Having been the only country in South-east Asia providing just 10 years of basic education to its population, the Philippines is working to join its neighbours and implement a K-12 system in 2016. Though the administration of President Benigno Aquino III is providing the Department of Education (DepEd) with more funding to aid the realisation of this task, the challenge of doing so over in a short transition period is unquestionable. The growing role of the private sector in providing educational services is crucial, with greater opportunities on the horizon and the government taking slow but steady steps to define them. Continuing reform is set to further integrate and incentivise private sector participation, as is happening in sectors like infrastructure and health care.

Elsewhere, the challenges of access and quality remain, which the government continues to address through a host of pragmatic initiatives. However, the implementation of such programmes across the Philippines’ challenging archipelagic landscape, populated by over 100m people, is no small feat. The development of human capital and production of job-ready graduates is crucial to the growth of the Philippines, which had one of the highest unemployment rates of all ASEAN nations in 2013, at 7.3%.

The rate steadily decreased to 6.7% by the end of 2014, due in part to the workforce’s fundamentals, such as fluency in English and the evolving number of vocational degrees offered to graduates. Since coming to power in 2010, the current administration has laid down a concrete education agenda via the Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2011-16. This plan was updated for 2014-16 with DepEd prioritising access to basic complete quality basic education, engagement with the private sector in broadening opportunities for basic education and preparing graduates for further education and employment.

LEGAL BASIS: The former education system, which has been in place since 1945, is also enforced by stipulations in the Philippines Constitution of 1987 that all children attend basic public education, divided into six years of elementary school and four years of secondary education. However, the country has since fallen behind many of its regional competitors, largely due to the scale of the implementation effort.

At the beginning of the millennium, the original constitution was updated via the Governance of Basic Education Act of 2001, which reinforced the constitutional right to free basic education for the school-age population and young adults. Under the Aquino administration, this was bolstered through the Kindergarten Act in 2012 and the Enhanced Basic Education Act of 2013, which demonstrated political will to reform the education sector and propel the country towards achieving its high growth potential.

In the Philippines, the academic year begins in June and lasts approximately 200 days. Holidays are taken for the summer between March and May, while students are also granted two weeks at Christmas among other public holidays. While there has been talk of harmonising the national calendar at both the high school and college levels to one that is more in sync with other ASEAN nations, the majority of Philippine education institutions are waiting for clearer definition from the ASEAN secretariat.

SECTOR OVERSIGHT: DepEd is responsible for ensuring the provision of basic education to primary and secondary school students while also managing the Alternative Learning System for out-of-school youths and adults. DepEd oversees kindergarten care and education alongside the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

Tertiary degree programmes conducted by state and private institutions are supervised by the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), while the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) is responsible for the formulation and supervision of manpower and skilled workers. TESDA sets appropriate skills benchmarks and aptitude tests alongside various government policies and programmes. It also oversees policy and resource guidelines for Technical vocational and education and training institutions in both the private and public sectors.

BUDGETING: With provision of good basic education the central priority of the incumbent government, the DepEd accordingly received a P321.05bn ($7.22bn) budget for 2015, making it the largest recipient of all ministries. However, despite substantial allocations of P293.4bn ($6.6bn) in 2013 and P336.9bn ($7.6bn) in 2014, its funding remains behind the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) recommended spending rate of 4-6% of GDP, advised by the Education for All (EFA) movement.

Some P42.27bn ($951.1m) of the total was allotted for state universities and colleges (SUCs) in 2015, a roughly 11% increase over 2014, to provide for faculty upgrading, operating funds and capital outlays. This budget includes an estimated P3.5bn ($78.8m) for SUC scholarships and P2.2bn ($49.5m) for scholarships administered by the CHED. Some P316m ($7.1m) was set aside as a research fund to improve the quality of higher education.

In addition to its EFA commitments, the Philippines is also pursuing eight time-specific targets under the Millennium Declaration, which it signed on September 2000. The declaration aims to cut poverty in half by 2015, to 22.65% of the population living below poverty incidence and 12.15% below subsistence incidence. With the adoption of the declaration, the Philippines also affirmed its commitment to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aimed at reducing poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, discrimination against women and environmental degradation.

BASIC EDUCATION: Even without the under-investment in education that occurred under previous administrations, the challenge of providing basic education to the over 21m children enrolled in the Philippine public school system is considerable. With a population of 98.39m and a growth rate of 1.7%, according to 2013 World Bank data, the weight placed on education is increasing and enrolment rates have risen, in part thanks to the Basic Education Reform Agenda 2006-12. Enrolment numbers of elementary education for students aged between six and 11 increased from 13m in 2005 to 14.4m in 2013.

Similarly, secondary school enrolment of students aged 12 to 15 also increased from 6.3m in 2005 to 7.1m in 2013. Kindergarten enrolment was at 2.2m in 2013, up from 1.1m in 2008. However, with 20.7% of the population living in poverty, according to the latest data from the National Statistical Coordination Board, the government estimates that approximately 5.59m children between the ages of five and 17 years old were working and therefore not in full-time education. The government has been countering this through programmes such as the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programme, locally known as Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Programme (4Ps) to provide the poorest households a P500 ($11.25) subsidy per month for health care and nutrition expenses and a P300 ($6.75) education subsidy per month per child for a maximum of three children. This has prompted an improvement in school attendance of 12- to 14-year-old students in CCT barangays (small villages), 5% higher than in non-CCT barangays.

Providing education access to students in an archipelago of over 7000 islands raises the issue of capacity. While nearly 50% of the population lives in urban areas where access to schools is much improved, the schools within them are often congested. In Metro Manila, 82% of the 764 schools in the metropolis are operating with a two-shift policy for teaching, opening schools at 6AM and closing them at 6PM in order to accommodate the number of students.

The average teacher to student ratio is one teacher for every 36 elementary students and one to every 35 secondary students. A UNESCO report stated that classes in the Philippines had 43.9 students on average – nearly three times what is regarded as the ideal class size. It is estimated the Philippines continues to have a backlog of over 60,000 classrooms, despite the government having built more than 66,000 since 2010. Furthermore, Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 damaged 3100 schools, with 20,000 classrooms needing to be either rebuilt or repaired. An estimated 1.4m children were affected by the disaster.

Such shortages have become increasingly evident since the 2013 entrance of the K-12 system and Universal Kindergarten Law, which makes kindergarten compulsory. This has inevitably also put strain on teacher provision, which the Aquino administration has been countering through the hiring of a total of 102,623 teachers since 2010. However, despite such efforts, a study by the Philippine Business for Education (PBEd) indicated that 29% and 34% of students in the Teacher Education Institutions surveyed passed the Licensure Examination for Teachers for elementary and secondary education, respectively, from October 2009 to September 2013. The results reveal an on-going struggle to locate teachers with adequate skills for the teacher places that need filling.

KEYSTONE REFORM: The most significant educational reform since the last century, on May 15 2013 President Aquino signed into law the Enhanced Basic Education Act in order to take the Philippines into the 21st century. The principal feature of the law was the K-12 programme which provides that every student receive kindergarten and 12 years of basic education – six years of elementary, four of junior high school and two years of senior high school (SHS).

The compulsory attendance of kindergarten had only been implemented shortly beforehand in the Universal Kindergarten Law. The implementation of the K-12 system began in the 2012/13 academic year, which means that the first full cohort of students to go through the whole K-12 system will graduate from high school in 2024. Previously, under the 10-year system, Filipino students would graduate with a university degree two years younger than their peers in other countries. Such a situation was not necessarily an advantageous one, as students were often less educated than regional peers and lacking adequate skills and maturity to enter the workforce.

K-12 QUESTION: While the rationale behind the creation and implementation of the K-12 system is laudable, debate has taken place in recent years over the planning and capacity constraints. In mid-2014, lawmakers even threatened to repeal or postpone the K-12 in anticipation of major upheaval caused when no freshmen college students appeared in 2016 due to the additional two years of high school being provided. However, the government has since committed unprecedented amounts of funding to K-12 while also hinting at increased support packages for private sector institutions in order to improve capacity and mitigate upheaval. The DepEd has also entered into agreements with business organisations, chambers of commerce and industry players in order to ensure that K-12 graduates will be considered for employment. A system of competency requirements is being implemented in order to match the skills of the workforce to those required by employers alongside an increased focus on College Readiness Standards. Entrepreneurship skills are also being fostered, through a revised curriculum amended in order to better fit the new programme.

As for ensuring education for isolated or minority groups, disparity is being addressed through the Enhanced Basic Education Act of 2013, which mandates an education that is “learner responsive to the needs, cognitive and cultural capacity, the circumstances and diversity of learners.”

The DepEd has called for improved inclusiveness of basic education through the implementation of programmes adapted for Muslim students and indigenous peoples, in addition to learners with disabilities and those facing unique or difficult circumstances (i.e., geographic isolation, chronic illness, displacement due to armed conflict, urban resettlement due to natural disasters, child abuse and child labour).

Prior to this, the DepEd had already established Indigenous People Education, Madrasah Education and Special Education. The National Statistics Agency’s 2010 Census of Population and Housing showed that of the 71.5m individuals aged 10 years old and above, 97.5 % – or 69.8m – were literate or could read and write. However, in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, for example, the literacy rate was the lowest at 82.5 %.

HEALTHY START: In recognition of the importance of the cognitive development occurring between infancy and six years of age, compulsory kindergarten under the Universal Kindergarten Law focuses on a standards based programme set over one year. It focuses on basic numeracy and literacy skills set to gradually prepare students for entrance into the next stage of elementary school education under the new 13-year programme. The DSWD is responsible for human development concerns such as the provision of social services provided in day care centres. This includes the nationwide Supplementary Feeding Programme, in addition to regular meals provided to those enrolled in day care, as part of DSWD’s contribution to the National Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD) programme.

Despite previous presidential decrees and laws, such as the Total Development and Protection of Children Act in 1990, which stipulated that every barangay should have its own day care centre, the successful implementation of these and similar programmes has been limited. However, progress has been made in some areas. For example, the total number of barangays served by these programmes increased from 51,797 in 2011 to 53,436 in 2013.

With regard to service delivery, the 2013 Early Years Act specified which programmes would deliver the necessary services for children between infancy and four years by ensuring that adequate health and nutrition programmes were accessible to young children and their parents. The act also institutionalised the ECCD system, ensuring the collaboration of various agencies at the national and local levels with families and communities, non-governmental organisations, professional and academic groups, and other service providers. Guidance for the care of children between infancy and four years is under the ECCD Council, while the DepEd handles students from five years until the end of secondary school.

HIGHER EDUCATION: Higher education in the Philippines is a well-established and diversified segment, having been formalised under the colonial rule of the Spanish and the Americans before Philippine independence. Currently, higher education institutions (HEIs) are divided into SUCs, local universities and colleges (LUCs), CHED-supervised institutions (CSIs) and private higher education institutions (PHEIs). SUCs are chartered public institutions established by law and administered by the government, while LUCs are overseen and funded by city, provincial and local governments. CSIs are public, post-secondary institutions established and administered by the national government. PHEIs, which account for 80% of total higher education, are generally for-profit organisations established under the Corporation Code and administered independently but governed by guidelines and policies set out by the CHED.

The CHED oversees all higher education institutions and provides validation of school performance and competencies, set out most recently in the 7722 Republic Act and CHED Memorandum 46 of 2012, which calls for outcomes-based education. CHED surveys institutions horizontally, depending on their status as an SUC, LUC, CSI or PHEI, and vertically via a points system that takes note of services offered. Accreditation is completely independent of the state and began in 1951 as an initiative of private school educators pursuing quality through standards and implementation monitoring, completed on a voluntary basis. Three such accrediting bodies were founded: the Philippine Accrediting Association of Schools, Colleges and Universities; the Philippine Association of Colleges and Universities – Commission on Accreditation; and the Association of Christian Schools, Colleges and Universities Accrediting Agency.

ACCREDITING PROCESS: Despite the fact that many more schools have been established since 1951, enrolment in associations has remained around the 13% mark. The need for accrediting bodies remains prescient. Dr Michael M Alba, president of The Far Eastern University, told OBG, “Accreditations, whether homegrown or international, are important because quality education cannot be claimed by any school or training institution if it has not undergone a validation by independent bodies.”

A proliferation of small and stand-alone PHEIs, often operating without fully qualified professionals, means that standards have been progressively watered down. Furthermore, the financial barriers to accessing a university education are also being continually lowered with the growth in popularity of online open courses, which are significantly less cost-prohibitive for Filipino students than even the best-value public universities.

As a result, those PHEIs at the very top and other aspiring HEIs have begun to increasingly focus on fulfilling international accreditation standards such as ABET to set themselves apart. While an ASEAN University Network, an association for accrediting regional schools, is on the horizon, at present it appears that inclusion in the group will be restricted to the best institutions in Asia, making it likely that only three Philippine HEIs are eligible at the moment.

Despite students previously entering HEIs at the age of 16, typically being able to graduate with bachelor’s degree at 20 and a further master’s degree at 22, the K-12 system means that students entering HEIs will be 18 years old starting from 2018/19. While for SUCs the acclimatisation period and the loss of a whole cohort of students between 2016 and 2018 is likely to be less of a problem as their budgets are assured by the state, for PHEIs the period will be significantly more difficult and uncertain.

The president of the Technological Institute of the Philippines, Elizabeth Lahoz, told OBG, “Private higher learning institutions are completely reliant on revenue from tuition fees and hardly get any government support. In order to remain competitive, schools must invest resources to accommodate demand for popular programmes such as nursing. However, these schools may also become victims as demand for such programmes inevitably rises and falls and so they have to be very strategic in order to survive.”

PRIVATE CHALLENGES: The primary challenge facing all HEIs, whether in the private or public sector, is providing space for the growing number of students. The Philippines is forecast to have one of the world’s highest growth rates in university and higher education participation. The British Council estimated that 700,000 additional Filipino students will pursue tertiary education by 2020, a 26% increase over the 2010 benchmark of 2.77m. According to the CHED, the most popular HEI bachelor’s programmes for 2014 include agriculture, engineering, science and maths, information technology (IT), teacher education and health sciences. Demand for courses for tourism-related studies and business have also been on the rise in recent years. With the rise in popularity of outcome-based education encouraged by the government and required by ABET accredited programmes, colleges are increasingly following the German model which mixes work experience integration into bachelor’s courses. One example is the Marine Engineering Course offered at the Technical Institute of the Philippines, which includes three years of class time and one year at sea before a final year back in class to consolidate learning before graduation.

The government has also rolled out its own Government Internship programme under the DSWD as part of the Kabataan 2000 programme, which provides opportunity for youths to get hands-on experience working in various government agencies.

FUNDING: With the majority of HEIs being for-profit institutions, with little or no support provided by the government, many have turned to income generating projects (IGPs) to boost funding. In 2011, the government made a push for both SUCs and PHEIs to start aiming for financial independence through IGPs, as part of the Aquino administration’s larger Roadmap to Higher Education Reform (RPHER). The end goal of having the top-22 SUCs source 50% of their budgetary requirements from internal income seems uncertain, with relatively little funding coming from IGPs to date. For example, in 2013 the University of the Philippines (UP) accrued just P115m ($2.59m), and the Philippine Normal University garnered P54m ($1.22m). While it seems increasingly likely that the government will work to extend more equitable funding through a voucher scheme, seeking to mitigate a dearth of students resulting from the transition to the K-12 system, until this happens PHEIs in particular will likely continue to need IPGs.

EDUCATION MEETS EXPERIENCE: As neighbouring governments of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia commit greater support to higher education institutions, the Philippine government is also following suit. Plans were announced in September 2014 to build eight globally competitive universities within the next three years as the country seeks to increase its educational standing internationally. However, the government has indicated its understanding that one of the most pressing domestic issues within higher education, aside from quality and access, is the need to ensure experiences that prepare students for jobs.

Accordingly, in June 2014 the Ladderised Education Interface Act was passed, which allows vocational education and training (VET) students and graduates to transfer VET credits to degree programmes at universities. In the same month they also revealed plans for the expansion of distance-learning services within the country through the Open Distance Learning Act and measures to harmonise grant and scholarship programmes via the Unified Student Financial Assistance System for Higher Technical Education Act. These reforms are designed to improve competitiveness and quality of education. It remains to be seen what impact they may have on outbound mobility, particularly in relation to broader shifts in demographics and economics that are in play in the Philippine market this decade. For 2015, P2bn ($45m) was allocated for the Training for Work Scholarship programme under TESDA. This allocation is 42% more than that in 2014.

In an effort to build industry links, the National Academe-Industry Council was established with the assistance of the PBEd. The council continues to make progress in human resource planning and the promotion of growing industries. Data from recruitment website Jobstreet revealed that the highest-paying industries for graduates in 2013 were travel and tourism, telecommunication and IT hardware. The academy has consistently championed travel and tourism related industries since its inception, regarding this as the sector with the fastest-growing number of opportunities for graduates. The Philippines welcomed 4.7m foreign visitors in 2013, up 9.56% from 4.3m arrivals in 2012.

BACK & FORTH: In terms of boosting its appeal as a regional study destination, the country is also seeking to capitalise on the number of students coming to study English in the Philippines. With its expanding education system and relative affordability, the country continues to emerge as an important education centre in South-east Asia and attracts increasing numbers of students from across the region.

The Philippine Bureau of Immigration reported that student visa approvals increased by 14% in 2012, reaching a total of 47,478 student visas and permits, compared to 41,443 in 2011. However, within this number the majority of visas were issued for special study permits (SSPs) issued to those on courses such as language training. In 2012 over 31,000 SSPs were issued compared with 16,478 student visas which are typically handed out to those studying full bachelor’s or master’s programmes at universities or colleges.

In addition to the Philippines accepting an increasing number of students, the number of Filipino students studying abroad has also risen sharply in recent years, fuelled by a rapidly growing economy, above – average levels of youth unemployment, incumbent trends for outbound migration and a burgeoning field of education agents. While in 2001 there were just over 5500 tertiary-level Filipino students enrolled abroad, by 2012 this had increased to 11,210. The majority of this growth occurred in the 2006-12 period, with the most popular destinations including the US, which accounted for 27% of outbound enrolment in 2012, Australia with 21% and the UK with 12%.

OUTLOOK: As senior high schools gear up to accommodate the first cohort of year 11 and 12 students in 2016, the K-12 system is a significant step for the Philippines in the modernisation of its education system regardless of the inevitable settling-in period. “In the great scheme of things, it is only two years, but there will definitely be a phase of acclimatisation as new students and staff adjust to the specialised and vocation-orientated curriculum set out for senior high school,” Alfredo Pascual, president of the University of the Philippines, told OBG.

While the higher budget allocation for K-12 is encouraging, the government must ensure adequate monitoring of spending to avoid waste or misappropriation. The Philippines must also continue on the constructive path it has been taking in recent years – spurred on by the MDGs – to boost access to quality basic education and reduce the number of children working rather than learning. With the dialogue between the private sector and educational institutions increasing and accompanied by reforms squarely aimed at better preparing students for employment, the sector continues to move in the right direction.