12 April 2009

Education reform in the Philippines

Why CHED is rushing

“By 2015,” says Emmanuel Y. Angeles, who now chairs the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), “the 10 ASEAN countries will open their borders, and by 2020, the Philippines will join the APEC Trade Regime. Before these two events happen, we have to prepare our graduates to be globally competitive. There are no other alternatives but to align our degree programs with those of other countries.”

This is the main reason that the members of the Presidential Task Force for Education (PTFE), particularly CHED, are rushing the addition of at least one more and even two more years to our education cycle. All other countries in the world have 15 or 16 years of education from Grade 1 to undergraduate graduation. The Philippines has the shortest education cycle in the world (only 10 years of public basic education and usually only 4 years of undergraduate education, for a total of 14).

European countries have 12 years of basic education and 3 years of undergraduate education. The United States and Asia-Pacific countries have 12 years of basic education and 4 years of undergraduate education. (Myanmar is an exception because it has only 11 years of basic education before 4 years of undergraduate education. India is also an exception, because it has only 3 years of undergraduate education after 12 years of basic education.)

Why is it important to catch up with the rest of the world? “Soon,” says Angeles, “mutual recognition of qualifications and degrees will be undertaken by ASEAN countries and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region. Thus, HEIs [Higher Education Institutions] must prepare for it now. The qualifications of our graduates must be improved to meet our development goals.”

When CHED first announced its intention to impose a minimum of 5 years for undergraduate education, everyone raised a howl, including me. When I was recently given a copy by CHED of the key points of the PTFE report, however, I realized that there were some good things to be said about the plan.

It has to be clear that not all college students need to stay for 5 years. Students who go to private schools with Grade 7 already have 11 years of basic education, and the present 4-year college already gives them 15 years. Degrees that do not need international recognition can and should be obtained after only 4, maybe even 2 or 3 years of undergraduate study.

The need for having as many years in the education cycle as other countries have is relevant only to professional courses where international agreements are already in place, such as engineering. It is also clearly needed in courses where Filipinos generally have a hard time passing foreign examinations, such as nursing. It is foreseeable that, in the near future, certain professional courses will also have their own international standards for purposes of mutual recognition of degrees, such as education.

In simpler terms, this means that, if we go to school for the same number of years as students in other countries, we do not have to take foreign exams in medicine, nursing, education, engineering, accounting, and other professions to practise in those other countries. Think of it this way: our doctors, nurses, teachers, accountants, engineers, and other professionals can be hired immediately in other countries without the need for additional training or exams.

A good example of how equivalencies work is the Washington Accord (1989), an international agreement that specifies that a professional engineer must have gone to school for at least 16 years if she or he wants to practise in another country. With only 10 years of public basic education and even with 5 years of engineering, we are still one year short.

Another often-cited international agreement is the Bologna Accord (1999), which specifies that professional accountants, pharmacists, physical therapists, and so on should have at least 3 years of undergraduate education in addition to 12 years of basic education. Again, our 14-year education cycle is one year short.

Like it or not, our entire economy now depends on Filipinos working abroad. The more Filipino professionals we send abroad, the better it will be for our economy, since they will earn a lot more than less-skilled OFWs. That sounds like we are exporting and exploiting human beings, but with our country in the mess that it is in right now, we have no choice but to depend on our overseas heroes. In fact, since most Filipinos want to live and work abroad anyway, there is no reason to think that ensuring employment abroad through equivalent local education will be met with resistance.

Why, then, is adding years to the education cycle encountering resistance? The answer is simple: students and parents cannot afford the extra year of food, clothing, shelter, and lost income.

How, then, should we sell the idea of adding more years to our education cycle?

First, of course, is connecting the added years to jobs abroad. This is the carrot that will make the stick less painful.

Second and equally important is insisting that not every college course has to have an added year. Only those that produce graduates working abroad as professionals need the extra year.

What are we learning?

Just as important as the number of years we spend in school is what we are learning. How does the typical undergraduate course taken in the Philippines compare with those of the best schools in the world?

For a start, let us compare our General Education (GE) Program with those in the leading schools in the USA, the UK, and our own ASEAN region.

Representative of the American system is the undergraduate degree at Harvard University. The degree program usually takes four years to complete.

Harvard offers full courses (equivalent to our 3 units) and half-courses (1.5 units). All students take 8 half-courses in a Program in General Education, consisting of Aesthetic and Interpretive Understanding, Culture and Belief, Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning, Ethical Reasoning, Science of Living Systems, Science of the Physical Universe, Societies of the World, and United States in the World.

The subjects are spread over the first three years of college and add up to roughly one full year of study or a quarter of the entire college course. All students are also required to have a half-course in Expository Writing (our “Freshman English”) and one full course in a foreign language (if they do not pass an exemption test or if they are not foreign students).

At the University of Oxford in the UK, there is no equivalent to our GE program. Immediately upon admission, students take what we call “major subjects.”

At Oxford, students talk in terms of papers (one or two per term), examinations (usually a two to three-hour written exam per paper), and extended papers (our “term papers”). Some degrees can be earned in three years, some in more. The Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in English, for example, takes three years. Each year has four papers (our “subjects”), some compulsory, some by choice (our “electives”). Each student has to write a dissertation (our “undergraduate thesis” or “baby thesis”).

A good compromise between the American system with a general education curriculum and the British system with none is that of the top university in the ASEAN region, the National University of Singapore (NUS).

The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of NUS, for example, uses a Modular System, consisting of Modules (our “subjects”) and Modular Credits (our “units,” each Module usually having 4 MCs). The minimum number of MCs to graduate with a degree is 120, taken in three years. Students normally enroll for an honors (spelled “honours”) degree, which needs another one or two years of residence.

Half the time is spent on Single Major Modules (our “major subjects”). The other half is spent on General Education Modules (at least two), Singapore Studies (one module), Exposure Modules (at least three), and various electives that the student wants. The General Education Modules consist of two general areas: Information and Knowledge Content or Knowledge and Modes of Inquiry.

What is our own General Education Curriculum (GEC) like?

We have two models, one for students majoring in the humanities, social sciences, and communication (GEC-A) and another for everyone else (GEC-B). GEC-A has 63 units. GEC-B has 51.

A typical undergraduate degree needs at least 60 units in addition to the GEC units, for a total of about 120 units, just like Harvard and NUS. Notice, however, that an NUS student spends only three years in college. The difference can be attributed to the number of credits per subject or module: NUS has 4, we have only 3.

More important than the number of units and even the number of years spent in college, however, is the content of the General Education courses.

In college, we still teach such subjects as Algebra, Statistics, Basic Economics, General Psychology, Politics and Governance, Society and Culture, Arts Appreciation, Introduction to Philosophy, and Anthropology, not to mention English, Filipino, and all sorts of legislated content (Taxation, Agrarian Reform, Family Planning, Population Education, Rizal, Philippine History, Philippine Constitution).

Compare these subjects with those offered as general education courses at Harvard and NUS. The Presidential Task Force on Education (PTFE) has correctly observed that most, if not all of our GEC subjects are taken in high school in other countries, including Singapore. Our first-year college students, in other words, are really high school students.

Incidentally, the cutting edge in American education can now be found outside the top American universities. Check out this recent news item from the New York Times (Feb. 24):

“This fall, Hartwick College, a small liberal arts college in Oneonta, N.Y., will offer a three-year degree program: students will complete the standard 120 credits, taking 18 credits in the fall, 4 in a January term and 18 in the spring. Students will be able to keep their summers free for internships or jobs.

“Earlier this month, at the American Council on Education’s annual meeting, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a Republican who served as education secretary and president of the University of Tennessee, urged colleges to consider three-year degrees, calling them the higher education equivalent of a fuel-efficient car.”
We can learn at least two lessons: first, General Education courses (if they are at all needed in college) should be issue or competency-based, not discipline-based; second, college years should be lessened, not increased.

Not Grade 7

Since what we learn in school is just as important as how long we take to learn it, then lengthening the education cycle means changing the curriculum.

To make this clearer, let us take an example. Let us take the standard 120 units (hours, credits, or modular credits) that a student needs to finish a college degree. In the American system which we inherited, the student takes four years to finish the units. Roughly, that translates to 30 units per year (divided by semesters, terms, or quarters). At 3 units per subject, the student takes 10 subjects (courses or modules) per year. (In reality, a college student takes many more than 10 subjects per year, because of various other courses each school or government requires, but let us make our example simple.)

Since students in Singapore take only 3 years to finish the 120 units, each subject or module cannot have only 3 units; otherwise, each student will be taking 13 or 14 subjects per year. This is one reason Singapore gives 4 units per subject, making each student take only 10 subjects or modules per year, the same number as in the American model.

Some people have suggested that, in order to add the extra year to the education cycle, we should just let our students take the 120 units over 5, rather than 4 years. We can see from the example that this is not as simple a solution as it looks. Instead of taking 10 subjects per year, a student would now take only 24 units or 8 subjects per year. That would be an awful waste of time, since some students even now take as many as 21 units in a half-year or semester.

On the other hand, some people have suggested that, in order to approximate the British model, we should have only 3 and not 4 years of college. This means that we have to follow the Singapore model and give 4 units per subject, lessening the number of subjects students take. For administrators, that is a nightmare, because teachers will teach fewer subjects and therefore earn less than they are earning now. This will most likely lead to labor unrest in our schools.

Clearly, the solution cannot be mechanical. We cannot just extend 4-year college into 5-year college or compress 4-year college into 3-year college, without doing many other things first.

Fortunately, we have a Philippine best practice to guide us in this matter of length versus content. When De La Salle University shifted from a semestral to a trimestral system in 1981, teachers had to rethink their syllabi. It was not just a matter of teaching 18 weeks’ worth of material in 14 weeks. That would have been not just impossible, but pedagogically unsound. The expected learning competencies per subject, and therefore the entire curriculum, had to be revised.

Let us take a fairly simple example. In a course on the novel, a typical literature major can be reasonably expected to read a novel and to write a short paper on it every two weeks. (Some teachers require more, but let us take the average.) In a semester, that means 9 novels in 18 weeks. In a trimestral system, that means only 7 novels in 14 weeks. That is a major change. The missing two novels have to be taken up in another subject in the curriculum.

In short, changing the time it takes to teach a subject changes the content of the subject. If the same principle is now extended to the whole education cycle, changing the length of the education cycle changes what can be taught during that cycle.

It is, therefore, not just a matter of saying that there should be a Grade 7 or a Fifth or Sixth Year High School or a Pre-University Year in college. Just as important as the decision on when to add the missing year or years is the decision on how to change the entire curriculum to make it rational and effective.

If we add a Grade 7, we have to revise the curriculum for Grade 1. If we add a Fifth or Sixth Year in high school, we have to revise the curriculum for First Year. If we add or subtract a year or two in college, we have to revise the entire college curriculum.

Moreover, a totally new 15-year curriculum, if implemented in June 2010, will produce students graduating not earlier than 2025 (2026 if we want 16 years). Since the Philippines will join the APEC Trade Regime in 2020, we cannot start curriculum change with Grade 1. Let us forget, therefore, about adding a Grade 7. It will be useless in terms of meeting the deadline for international accreditation. It will take too much time, effort, and money to revise the entire elementary school curriculum just to have a Grade 7.

In order for our graduates to have the internationally-required 9 or 10 years of post-elementary education by 2020, where should we add the extra year or years – in high school or in college?

To add or subtract?

The burning issue of the day for tertiary-level educators and government officials is, of course, whether or not to add or subtract years from college education.

It may make us feel better to know that this is a problem not only for us, but also for educators in other countries.

I mentioned earlier the proposal by a former Tennessee education secretary to the American Council on Education to reduce the number of undergraduate years in American universities from four to three. Americans want to copy the British model.

Here, on the other hand, is one of our neighbors going the other way. Right now, college takes only three years in Hong Kong, which uses the British model. By 2012, Hong Kong will add one year of general education to extend college by one year. The British, at least in Hong Kong, want to copy the American model.

The British themselves in Britain do not always follow the British model. The University of Oxford, for example, offers the standard three-year undergraduate course for Classics and English. If the student is not yet ready for college, however, a preliminary year (what we would call Pre-Baccalaureate or Pre-University) is required, making the course in effect a four-year course. The extra year, however, is not for general education, but for languages (Latin or Greek, needless to say).

In the Philippines, we follow, though not strictly, the American model. We should know, therefore, the American justification for general education. The worst thing we can do is to have general education just because the Americans have it.

Why do Americans have general education in college when the rest of the world does not?

A good explanation was given in 2004 by Yale University president Richard Levin to incoming freshmen. “Why,” he asked, “is the undergraduate curriculum, at Yale as at other leading American universities, structured as it is – with two years of broad, general education followed by two years focused largely on one subject?”

He answered his own question: “During your first two years here, you will have the opportunity to explore a broad range of subjects, choosing among literally hundreds of courses throughout the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences that have no or few prerequisites. Indeed, you will be required to distribute your courses such that you cannot specialize prematurely. Only when you choose a major field of study, at the end of your second year, will you be required to concentrate a significant portion of your courses in one area, and only then will you be required to take certain specific courses, rather than choose among electives.”

“This distinctively American approach to undergraduate education,” he admitted, “is not the prevailing pattern in most other countries with strong universities. In most of Europe and in China, students choose their major field of study when they apply for admission. Once admitted, they do not have the freedom that you have to test your interest in a wide variety of subjects; they specialize immediately. Similarly, in much of the world, students choose a profession in their final year of secondary school; they begin the study of law and medicine as first year undergraduates.”

He stressed that the concept of general education has changed: “The freedom to explore in the first two years hasn’t always been a feature of undergraduate education in America. Until the middle of the 19th century, there were very few elective courses at Yale and other leading American colleges. Everyone in Yale College took a common set of courses focused on classical Greek and Latin, science, mathematics and philosophy, and the vast majority of students in law and medical schools entered directly from secondary school. The expansion of the number of elective courses, the requirement that students choose a major after two years of general study, and the definition of professional schools as postgraduate institutions evolved gradually during the 50 years following the Civil War.

“The most eloquent justification for a broad, unspecialized and non-vocational undergraduate curriculum is found in a report written by Yale’s President Jeremiah Day in 1828. At the core of Day’s argument was the belief, which we at Yale share today, that your education should equip you to think independently and critically, and to respond flexibly to new information, altering your view of the world as appropriate.”

What we have in the Philippines, then, is a mongrel: students choose their majors when they apply for admission to college (the British model), but we still have general education in college (the American model).

Here is the key to the issue of general education: the first two years of college, if we are going to have them at all, should not have any required subjects, should not have any skills courses, and should not include any major courses.

Although I helped craft the General Education Curriculum (GEC) for CHED, I now have very serious reservations about it. I think that the GEC as it now stands properly belongs to high school, not to college.

High school in college?

It is clear that we have no choice but to add at least one more year to our 14-year education cycle.

It is also clear that we cannot add the missing year to elementary school, because we would have to wait 7 years for a Grade 1 student to finish Grade 7, 4 more years to finish high school, and 4 more years to finish college. By that time, it would be 2010 plus 15 or 2025, too late for the international deadline of 2020.

If we added the missing year to high school, we would have to wait only 9 years (5 years for a first year high school student to finish Fifth Year plus 4 years of college). That would be 2010 plus 9, just making the international deadline.

Unfortunately, we cannot add the missing year to high school.

There are two main reasons for this. One is that the government cannot afford another year of free education. Fifth Year will have fewer students than Grade 7, but there will still be plenty of schoolrooms to build, teachers to hire, and desks and textbooks to purchase.

The other reason is that the private sector cannot afford an extra year in high school. If we added a year to high school, there would be a year when there will be no students entering college, because they will all still be in Fifth Year. (This would actually happen even if the extra year were Grade 7.) For many, if not most, private colleges and universities, that would mean financial doom, since first year students traditionally contribute the most to tuition income.

Since tertiary education is mostly in private hands, despite the proliferation of state and local colleges and universities, adding a year to high school will be an economic disaster of unforeseen proportions. Some will say that we have too many tertiary-level schools anyway and will sing hallelujahs if a few admittedly substandard private colleges disappear. Unless the government suddenly has a windfall from yet undiscovered sources of diamonds, however, the country cannot afford the withdrawal of the private sector from tertiary education.

If we cannot add the extra year to elementary school nor to high school, where then should we add it? There is no other choice but to add an extra year to college.

This is the root of the misunderstanding about CHED’s proposal to increase the number of years needed to obtain an undergraduate degree.

CHED wants to solve a problem (the lack of years) of basic education through higher education. That, of course, seems inappropriate, because CHED is not supposed to worry about basic education.

Somebody, however, has to worry about it. DepEd cannot worry about it because it does not have the money to solve it, even if it wants to. The state and local universities and colleges should not worry about it because they have a lot more issues to worry about (starting with their, in general, very little money and low standards). Who are left to worry about it? The private Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). Since it is CHED that monitors private HEIs, then CHED has to worry about it, even if it has no mandate to do so.

(Actually, this situation will be legalized or rationalized once EDCOM 2 convenes. Already, the two key movers of EDCOM 1 – Senator Edgardo J. Angara and Congressman Salvador H. Escudero III – are agreed that it is time to revisit the original EDCOM. Expect serious work on EDCOM 2 to start once the elections are over.)

If we added the missing year to college, we would have to wait only 5 or 6 years before our graduates will have finished a 15 or 16-year education cycle, enough time to make the international deadline of 2020.

We must remember, however, that it is not just quantity but also quality that is at issue here. We better make sure that the extra year is not wasted.

The first thing to do is to revamp the General Education Curriculum (GEC). Many of the subjects are not college-level and should be integrated into high school anyway. Although CHED is the main proponent of the added year, DepEd has to get into the picture, because the Basic Education Curriculum (BEC) also has to be revised to include some of the GEC courses. (The BEC is, in fact, being revised right now.)

The second thing is to understand that the extra year should focus on subjects that will prepare the student for college work (“college” as defined by Harvard and Oxford). We can call the extra year Pre-University, Pre-Baccalaureate, Junior College, Community College, College Zero, Associate Year, or whatever; the name should not matter.

What matters is that private HEIs can and should now offer a year when high school graduates who intend to obtain an undergraduate degree can take the tool subjects most useful for high-level academic work.

This proposal answers the main objection of private HEIs to the plan to extend basic education. Because it will be the HEIs that will take care of the extra year, they will not experience one year with no incoming freshmen.

College not for all

A look at the latest list of job vacancies from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) is instructive. Of the top 20 vacancies, only 6 require a college degree (three kinds of nurses, technology information officer, occupational therapist, technical support staff). The rest need only high school diplomas (if at all) or, at most, a couple of years of post-secondary education.

When we talk about the mismatch between education and industry, here is a clear mismatch: we think we need college education to get jobs, when industry itself does not require college degrees for most of its available jobs.

The Presidential Task Force for Education (PTFE) has hit upon the correct solution to this mismatch. It recommends that we should not expect everybody to go to college. In technical language, this is called streaming.

The PTFE recommends that high school graduates be streamed into either college or technical-vocational (tech-voc) programs.

For tech-voc, our current ten-year basic education cycle is enough. With some improvements to be brought about by moving some college General Education Curriculum (GEC) subjects down to high school, the public school system should be able to prepare students to go into a tech-voc program that may take anywhere from one to three years. After that, the students can join the job market immediately.

For college-bound students, the current ten-year basic education cycle is definitely not enough, for reasons I already spelled out. For these students, a two-year transition course is necessary. This is the Junior College or Pre-University (or whatever name it will eventually be called) that I am talking about.

If what is left in the GEC is incorporated into this Junior College, then real college work can be done in only two or three years, as in most of the other countries in the world.

Here is the PTFE recommendation:

Everybody goes through six years of elementary school and four years of high school (plus preschool and kindergarten, where feasible). This is the DepEd cycle as we now have it. Except for updating and revising the high school curriculum, the status quo is maintained as far as DepEd is concerned.

After high school, everybody takes an exam. Those that pass the exam may go to the university stream. Those that do not pass the exam may go to the polytechnic stream (polytechnic sounds much better than tech-voc). Those that pass the exam, of course, may also decide for personal reasons not to go to a university but to go to the polytechnic stream or, in fact, to work immediately in a job that does not require anything more than a high school diploma.

Those that finish a polytechnic program but, for personal reasons, want to go to a university anyway have to take equivalency or accreditation courses to catch up with those already in the university stream. In effect, no one is being stopped from getting an undergraduate degree. Those not passing the exam, however, have to take more time to get a degree (one to three years of polytechnic plus another two years of pre-university validation). Another way of putting it is this: those not ready to go to a university will have to spend a lot of years getting ready.

Those qualifying for entrance into a university will take two years of Junior College, to be administered by universities themselves. In these two years, all skills and GEC courses will be taken. Since the GEC today actually takes up almost two years anyway, there is no time lost with this arrangement. Students now actually take Junior College, except that they think that it is part of college proper.

The real difference lies in college proper. All undergraduate degrees will now need at least two years more after Junior College. In effect, everybody will need at least four years to get a college degree (exactly the same as today!). These two years, however, unlike today, will be spent only on professional courses. We will not have the kind of irrational mixing that our schools often do with GEC and major subjects. Instead, we will follow the European model or the American (Yale) model, which distinguishes sharply between years spent on general education and years spent on major courses.

For those degrees that do not need international accreditation, students will use two years for major courses. This means that undergraduate courses in arts and sciences will have a total of four post-secondary years (exactly the same as we have now).

For those degrees that need international accreditation through the Bologna Accord (which requires 15 years from Grade 1), students will have to have three years after Junior College. This means that Accountancy, Pharmacy, Physical Therapy, and some other majors will have a total of five post-secondary years (this is not what we have today for some of these majors).

For those degrees that need international accreditation through the Washington Accord or the APEC Registry (minimum: 16 years), students will have to have four years after Junior College. This means that Engineering and Architecture will need six post-secondary years (this is not what we have today).

Education reform

The Final Report of the Presidential Task Force for Education (PTFE) contains several recommendations to reform our educational system. Many of these recommendations are not new, but were widely discussed and agreed upon in earlier surveys, such as the Congressional Commission on Education (EDCOM, 1992) and the Presidential Commission on Educational Reform (PCER, 2000).

Allow me to pick out certain recommendations that I find most interesting.

For basic education, the PTFE (echoing EDCOM, PCER, and DepEd itself) recommends, among other things, the use of vernacular languages: “It is important to strengthen the use of mother tongue or lingua franca as the language of instruction in the early years of schooling. This facilitates student learning of all subjects, including science and mathematics, the national language and English as a global lingua franca.”

All (and I mean all without exception) studies of language and learning, both here and abroad, show that young students learn more quickly and more effectively if taught in their mother tongue. Those advocating the exclusive use of English as medium of instruction in basic education are, to use the late DepEd Secretary Raul Roco’s word when describing them, idiots, because they refuse to acknowledge what every researcher and every country in the world already know – that using a foreign language as medium of instruction in grade school is guaranteed to make young children illiterate. (The late DepEd Secretary Andrew Gonzalez used even more colorful language when describing intellectually-challenged kibitzers; it was Gonzalez who institutionalized the current DepEd policy of using the lingua franca as medium of instruction for the first three grades.)

The PTFE also recommends that teachers should visit homes. There are teachers who do visit the homes of their students, but they are the exceptions. Most teachers have no time left for such a crucial duty after they teach, do lesson plans, fix their classrooms, and prepare for frequent non-teaching duties (such as preparing food for “The Visitation of the Gods,” as the classic short story by Gilda Cordero Fernando puts it).

In the old days (even allowing for a little nostalgia), teachers were held in high regard in their communities. They were called maestra or maestro and often consulted in all matters. Today, many deans of schools of education lament, education is usually the career reserved for the least gifted of siblings. “Mag-titser ka na lang” (you are only good enough to be a teacher) is often the advice given to such children.

By visiting homes, teachers will show the families of their students that teaching requires extremely high intellectual and social skills, as well as tremendous amounts of patience and compassion. Teachers will again become models for highly-gifted children. Instead of education being the last choice for a fulfilling career, it might eventually be the first choice (as it should be).

For higher education, the PTFE notes that “in Singapore and European countries, the last 2 years of pre-university are very similar to the first 2 years of general education in Philippine colleges. . . . We, thus, propose benchmarking the first two years of our 5-year professional programs with the 2-year pre-university programs in Singapore and European countries. What is important in the discussion of a 12-year pre-university program is to specify the content of the 11th and 12th years and benchmark these with programs abroad.”

For technical-vocational education, PTFE has extended the current Ladderized Education Program (LEP), because students streamed into polytechnics are automatically ladderized if they wish to continue to the university.

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) need not worry that they will lose students to the polytechnic stream. Most of our HEIs can offer both polytechnic and university courses and, therefore, still capture all of our high school graduates.

There are only a handful of HEIs that do not and should not offer polytechnic courses. These are what are known as “research universities.” These are, for example (in alphabetical order), Ateneo de Manila University, De La Salle University, UP Diliman, UP Los Baños, UP Manila, and UST. In these universities, even if teaching is valued and rewarded, internationally-recognized research is always considered more important than excellent teaching. One cannot imagine any of these universities offering TESDA courses such as Automotive Servicing, Massage Therapy, or Training for Household Service Workers.

Most of the other 2,000-plus HEIs in the country, however, will not have any identity problems offering TESDA-related courses (perhaps not Massage Therapy, but Animation, Software Development, and Finishing Course for Call Center Agents). What will happen, then, if the PTFE recommendations are fully implemented, is that most HEIs will have two types of students – those in the polytechnic stream that may or may not continue to the university stream, and those already in the university stream.

The PTFE has many more recommendations, including necessary legislation (such as giving CHED more teeth). It will be impossible for the present government, with only a year to go, to implement all of them, but there is nothing to prevent it from starting to implement at least a couple of them before we elect a new President and have new heads of DepEd, CHED, and TESDA.

(Published in The Philippine Star, 5 March - 16 April 2009)

07 April 2009

The world as a human body

Far Eastern University invited me again this year to be their commencement speaker for their nursing and science graduates at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) in Manila. Here is my 7 April 2009 speech, which had to be different from the speech I gave last year:

My dear graduates,

I congratulate you, because today you start a new phase of your lives. Today, you change from being students to being professionals. Today, you move from mainly inside to completely outside the campus, from the world of studies to the world of work. I know that all of you have gone through RLE or OJT and some of you are already actually earning a living, so you know something about how different the workplace is from the classroom.

I want to talk about the workplace or, more precisely, about the world at large. It is the world that you will now enter full-time.

I want to use a metaphor that should be very clear to the nursing graduates, but of course the IAS graduates who are in the sciences, should also know what I am talking about. The IAS graduates in the arts are, of course, experts in the use of metaphor.

I don’t know much about preventive or curative nursing management nor even about primary health care, but I do know quite a bit about my body, a human body.

The world is like a human body. We are all cells in the world. Just like individual cells, we look like each other, but we are really different from each other, with different roles to play within the body that is the world. Just like cells, we live and we die. We live much longer than cells do, but we are still all mortal. Cells die but the body lives on, just as individual human beings live and die, but the world continues.

As cells, we form tissues. These are our families, our classmates, our friends, whether face-to-face or on Friendster or Facebook.

These tissues form organs that have different functions in the world. The organs that are our communities are there to nurture us. Your communities gave you nutrition, security, friendship, took care of you, so that you can be the adult that you are now. The organs that are our schools, the organ that is FEU, these organs are there to educate us. Schools gave you brain food, took care of your minds, so that you can be the graduate that you are now. The organs that are our churches and mosques give you spiritual food, are taking care of your souls, so that you can be the mature person that you are now. Just as we have many organs in the human body, there are many other organs that are formed by the tissues that we belong to, organs such as government, business and industry, media, restaurants, transportation, everything that we see around us.

As you learned in school, even those not in nursing, organs form systems, and these systems make the body run. There are different systems that make the world run. Let me describe them.

The skeletal system or skeleton of the world is the earth, nature, the land, the mountains, the sea. Just as we have to take care that we do not break our bones, we have to take care of the earth. We must make sure that the land is fertile, so that trees can grow and animals can find food. We must make sure that the waters of the sea and the rivers remain clean, so life can thrive there. We should learn a lesson from the human body. We cannot say that a single cell cannot make a difference. A single cancer cell soon becomes many cancer cells, and you know what happens when cancer metastasizes. You know what happens when we as individuals do not take care of the earth, when we do not keep our immediate surroundings clean, when we waste natural resources. As health professionals, you know how to keep yourself safe from harmful bacteria. As full-time professionals, you are now expected to keep the earth itself safe from harmful substances and processes.

The muscular system of the world is nature in the form of trees, fish, animals, living creatures. The land stays healthy if there are trees. Just as we have to make sure that we do not strain our muscles, we must make sure that we do not deprive the land of trees. Just as we make sure that we exercise our muscles to keep them in good shape, we must make sure that the food chain is kept intact, that we do not destroy species, that we do not endanger them. The tamaraw is a good symbol of FEU’s determination to keep the muscular system of the world healthy. We are working hard to ensure that the tamaraw does not disappear. As full-time professionals, you are expected to work hard to ensure that all species remain alive, in order not to destroy the delicate balance of nature.

The reproductive system of the world, whether we admit it or not, is us. We were told by our Creator to go and multiply, and we have taken that command literally. We multiply like crazy, from just one pair of human beings to almost seven billion people on earth. But just as, biologically, we can reproduce only so often, we must make sure that the earth is not overpopulated, because we have only so much air and so much space. As individuals who will later get married and have children, you must remember that the earth has only so much to offer, and the more there are of us, the less we can get from the earth. As full-time professionals, you are expected to be responsible cells in the reproductive system of the world.

The circulatory system of the world is, for many of you, your own parents and relatives. There are now over 11 million adult Filipinos working and living outside the Philippines, populating the earth, circulating all over the world. They have brought Philippine culture with them, and we are clearly the most widespread race on earth, perhaps even more widespread than the Chinese, who stay together and put up Chinatowns, unlike us. In any case, the world has dropped its borders, and everybody now lives everywhere. As individual cells working for the health of the circulatory system, we must keep the blood flowing, so to speak. As full-time professionals, you are expected to be global in outlook and even in residence.

The nervous system of the world is the economy, money, financial matters. Just as the nerves control our physiological processes, money makes things happen, whether through governments or through private individuals or groups. Especially when the body is under tremendous nervous strain, as the world is now with the financial crisis, it is very important that every single cell does not add to the strain. As full-time professionals, you are expected to remain responsible in money matters. You must not waste money.

The digestive system of the world is science, medicine, knowledge, intellectual capital. It is the scholars, the scientists, the thinkers, the intellectuals that ensure that the world learns from its history. We take the food given us by our experiences, and we digest that food to make it useful for all of humanity. We have to learn to distinguish the good from the bad. We know that we cannot eat everything, that we have to stay away from fatty foods, bad cholesterol, sugar, salt, things of that sort. We also should know that we do not need to know everything. There are facts that will help us and facts that we do not need to know. The temptation to eat everything, the temptation to spend the whole day surfing the Web, is very, very great, but we have to have everything in moderation. As full-time professionals, you are expected to know how to manage your time, how to know where to look for information, how to learn how to learn.

The excretory system of the world is international and national law. The law keeps us from being too selfish and ensures that everyone gets a chance to live a full life. Just as the excretory system removes bad things from our bodies, the law puts evil and corrupt persons in jail, at least in theory. As individual cells, we have to trigger reactions that will signal the presence of bad cells in our midst. Good cells have to fight bad cells. Cancerous cells have to be overcome. The biggest cancer facing our country today is the cancer of corruption. We have to stop corruption on every level, especially on our own personal level. If all of us, if all cells, just refuse to bribe anybody, the corrupt government officials will not find anyone to bribe them. Remember that it takes two to tango, two to be corrupt. Jose Rizal said that there are no tyrants where there are no slaves. We can say that there are no corrupt government officials where there are no corruptors. There cannot be bad cells if every cell is good. As full-time professionals with the FEU values, you are expected to be upright and incorruptible.

The lymphatic system of the world is religion, the various religions. Religion keeps us from thinking that we are alone in this world. Religion reminds us that there is something bigger and higher than us. Like the lymphatic system, religion destroys evil. Religion signals us if there is something wrong, if cancer has somehow crept into our world. If there is no God, one novelist once wrote, then everything is permitted. Since there is a God, whether we call God Lord or Allah, not everything is permitted. The lymphatic system can make us immune from evil, if we continue to have faith in God. As full-time professionals, you are expected to live up to your being made in the image and likeness of God.

The respiratory system of the world is society with its mores, norms, and beliefs. It is within society that we live, so we have to follow society’s ways, or we risk respiratory failure. Society is the oxygen we breathe. When we are born, we are born immediately into society. We breathe in oxygen the moment you nurses shout “Baby Out.” Once we are born, we find ourselves out in society. There is no way to avoid being in society. Society is good for us. As full-time professionals, as individual cells, you are expected to respect the tissue, the organ, the system in which you find yourselves.

Let me see. There are ten systems in the human body and I have already mentioned nine. What is left?

The endocrine system. The endocrine system relays chemical messages throughout the body. What is the endocrine system in the world? You. Yes, you. You, the younger generation, form the system that controls or should control most of the processes of the other systems in the world. The body cannot grow, the world cannot grow, your family and neighbors and friends and country cannot grow without the endocrine system, without you.

I know that you have heard this before: the youth are the hope of the country. I am saying the same thing, but in a slightly different way. You fresh graduates, you young nurses, you young scientists, you are the hypothalamus, pituitary, thyroid, pancreas, adrenal glands of the world. You are the ones that will ensure that the world will run smoothly, properly, effectively, humanely. You are the ones with the new ideas, with the fresh energy, with the enthusiasm and the idealism and the good will. You are Web 2.0. You are Facebook. You are YouTube. You are awesome. You are you.

What have we learned from this little exercise in analogy?

No cell functions alone. We cannot do things by ourselves. We need to be part of tissues, the tissues of our family, our friends, our classmates. Tissues cannot act alone; we need to be part of organs, the organs of our community, our school, our church or mosque. Organs cannot act alone; we are all part of various systems.

There are good cells – that’s us – and there are bad cells. These bad cells, these cancerous cells, are those that ruin our world, those morally bad (such as corrupt government officials), those intellectually bad (such as ignorant people), those spiritually bad (such as those that do not follow God’s commandments), those psychologically or sociologically bad (such as those that do not follow the rules that we live by) – they ruin the earth. It is our responsibility as good cells to drive away the bad cells, to have them excreted from the human body as waste. If government officials are corrupt, we must not reelect them or elect their relatives next year. If there are people that have not gone to school and are still mired in superstition, we must reach out to them and educate them, do community service for the out-of-school or the illiterate. If there are people that disobey the laws of God or the laws of human beings, we must show them the error of their ways. We must not let only the excretory system worry about them, because we are the endocrine system: we tell the excretory system what are toxic and what are nutrients. No cell stands apart from the body. As the Tagalogs say, sakit ng kalingkingan sakit ng buong katawan. You individually can make a difference to the health of your family, your community, your country, and the world as a whole.

This is my prescription for you. Stay healthy. Keep the world healthy. As many have said before me, do not just change the world. Be the change the world needs. Be change itself.

Usually, when I say goodbye to someone, I say, see you soon. I will not say that to you today, my dear young nurses, because the only reason I will see you again is if I have been admitted into a hospital and you are doing rounds with me as your patient. I don’t want to see you again, so I will just say, I am very glad that I have seen you today and that you have made it and that you are now, undoubtedly, indisputably, clearly, deservedly, and proudly, FEU graduates.


A Call to Heroism

Here is the commencement address I delivered last year (16 May 2008) at the auditorium of the Far Eastern University:

My dear graduates, I address you as heroes, because that is what you are about to be. In this talk, which I have entitled “A Call to Heroism,” I shall sketch for you why and how you are going to be heroes.

You graduate at a crucial time in the history of our country. Never before have so many been called to do so much to save this land of ours. True, we have gone through three invasions by foreign nations, an armed revolution that was the first in Asia against a European imperialist power, a war against another imperialist power, a world war, martial law, and two people power revolutions, but what we are facing today is a challenge unparalleled in our history.

We face today a battle within. We fought the Spanish, the Americans, the Japanese, and Marcos’s military, but we fought them with our bodies. We fought various environmental and economic forces, but we fought them with our minds. We survived with our bodies and we survived with our minds, but today, the fight is on another front. We live in a country that is losing its soul.

You are called upon to be heroes in this new war against evil. You can be heroes in many ways, but I shall talk of only two general ways, based on where you will be one or two years from now.

One or two years from now, you will be either in another country or still in the Philippines. Let me take first what you are called to do if you go to another country.

If you live and work overseas, you can save the country in two ways. First, you can save it by sending money back to your relatives here. That money will add to the money circulating in the country. With the money that you send back here, goods will be bought and people will be employed to produce or to sell those goods.

But more important than the money is something else that you will send back here. You will send to your relatives here the values that you will learn in your stay abroad.

Let me give just two random examples. If you live in the United States, you will learn that a person’s vote is very, very important. Americans think very hard before they cast their votes. They have a very long process of choosing their candidates. They hold debates. They listen to what their candidates say on television. They do not sell their votes. They make sure that their votes are counted. They hold the people they vote for accountable for their actions in office. If you can impart to your relatives back home that respect for the electoral process, you will save this country from electoral fraud, from election violence, from overspending candidates that have to get back what they spent, from candidates that use government money – our money – to get them elected. With the values that you will learn while you are in the United States and that you can impart to the loved ones you leave here, you can help fight the evil that now surrounds our electoral process.

If you live in the Middle East, you will learn how much we should love God. They call God Allah, but that is just the Arabic word for God. There is only one God, who has many names, as many names as there are languages. Five times a day, no matter how busy they are, no matter what they are doing, the people in the Middle East stop to pray and to thank God for everything good that is happening to them. How many times a day do we Christians in the Philippines thank God for what we have? The evil that we have to fight is not just out there, with the corrupt politicians or government officials, but it is in here, inside us, where God is waiting for us to remember to be thankful. If you share with your relatives back here the kind of prayerful attitude that you will see in the Middle East, you will save your relatives and the rest of us from the evil that is godlessness.

Those are just two examples of how you can save our country if you live outside the country. What will you be called to do if you will live and work inside the Philippines?

Everything. That is the answer – everything. My generation, the older generation, has made a mess of the country. We are responsible for the loss of our forests, the fall of our economy from being the best in Asia to the worst, the deterioration of basic education from being a model for other countries to being so bad that even our public school teachers cannot pass the tests they give to their students, the destruction of our political institutions. Worst of all, we are responsible for the loss of the personal and societal values that made Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Ninoy Aquino, and our own founder Nicanor Reyes Sr. give up their lives for our country. These values are patriotism, integrity, honesty, courage, and if you want to relate it to this great institution from which you now graduate, fortitude, excellence, and uprightness. Those values are gone, or are almost gone, because we, your elders, have failed you. You are called upon to save not just us, not just your own families, but the entire country, by being heroes with exactly those same values.

What can you do to become a hero, to remain a hero? There is one answer. It is not the only answer, but it is the best answer. You must dream. You must dream. You must never, ever let go of the dreams that you now have, as you sit there savoring the moment of graduation. Remember this moment. Remember your dreams. Do not stop dreaming. Do not stop doing something to make those dreams come true. Do not ever, ever lose hope that your dreams will come true. You need to retain the values that you lived while you were here in FEU. You need to remember the knowledge and the wisdom that you learned while you were here in FEU. You need to live your life driven not just by the purpose that you, your family, your country, and your God have set for you, but by the purpose set by your dreams. A dream-driven life is what your life should be.

Let me talk a little bit about purposeful dreaming.

Throughout history, we human beings have tried very hard to define who we are, to tell us what we are, so that we will know what to do with ourselves.

The very first definition we could think of, at least in the Western tradition, was that of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Aristotle said that we are animals that think, we are rational animals.

This led to a dead end with René Descartes, the French thinker who said the famous words, I think, therefore I am. We were reduced to just being thinkers. Karl Marx came by and disproved this just as famously. According to Marx, we think according to what the people with the money or the guns want us to think.

Another definition that is very old, this time from the Middle East, was that of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus preached that we are animals that love.

As the evangelist Matthew recorded in Chapter 25 of his gospel, Jesus taught his disciples that, at the end of the world, it is not those that think that will be saved, nor those with money or guns, but those that showed their love for the rest of us, by feeding us when we were hungry, by giving us something to drink when we were thirsty, by taking us into their homes when we were homeless, even if they did not know us, by giving us clothes when we were naked, by caring for us when we were sick, by visiting us when we were imprisoned. Human beings,s aid Jesus, are animals that love.

Another definition that is not so old, again from Europe, is that of the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson said that we are animals that laugh.

Today, I want to focus on a definition that is just as valid as those of Aristotle, Jesus, and Bergson.

This definition says that we are animals that dream.

Note that there are two elements in this definition. First, we are animals. We still need to eat, to drink, to propagate, to keep ourselves warm, to have a roof over our heads, to belong to groups, to have power. We still share the same needs as other animals on this planet.

But unlike all the other animals on this planet, we can dream. Dreaming is what distinguishes us from the beasts.

Martin Luther King had a dream that, as he put it, “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” We could follow that dream. We could dream of a country where we are all equal in ways other than race, where those of us that are poor will not be too different from those of us that are rich, where little rich boys and rich girls will be able to join hands with little poor boys and poor girls as sisters and brothers.

John F. Kennedy had a dream of all Americans thinking of what they could do for America, rather than what America could do for them. We could follow that dream. We could also dream of all of us asking what we can do for the Philippines, rather than what the Philippines can do for us.

John Lennon of the Beatles had a dream of the whole world, as he sang it, “all the people living life in peace.” His lyrics still ring true today. He sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will live as one.”

The founder of our university, Nicanor Reyes Sr., had a dream. He dreamt of a university where students would learn accounting so well that they could be equal to other accountants in the United States and in the world. He dreamt of a university where Filipinos and Asians would learn how to become professionals, would live their college years in the middle of marvelous works of art, of buildings that had great architecture, of paintings done by great artists. He did not live long enough to find out that Pablo Antonio, the architect of the first FEU buildings, would be declared a National Artist. He did not live long enough to find out that the FEU campus of the 21st century would be full of the works of other National Artists – Fernando Amorsolo’s paintings, Vicente Manansala’s sculpture, Botong Francisco’s murals. He did not live long enough to applaud the achievements of FEU students and teachers that later became National Artists, such as Francisca Aquino, F. Sionil Jose, Alejandro Roces.

The dream of Martin Luther King has been fulfilled in America, with an African American running for president. He may not make it to the White House, but his quest for his dream and the dream of all African Americans has excited not just his fellow African Americans, but many other Americans of different colors. King’s dream has been fulfilled, that people, in his words, “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The dream of John F. Kennedy has been fulfilled in America, with thousands of Americans giving up their lives in what they think is a glorious mission to liberate other countries from what they think is the scourge of terrorism. It doesn’t really matter if they are right or wrong; the point is that they are willing to die for their country. Today, with recession threatening to bring down their country, Americans are doing what they can for their country, instead of waiting for their country to do something for them.

The dream of John Lennon that there will be no countries has been partly fulfilled, with his music and that of those that followed his lead now transcending the boundaries of countries and truly forming a world with the same tastes and sensibilities. One world, with one music.

The dream of Nicanor Reyes Sr. that FEU will be the best non-sectarian private university in the country has been fulfilled. We are, indeed, now the best, if we consider the scope of our offerings, our reputation among accrediting and assessment organizations, the performance of our graduates not just in licensure examinations but in their careers, and soon, the way you graduates today will bring honor to our school.

Today, you graduates and even you parents and friends stand closer to the fulfilment of your dreams. There will be hard times ahead, as there were hard times for King, Kennedy, Lennon, and Reyes. All of them were murdered because other people did not share their dreams. You do not have to die for your dreams, but if your dreams are going to be worth it, you should be willing to die for them. Because there is no point living if you can no longer dream. We are animals that dream. If we stop dreaming, we revert back to the status of mere animals.

Follow your dream, whatever it is. Do not be discouraged, no matter how impossible it seems to attain your dream. It is the dreaming that makes you human. More important for our country, it is your dreaming that will save our country. Because what we need right now is not technical expertise nor even money nor natural resources nor human resources. What our country needs right now are heroes.

But I have to redefine heroism in the context of our philosophical discussion of what makes human beings human. A human being is an animal that dreams. A hero is a human being that dreams not only for herself or for himself, but for others. Heroes are those that fulfill not just their own dreams, but the dreams of everyone around them. Heroes are those that will follow their dreams and the dreams of everyone else, that will make their own dreams and the dreams of their family, friends, fellow Filipinos, fellow human beings come true.

In the end, that is what makes heroes. Heroes are people that follow their dreams. Heroes are people that make other people’s dreams come true. Heroes are dreamers, doers, leaders. Heroes are you, graduates of a great institution, a great Filipino institution, a great Filipino institution built because of a dream of a great Filipino, our Founder. Be true FEU alumni. Be true to your education. Be true to yourself. Be true to your country.

We need you, graduates, alumni, heroes. I take my hat off to you. I salute you. Congratulations!