commission
on Higher Education which enumerate in great detail some of the gains made in higher education during
the past years under review. From those gains, some of the reports then speculate on the prospects for
higher education in the coming years.
This finding suggested two things to me. One, if our task this morning is merely to report to
you a summary of published materials on the assigned subject of Gains and Prospects, complete
with graphs and statistics, it will be easier to simply remind you where they can be sourced
from, as I'm sure you have easy access to them. Two, I thought that perhaps a better approach
to my assigned role as discussant this morning is to suggest what I myself perceive to be
some gains as well as losses that could impact significantly on the future directions of priva te
higher education in the Philippines. With Dr. Pascua's permission, I have chosen the second
course, and I trust you will indulge me.
First of all, in my view, the biggest gain for higher education during the last ten years
was the establishment of the Commission on Higher Education in 1994, which has been a
boon to private higher education in four important respects:
1. The establishment of centers of excellence and development. This has had three
1.1. With government recognition of their excellence, COEs and CODs are
*Reflection delivered at the Regional Consultation on Higher Education sponsored by the Commission on Higher
Education at the Oasis Resort Hotel, San Femando City, La Union, on February 3, 2005, on the subject of "Higher
Education: Gains and Prospects." Two papers were presented, one each far public and private education. Dr. Agnir
was asked to present on behalf of private education. He is President of Northern Christian College in Laoag City,
Ilocos Norte, and an alumnus (Phi Kappa Phi international honor society) of the University of the Philippines, when: he
was Editor-in-Chief of the Philippine Collegian, UP's official student organ; captain, UP law debating team and
recipient, Abad Santos gold medal for best debater, national extemporaneous speech champion; national inter -
university oratorical champion; recipient, President Quezon gold medal for oratorical excellence; recipient, President
Sinco award for most outstanding UP student leader. He is past Chairman & President, Association of Christian
Schools, Colleges & Universities and is currently President of UCCP-CREATE and Chairman of its Planning Board. He
is a retired corporate executive of the Ayala Group of Companies, serving in three of the Group's affiliates-as Senior
Vice President in one and as General Manager with a six year stint in foreign operations in another, which seconded
him to Malaysia to manage a Kuala Lumpurbased company and concurrently be consultant in a Singapore-based
sister operation. !n July 2000, he was conferred, along with 16 others world-wide, the International Award for
Distinguished Service to Global Higher Education. He recently received a "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the
Media Writers Association of the Philippines and "The Most Outstanding Alphan in the Academe Award" from the UP
Alpha Phi Beta Chancery, Inc.
encouraged not only to maintain their superior standards but to strive to continue
raising the bar to higher levels. Those right behind them will naturally raise their sights
as well, if only to keep from widening the distance between themselves and the COEs
1.2. The official recognition serves as a road map for students and their parents, to
indicate where they may secure the best education for their money.
1.3. The recognition puts tremendous pressure on the rest of academia to strive to
measure up to the same standards, or else they lose a precious segment of the market
and thus imperil their own profitability and their very existence.
2. The granting of autonomy to deserving colleges and universities. One of the biggest
restraints to economic growth and development in the private corporate sector is
government's tendency to over-regulate and its consequent red tape; and this is particularly
so in the Philippines where government is overly bureaucratic. To get a mere piece of paper
approved in government today, one often has to go through many layers-Parkinson's Law
refers to them as barnacles in the bureaucratic machinery and slog through these layers for
days or weeks on end. By contrast, in the private sector, it would take but a few minutes to
process the same flow. In granting autonomy, CHED has freed the deserving schools from
the shackles of these pestiferous restraints to their growth and development; and this
freedom has made them more creative and more daring in opening up new horizons for
educational excellence and development.
3. Encouraging voluntary accreditation. The overpowering passion among colleges and
universities today is to be accredited at Level III because of the automatic benefits accruing
at that level, including its attendant snob value. The important thing to remember here is
that, even if they should fail to satisfy the rigid requirements of Level III, they will remain
relatively good schools at Level II.
To CHED's credit, this aspiration for matching higher norms and standards has heightened
faculty consciousness of high-quality instruction, research and extension work, especially
the desirability of weaving together teaching and research in ways that bring freshness,
intensity and renewal to both activities. In Ilocos Norte, this passion for raising standards
has driven the four HEIs there to link together in a cooperative endeavor to maximize their
efforts towards research and advanced studies. They have organized themselves into the
INASAS-or the Ilocos Norte Association of Schools for Advanced Studies.
4. CHED's virtual hands-off policy on tuition-fee adjustments. In a market economy such as we
have in the Philippines, a certain level of regulation and control is needed to restrain ruinous
competition and run-away greed. But beyond that, regulation and control can suffocate
private initiative and inhibit economic growth. It is bad enough that we have a short-sighted
legislature that panders to the mob when proposing legislation, apparently unmindful of the
deleterious effects of their short-sightedness on the nation's welfare.
Typical of this short-sightedness is the Magna Carta for Students, which in the original
version sought to give students the right to overrule schools' administrative policies that
they deem objectionable. Given the rabble-rousing propensity of ideological activists in
most school campuses, this absurd authority in their hands would most certainly extend to
vetoing any plans to adjust tuition fees, no matter how justified the plans might be. Even
worse, the original version sought to allow student participation in faculty hiring and
promotions. This is the rough equivalent of allowing pre-med students free rein at the
hospital operating rooms to perform their class specimen dissections on live human
patients. Had CHED chosen to regulate and control tuition fees, it would have
exacerbated an already terrible situation.
This brings us to what appears to be a continuing politicization of the educational
system in the Philippines and the havoc this could wreak on private higher education if
left unchecked. Let me mention just two worrisome events that typify this politicization:
1) the proposed Magna Carta for Students, which I have already discussed; and 2) the
proliferation of state colleges in the provinces.
Lest I be misunderstood, let me make it very clear that there are SUCs outside of
the University of the Philippines System that do deserve to be elevated to SUC status.
I'm proud to say that we have one in Ilocos Norte and, I'm sure, in other parts of Region
1 as well. But let us be honest and say likewise that there are many state colleges that
are undeserving of the honor but were elevated there through the collusion of run-of-
the-mill congressmen in aid of their reelection. As Education Secretary O.D. Corpuz
once said in reference to them, "they may be state colleges, but their tomatoes are as
small as ever." Todate, there are 112 SUCs, many of them still producing small
tomatoes, and the CHED itself, as I understand it, has objected to the latter's elevation to
their new status.
This proliferation of state colleges has put a lot of pressure on private education in
1. Since state colleges offer virtually free education, they draw students away from
private HEIs and thus constrict the latter's revenues and their profitability. This,
in turn, impairs the HEIs' capability to raise their standards in instruction,
research and extension work-which are the three basic thrusts of higher
education. In allowing this, the State virtually violates its constitutional mandate
to lend its support to private education.
It has been argued that the drawing power of minimal tuition in SLJCs can be
neutralized by the private HEIs by demonstrating the superiority of their academic
standards over those of SUCs, the presumption being that the market will always
gladly pay good money for superior products. The HEIs should be grateful, goes
the argument, because this pressure from SUCs compels the HEIs to rise above
mediocrity. This argument is valid vis-a-vis the better SUCs, but not so with
respect to most state colleges, especially the ones Secretary Corpuz talked about,
to which many HEIs are manifestly superior.
2. The government's budgetary allocation for education, a measly 12% of last year's
national budget, is already too small as it is, compared to 27% of the national budget of
South Korea, 25% of Malaysia's, 24% of Thailand's, 22% of Singapore's, 21% of
Taiwan's and Hong Kong's, and 20% of Indonesia's. To make matters worse, too many
state colleges have watered down that already puny budget for Philippine education,
which means that as the number of state colleges increases, the government will have
less and less resources to share for the support of private education in terms of
scholarships, research grants and assistance for instructional tools and equipment.
Actually, the budgetary allocation for Philippine education, already minuscule as a
percentage of the national budget, is even more miserable when compared with our
neighboring Asian countries on a per capita basis. The budgetary allocation for
education per head of Filipino population in 2004 was a pathetic US$24.00. In stark
contrast, to cite just two neighboring countries, that for Singapore was US$8,500.00 per
head and that for Hong Kong was US$5,000.00 per head. This glaring disparity should
explain in large measure why our schools are lagging way behind!
Last Sunday, I called up a friend, who is a key figure in Congress and one of its saving
graces, and asked him what direction this issue of proliferation is likely to take in the days
ahead. He reminded me that early last year the House of Representatives approved a bill
providing for only one state university in the Philippines in the mold of the National University
of Singapore. Unfortunately, this was killed in the Senate through the machinations of Senator
John Osmena for purely petty personal and political reasons, including his petulant demand that
UP President Francisco Nemenzo should first retire before the bill could be calendared for
deliberation. According to the congressman, the bill has been reintroduced in Congress and,
with the absence of Mr. Osmefia from the Senate and Dr. Nemenzo's retirement from the
presidency next Wednesday, February 9, the prospects for its approval are bright.
What this development foreshadows is that, eventually, the state colleges that are
underserving of their lofty status will be phased out and only those truly deserving will remain.
One effect of this will be to consolidate the already scarce resources that government allocates
for education. Hopefully; part of the savings will trickle down to private education as well, so
as to give flesh, even if only on a limited scale, to Article XIV of the Constitution, which
mandates that the State should lend support to private education.
There is another important development in education that I would like to spotlight
because it induces a lively debate between modern pragmatists in education and votaries of
A few years ago, the Philippine educational system had a rude awakening when the
results of the SIMSS-or the Second International Math and Science Study-were released. This
was an international achievement test in mathematics and the sciences in which the best high
school students of 45 or so countries all over the world participated. The top five places were
copped by Asian countries, fax ahead of even the world's industrial giants-the United States and
West Germany. They were Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. And how
did the Philippines fare? Number 5, 1 think-from the bottom! We bested only the likes of
South Africa, Ghana, Botswana and Saudi Arabia. In the follow-up TIMSSor Third
International Math and Science Study-we placed even more miserably.
Before the SIMSS, the educational community had already awakened to our
weaknesses in science and mathematics, and the embarrassing results at the SIMSS and
TIMSS merely restrengthened the community's earlier resolve to undertake drastic remedial
measures, both at the secondary and tertiary levels. The reaction from the colleges and
universities was to be expected, even if the miserable showing was made only by high school
and not tertiary students; after all, they stood to inherit, and will inherit for a long time to
come, generations of high school graduates with considerably inferior competencies, unless
radical remedies continue to be taken to reverse the slide.
What these embarrassing revelations dramatize most graphically is our unreadiness to
compete in the highly technological global marketplace. Predictably, the educational
sector's reaction to this unreadiness has been to re-engineer and re-design curricular thrusts.
Not just to shore up math and the sciences, but most particularly to bring in technology into
curricular programs, so much so that the current has shifted rapidly and heavily towards
technology courses. The new fever in the academe today is to finish a course that will
enable graduates to land jobs in America, Europe and the Middle East as soon as possible;
and the most favored options are in technology and health care.
This paradigm shift, to use a perfectly appropriate but now hackneyed phrase, is
understandable, even desirable. After all, to survive in this highly technological global
village, we must be competitive. Unfortunately, however, in our obsession to be globally
competitive, we appear to have mindlessly shoved aside the liberal arts-literature, philosophy,
history, languages, the humanities-as irrelevant and impractical disciplines. A
disastrousmistake, according to President Neil L. Rudenstine of Harvard University. The
keys to many of the world's problems, he says, are to be found in classical learning; and the
man steeped in the liberal arts will never flounder in any age, in any setting. This is the
reason Dr. Rudenstine feels it essential that, on a higher level, given the world's multifarious
and diverse problems, its leaders must have had extensive and sustained exposure, chastening
and refining in classical learning, either in school or outside of it, or preferably both.
Which brings us to the immortal question: what is truly the purpose of education? Are
the liberal arts outmoded? Does classical learning still have a place in the education of the
modern man of the technological age?
The Greek philosopher Aristotle's response, while more than 2,000 years removed from
today, appears to be still relevant. The measure of one's education, he suggested, lies in the
decisions we make when the choices are not clear. And the choices we make, Dr. Albert
Schweitzer reminds us, are refined by the values we learn from the liberal arts. Certainly,
even technocrats need to make correct moral choices in order to compete, and especially
to lead what Jesus Christ in John 10:10 calls abundant lives. Without ethical standards
and the refining and civilizing graces of the liberal arts and classical education, they
would be little better than skilled automatons and robots.
At the height of the industrial revolution, President Woodrow Wilson sounded this
warning: "To educate a man merely in mind and limbs and not in heart is to educate a menace
to society." Similarly, to quote another author, likewise addressing himself to the industrial
revolution, "the heart of education is (still) the education of the heart." Indeed, education is a
moral responsibility, the ultimate aim of which is to teach students how to make correct moral
choices, exactly as Aristotle had indicated. In this context, the University is, in the words of UP
President Rafael Palma, "an aristocracy of brains and character."
But with technology tending to push ethics and the liberal arts into the fringes, the
prospects of HEIs becoming aristocracies of brains and character capable of teaching students
how to make correct moral choices now appear to be getting dimmer. And this is further
aggravated by the growing secularization of our schools at all levels. Charles Colson, the
Nixon aide who was convicted for his role in the Watergate scandal but who underwent a
powerful transformation in prison to become one of today's most influential spokesmen of the
Christian church, laments this growing secularization in education-or a drift away from ethics
in addition to the seeming marginalization of the liberal arts-as a "blanking of the Christian
perspective out of our textbooks and out of the classroom."
The State is mainly to blame for this by allowing the dubious proposition to reign
supreme that the religious perspective in the classroom violates the Constitutional principle on
separation of Church and State. The State has thus abdicated its duty to define public standards
in even purely secular areas. To fill the slack, Christian institutions should not hesitate to assert
their right to influence education at all level by bringing transcendent moral values into the
public debate. They can very well do this without having to fear that in so doing they might
transgress the constitutional boundaries separating Church and State, as they have an obligation
to help propagate the nation's moral vision. This is a task they can fulfill best with their self-
imposed mission to align their students' intellectual, social and moral development with God's
vision for man. Rather than muzzle them in this task with a dubious proposition, the State
should lend at least its moral support, if it is to be true-in spirit as well as in letter-to the
solemn mandate of Article XIV in the Constitution.
This brings us back to the root of the debate - the true purpose of education in this day
and age. In sum, both technology and classical learning have their own places, each one as
important as the other. The ideal role for education today is to fuse technology and classical
learning together, perhaps into a bipolar structure where technology and classical learning can
complement, reinforce and enrich each other in equal degree and in perfect synergy, rather than
present themselves as alternative choices pulling in opposite and antagonistic directions.
The end product of this fusion will be a composite offspring-a human being skilled in the
latest technology, learned in the refinements of the liberal arts, and committed to his Creator
the Almighty. This will be tomorrow's version of the Age of Enlightenment's universal man.
This will be the Filipino of tomorrow. Hopefully, he will redeem our country from the
material and social poverty into which it has receded during the last 30 years.