Philippines commission spotlights university attrition rates

Quality and resourcing also front of mind for academic heading first comprehensive education evaluation in decades

November 21, 2023
VALENZUELA CITY, PHILIPPINES - APRIL 30, 2019 College students in their graduation attire or Toga sit and wait for their turn to be called to go up on stage to get their diploma.
Source: iStock

A 30 per cent attrition rate is perhaps the biggest challenge confronting Philippines higher education, according to the academic leading the country’s first major education review in over 30 years. But it is far from the only problem, with the fragmented sector also battling erratic quality and declining resources.

Higher education is not the only sector facing critical challenges, as the nation’s schools struggle with a lack of textbooks and classrooms, rampant bullying and arguably the worst Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results in South-east Asia.

And the fundamental problems start earlier, with nutritional deficiencies generating disadvantage from the outset. “The data shows us that one in three Filipino children are malnourished and stunted,” policy expert Karol Mark Yee told a Manila conference.

“The reality is even if we invest in a perfect basic education system, in a perfect senior high school curriculum, in a complementary higher education system…if children are stunted in the first 1,000 days, the battle is almost lost.”

Dr Yee is executive director of the Second Congressional Commission on Education, a three-year national assessment charged with recommending “transformative, concrete and targeted reforms” for early childhood, basic and higher education.

He said it was the first such undertaking since the initial commission in the early 1990s produced the “architecture” of today’s education system.

In an address to the 2023 general assembly of the Philippine Accrediting Association of Schools, Colleges and Universities (PAASCU) – one of several educational quality assurance agencies in the country, and reputedly the third oldest in the world – Dr Yee gave a frank assessment of the “daunting task” facing the commission.

He said the best Filipino students produced Pisa mathematics results equivalent to the average in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand and the “lowest performers” in Singapore.

The 30 per cent attrition rate in higher education was “extremely high, especially in the context of free higher education – essentially taxpayer’s money. We are using it to pay for college, and a lot of them drop out anyway.”

Dr Yee told Times Higher Education that his commission was seeking more granular information on attrition, including how the rate had been calculated. He said completion rates for the poorest students reached as low as 9 per cent. “Everyone talks about participation,” he said. “Participation is not enough. We need completion.”

He also highlighted quality issues in Philippines higher education, saying that only 30 per of courses were accredited. This was not much of a guarantee anyway, with PAASCU’s standards not necessarily matched by other agencies.

Dr Yee said access to quality higher education had narrowed in the past decade, with the share of enrolments in relatively high-performing autonomous institutions declining by 8 percentage points between 2010 and 2018. Meanwhile, the student share in lower-tier local and state universities and colleges had increased by the same margin.

This trend may have accelerated since the previous government abolished tuition fees at public universities in 2017. Critics say the policy has stripped the sector of resources by covering the tuition costs of wealthy students with capacity to pay.

Dr Yee said the budget allocation to help universities and colleges apply for accreditation and establish centres of excellence had declined markedly since 2018.

Battling such trends is not the only challenge facing the commission, with its work due to conclude after midterm elections in May 2025. “I hope and pray that it will not be politicised,” PAASCU president Edmundo Fernandez told the conference.

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