Substandard (education) 2

Published by rudy Date posted on April 1, 2010

I received such a tremendous response to the previous column on the crisis of our educational system that I decided to push the issues even further, to explore truly radical responses to save the next generation of Filipinos from the grip of mediocrity.

In the previous column, I argued that the real crisis gripping our education is not a crisis of access but a crisis of quality. Everything that could possibly go wrong with any country’s educational system is present in ours.

At the primary and secondary levels, our teaching resources are stretched beyond the limit. The teacher-student ratio is simply unacceptable. The system is unable to attract and retain the best into the teaching profession.

At those crucial preparatory levels, equipment is sorely deficient. Classroom lack is only the icing on the cake. Not only are textbooks lacking, they are substandard as well: from grammar to content.

We have two years less than most other countries in primary and secondary educational preparation. In addition to having less years at those levels, we also have less classroom contact time between students and teachers. In order to accommodate everyone, we have split the learning day, forcing those in the morning session to be up before dawn and those in the afternoon sessions to stay after sunset.

At the tertiary level, the proliferation of state colleges and universities has been unsustainable. Everywhere we turn, we see a state college. But they do not have adequate faculty complements.

In Old Russia, during the time of the tsars, there were things called “Potemkin villages”: tidy facades that concealed the ugly reality of an impoverished people. They were built to please the tsar. Here, we have what we might call “Potemkin universities”. They were founded to please populist politics.

That riot at the PUP is the icon of our educational system’s despair. Those marauding Maoist hooligans who made a bonfire of the school’s scarce equipment should have done us the favor of burning down the school in its entirety. If they did, we might have benefited from having one less Potemkin university to subsidize.

The crisis of our educational system is symptomatic of the crisis of imagination that is at the root of it.

Instead of crowding out private investments in education, we should have encouraged it. But the 1987 Constitution, the mother of all our decrepit institutions, frowns on that. It imagines that the state, with its chronic fiscal deficits and weak revenue systems, should as well shoulder the entire cost of educating a population. That is a delusion. We are now reaping the bitter fruit of that delusion.

Our state policy should have been in the direction of encouraging the education market to grow rather than crowding out private participation in the provision of a vital service.

Instead of running educational facilities itself, the state should have expanded educational access by issuing vouchers to deserving students and by expanding a student loan program to ease the financial load of private beneficiaries. In such a system of direct subsidy to the truly deserving, that state might have benefited an even larger number.

In a voucher system, the deserving student will be awarded a piece of paper that covers, in whole or in part, the cost of acquiring an education in the institution of his choice. He has purchasing power as well as the power of choice. Education providers will compete for his voucher by offering the best training at the least cost.

The large market created by education vouchers will encourage investments in education, foster competition, improve accountability and increase responsiveness. Students, as clients, will demand better quality. The market will provide it.

There is a simple way for measuring the efficiency of an educational system: divide total operational cost by the number of students. Using that, the UP will yield a higher educational cost per capita than, say, Ateneo or La Salle. But that does not show at the level of appearances.

This is a more transparent system that clearly and justly assigns responsibilities. It will reduce the instances where the state subsidizes education for the benefit of private enterprises — as when our government shoulders the high cost of training pilots whose contracts are promptly bought out at ridiculously low prices by foreign airlines.

This is, no doubt, a more efficient system. It rewards the truly deserving, whether the student-client or the quality education service-provider. It will result in even wider educational access gifted with the freedom of consumer choice.

There is a reason why Henry Sy and Lucio Tan have been buying up universities. The reason is not philanthropy. With their own educational institutions, they are ensured of the talent pool for their large enterprises. They could also award education vouchers to their employees as part of the compensation package. When the numbers are added up, such investments produce positive yield for them.

There is every reason why the state should not run educational institutions. It produces problems of monopoly, where it eventually costs more to do less. Such institutions produce large bureaucracies that are immune to innovation. It results in educational content that is unresponsive to market demand.

The same reasons government should not run a hotel apply to not running a university. The volume of inefficiency soon outweighs the social benefit produced. That is an anachronism in a modern market economy.

When vouchers are precious, choice valued and quality important, greater social good is produced. Students will properly value education as a joint personal and public investment. And hooligans burning desks because education is a “right” will be a thing of the primeval past. –Alex Magno (The Philippine Star)

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