The Philippines poised for new era in education

Private universities in the Philippines are poised to benefit from ongoing reforms aimed at improving access to the primary and secondary education system, although a marked rise in student numbers across the board is presenting challenges.

Tertiary education has expanded exponentially across the Philippines in recent years, particularly in the private segment, with much of the growth driven by a sharp rise in foreign students. The overseas influx has prompted many providers to raise their tuition fees – a move criticised by some, but seen by several institutions as a necessary means of meeting increasing demand long term.   

All eyes on fees

The Philippines’ Commission on Higher Education (CHED) announced in May that 353 of the estimated 1683 private higher education institutions (PHEIs) had asked to increase their tuition fees for the 2014/15 academic year.

Unlike state and local tertiary education providers, which fall under the authorities, private post-secondary institutions are set up through a corporation code. Though usually overseen independently, they remain governed by legislation, guidelines and policies set by CHED.

About 2.5m students are enrolled in post-secondary institutions across the Philippines. Private universities make up some two-thirds of tertiary education providers in the Philippines today, having multiplied in recent years. The number of PHEIs operating currently stands at 1683, up from 948 in 1996.

Last year, CHED allowed 354 private post-secondary institutions to raise their fees, resulting in an average increase per unit of P37.45 ($0.85), or 8.5%, for each student. The decision sparked protests, with the Supreme Court forced to strike down a petition aimed at blocking the move. However, for many providers, income from higher tuition fees represents an important means of raising standards, at a time when the private universities are finding themselves edged out by their international competitors.  

Growth and decline

Until recently, the Philippines’ top-tier private universities featured prominently on global lists of top 500 tertiary education providers, with strong programmes in English helping to give them an edge on some of their ASEAN neighbours. However, none of the Philippine institutions was included on the Times Higher Education top 400 schools list in 2013, while the London-based Quacquarelli Symonds QS Survey produced similar findings.

The slip in rankings is believed to be the result of a drop in standards at some of the private universities, triggered largely by a sharp rise in student numbers. The Philippines’ PHEIs have proved particularly popular with foreign students, who have been attracted, in increasing numbers, by what they view as value-for-money higher education. The number of foreigners studying in the Philippines rose from 26,000 in 2011 to more than 61,000 in 2012, according to the Bureau of Immigration. A two-fold funding boost from higher tuition fees and private investment is seen as key to helping the Philippines’ private universities regain their presence on the international stage.  

Reforms yield results

Ongoing educational reforms in the Philippines have been instrumental in underpinning growth, with changes introduced last year extending the basic education cycle, set to heighten activity.

In May 2013, President Benigno Aquino moved to introduce the Education for All programme, which mandates one year of kindergarten, six years of elementary school education, four years of junior high school and two years of senior high school for students. Students had entered the tertiary education system at 16 years old, graduating with a bachelor degree aged 20.

The government increased funding for education by 22.6% year-on-year (y-o-y) to P292.7bn ($7.05bn) in the 2013 budget to support its ambitious new education programme. Most of the funding is set to be channelled into hiring school teachers and improving basic infrastructure, leaving the private sector with plenty of opportunities to play a part in further developing higher education services.

However, although the Education for All programme will substantially improve access to education, rising student numbers in the early years segments are producing challenges and, in some instances, leading to a decline in quality.

With both the government and the private sector keen to see the benefits of reforms introduced across the Philippines’ education sector, the question of how to fund further development looms large. A move by providers to bump up tuition fees might be unpopular in the short term, but the country will be hoping that with new, more broadly sourced investment, the long-term benefits will prove worthwhile.

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