Considered by many to be the oldest surviving university both in the Philippines and in Asia, the institution that today we call the University of Santo Tomas (UST) was founded in 1611 by the Dominicans as the Colegio de Nuestro Señora del Santisimo Rosario. It was renamed La Real y Pontificia Universidad de Santo Tomas de Aquino Universidad Catolica de Filipinas by Pope Innocent X in 1645. Today it is one of the country’s top 10 universities.

UST’s lengthy and storied history is emblematic of the way in which the Philippines’ modern educational system is rooted in and informed by the country’s history. The system has evolved over centuries and undergone a series of changes of ownership – a consequence of enduring two colonial periods and at least one era of martial law. Each time, it has emerged with a new focus, vision and curricula, and Filipino students and educators have adjusted accordingly.

History & Structure

During the Spanish colonial era, the education system was comprised of missionary schools and colleges, where the study of religion was compulsory. Universities were established beginning in the 17th century, but Filipinos were not allowed to study at them until the 19th century. In 1863, a royal decree called for the establishment of a public school system, but it wasn’t until after the 1898 Treaty of Paris, when America took control of the archipelago, that secular and English courses were included in the curriculum for Filipinos.

In 1901, the US colonial government established the Department of Public Instruction, which decreed free universal primary education and ended compulsory religious education. A serious shortage of teachers then ensued, which was eventually overcome by opening a dedicated teacher-training school for Filipino educators and by importing 1000 teachers from the US. In 1908, the Philippine legislature created the University of the Philippines, which is currently the number-one ranked university in the country.

The Commonwealth era saw the establishment of an advisory body know as the National Council of Education, founded by president Manuel Quezon. The education system continued to grow, and President Quezon steered its direction by issuing a code of ethics and emphasising vocational and adult education, an emphasis that is still a priority today.

The public school system was restored after the end of the Second World War, and Filipino educators were again recruited to assist in this. After martial law was declared in 1944, the Department of Education, established in 1947, was renamed the Department of Education and Culture. In 1974, under president Ferdinand Marcos’ rule, a bilingual education system required schools to use English for science, math, and literature classes, while Filipino was used for all other subjects. The bilingual educational policy and access to free basic public education were upheld in the 1987 constitution and remain to this day. At the same time, the government created the institutions that continue to steer the country’s education system: the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA). The title of the institution governing basic education in the nation, which has seen many iterations over the centuries, was settled in 2001 when it became the Department of Education (DepEd).

A Diverse Mix

The country is home to many private, international, religious and secular schools. In 2012/13, there were 2.7m elementary and secondary private schools and 428,981 private kindergartens, according to DepEd. Public higher education institutions (HEIs) take various forms and are overseen by different administrative bodies depending on their function, locality, governance and funding.

State universities and colleges (SUCs), are chartered, government-administered and government-subsidised public HEIs. A board of regents makes policy for each state university, while a board of trustees carries out policy functions for each state college, with the CHED chairperson supervising and managing all the boards. Individual local government units establish and guide local universities and colleges through resolutions or ordinances.

Established and governed by the laws and provisions of the corporation code, private HEIs encompass both sectarian and non-sectarian institutions that are incorporated, owned and operated by private entities. Non-sectarian private HEIs are not affiliated with any religious organisation, while sectarian private HEIs are typically non-profit establishments owned and operated by a religious organisation.

In Figures

According to CHED data, in academic year (AY) 2013/14, there were 1923 public and private HEIs. That number grows to 2374 when SUC satellite campuses are included. Of these HEIs, 224 were public in 2014, including 112 SUCs and 98 local universities or colleges. Enrolment in public HEIs was 1.5m in AY2013/14, and 268,413 students graduated from public HEIs. For the same academic year, private HEIs numbered 1699, with 64 more designated autonomous or deregulated private HEIs. Of the total, 1340 were non-sectarian and 359 were sectarian. In AY2013-14, enrolment in private HEIs was approximately 2m and 336,962 students graduated.

With 88,952 graduates in AY2013/14, teacher education was the number-one discipline for graduates of both public and private HEIs. IT-related disciplines were second with 77,535 graduates, followed by medicine and health topics (74,960), engineering and technology (62,925) and maritime studies (25,309).


Until 2015, basic education in the Philippines has ended at grade 10, comprising six years of elementary school and four years of secondary education. That changes in 2016, when the first cohort of students will enter senior high school (grades 11 and 12) after grade 10, rather than going on to university – or leaving education and entering the workforce.

The extra two years were mandated in the Enhanced Basic Education Act of 2013. In addition to the two new years of high school, the Kindergarten Act of 2012 had already made preschool for five-yearold Filipinos both free and compulsory. Although this system aligns the Philippines with the rest of Asia and most of the rest of the world, it has proved a highly contentious change among many educators, students and parents. Educators have professional concerns, students have supply concerns and parents express unease about the added expense.

The rollout of K-12 is expected to have a strong impact on private HEIs, which – being almost entirely dependent on tuition to pay salaries and operating expenses – are particularly exposed by K-12 to declines in revenue. During the transition period, low er enrolment may well lead to lower teaching loads, salaries and potential job losses.

The consequences of the 2013 education act are unquestionably far-reaching, and the transition period is set to be one of some disruption. However, most educators and analysts believe this change will be for the best in the long-run, as it will enable the country’s graduates to better compete with those of other ASEAN countries and to have their degrees recognised internationally, which is a new development.

Education For All

The Philippine Education for All (EFA) 2015 National Plan of Action makes provisions for all Filipinos to attain functional literacy, defined by UNESCO as a level of reading, writing and calculation skills sufficient to function in the community in which a person resides. The EFA aims to achieve this via four main objectives: providing universal coverage of learning needs for out-of-school youth and adults, eliminating dropouts and repetition in grades 1 through 3, realising universal completion of a full cycle of basic schooling at every grade, and committing to the attainment of basic education competencies for all Filipinos.

To assist the country in attaining its EFA goals, in 2005 DepEd formulated the Basic Education Sector Reform Agenda (BESRA). The wide-ranging agenda targets the reform of various policies with the goal of removing all restrictions – be they institutional, structural, regulatory, financial, informational, cultural or physical – that limit access to and delivery of basic education. BESRA’s key reform policies include school-based management, teacher education development, national learning strategies, quality assurance and accountability, monitoring, evaluation and organisational development.

Both EFA and BESRA offer many opportunities for elevating and maintaining the country’s basic education system’s standing. Although the net enrolment rate (NER) in primary school hovered around 89% of the school-age population from 1999 to 2009 and rose to 96% in 2010/11, boosting the NER for secondary education has proved more challenging. Over the same 10-year period, the NER for secondary school saw an improvement, but only from about 50% to 61%. In 2010/11, the NER for secondary school reached 64%. Gross enrolment in tertiary education dropped slightly from 29% in 1999 to 28% in 2009.

Reducing the number of primary school dropouts remains another stubborn issue. In 2011, only slightly over half (54) of every 100 children who entered grade 1 completed high school (grade 10) , with 13% of grade 1 students leaving school in 2011/12.


The Aquino government has made inclusive growth the foundation of its development plan, with greater public investment in the social sector, including specific priorities in education and health.

The combination of past underinvestment in the public education system and rapid population growth – according to the National Statistical Coordination Board, the country’s average population growth rate is 2.05% – has been a destabilising factor both in access to public education and the performance of the system itself. But the Aquino government has been allocating an increasing proportion of the general budget toward education. In 2015, the education budget reached P361.7bn ($8.03bn), an increase of 18.6% over its 2014 allocation.

In 1997, government spending (at current market prices) on the entire education sector peaked at 3.9% of GDP. After this, spending on education began to experience a steady decline, hitting a nadir of 2.3% of GDP in 2004 and 2005. In 2007, expenditure began to rise again, reaching 2.5% 2010, 2.8% in 2013, and 3.0% in 2014, according to Asian Development Bank data. Yet even this could be considered a modest recovery; the Philippines’ spending on public education is low when compared with other South-east Asian countries such as Malaysia (6.3% of GDP), Vietnam (5.3%), the Republic of Korea (4.8%) and Thailand (3.8%).

National Priorities

In his budget for the 2016 fiscal year, president Aquino re-affirmed that education is still his administration’s top budgetary priority. The president offered a 21% increase to the 2016 education sector budget, totalling P547.3bn ($12.2bn), a portion of which was earmarked for the implementation of the K-12 basic education reform programme. An additional P10.6bn ($235.3m) was allocated for technical-vocational and tertiary education scholarships with the goal of modernising the economy through educating “a quality workforce”.

Financial Aid

A portion of the funding that the government allocates to education goes to providing students with financial assistance. Currently, the government is funding more than 60 student financial assistance programmes. However, according to a CHED study, these programmes have aided only about 60,000 students, or 2% of Filipino college students, with some of the aid going to students who are not in need of financial assistance.

To ensure that the poorest and most academically promising students receive aid from government scholarship programmes, the Unified Student Financial Assistance System for Tertiary Education (UniFAST) Act was signed into law in 2015. The act mandates the creation of a system and a national body, the UniFAST Board, to oversee and synchronise all of the country’s student financial assistance programmes. The board will also ensure that the top 10 graduates of every public high school are prioritised for the provision of government-funded scholarships. In addition, grants-in-aid will be available to students from poor families and marginalised sectors who might otherwise not be able to borrow funds for education. The UniFAST Board will carry out reviews of the performance and the impact of the UniFAST programme and monitor beneficiaries’ completion rates.

Another source of funding for underprivileged students comes in the form of a conditional cash transfer (CCT) programme called the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Programme. Pantawid provides grants of P300 ($6.66) per child per month for 10 months of the school year. In 2014, the government extended the grants to enable students to complete high school, with monthly allotments of P500 ($11.10).

Pantawid’s 2014 budget of P62.6bn ($1.4bn) enabled it to extend assistance to more than 4m households. According to the World Bank, Pantawid is the third-largest CCT programme in the world, after Brazil (8.8m households) and Mexico (6.5m households).

CHED is providing funding to retrain and upgrade the education levels of HEI teaching staff during the transition to K-12 mandated by the Enhanced Basic Education Act. According to CHED, approximately 25,000 teaching and non-teaching HEI personnel will be made redundant or will see their workloads vastly reduced during the transition. This is because, as senior high school is rolled out, students will attend two more years of high school instead of going straight to college. The result will be lowered HEI enrolment nationwide during the transition period.

To alleviate the effect of the transition on these education personnel, CHED has created and expanded several scholarship programmes. Its Scholarships for Graduate Studies and Professional Advancement programme expands CHED’s existing Faculty Development Programme to grant a total of 15,000 scholarships to HEI personnel. Under the new programme, 8000 educators will be granted aid to complete master’s degrees and another 7000 will be offered aid to finish doctoral degrees. This project, estimated to cost $600m over the next five years, is expected to help upgrade the education levels of the Philippines’ HEI educators to the legally mandated degree for their teaching levels.

For educators who do not wish take up full-time study, CHED’s Development Grants for Faculty and Staff will fund retooling of skills, research, community service and an immersion in industry.

Lastly, CHED’s Innovation Grants for Institutions will be made available to HEIs. These grants are meant to fund the upgrading of HEI programmes through forging international and industry linkages, carrying out research, and developing certain programmes.

To pay for these grants and scholarships, the Department of Budget and Management proposed a P10.5bn ($233.1m) budget for CHED in 2016, the highest amount offered during President Aquino’s administration and an increase of P7bn ($155.4m); a substantial rise from its 2015 appropriation. The lion’s share of the increase will be allocated to projects related to the K-12 programme implementation.

Private Sector Participation

One of the priorities of president Aquino’s administration is to improve the Philippine educational system via an agenda entitled, “Ten Ways to Fix Philippine Basic Education”. One of the 10 reforms – partnering with private schools – involves enlarging the Government Assistance to Students and Teachers in Private Education Programme (GASTPE) by targeting 1m private high school students annually through the Education Service Contracting Scheme (ESCS).

The ESCS provides eligible elementary-school graduates with governmental financial assistance to study in private high schools. ESC grantees receive between P10,000 ($222) and P6500 ($144.30) per school year. The number of students benefiting from GASTPE has multiplied from 666,000 in 2009/10 to 809,000 in 2013/14, a 21% increase.

More policies are in place to encourage public-private partnerships (PPPs) in the education sector. For instance, the 1988 Adopt-a-School Act advances private-sector participation through investments in education through the Adopt-a-School Programme. The programme generates additional resources and services for public schools by forging partnerships with adoptive private entities. The private entities are then entitled to receive tax incentives for the expenses incurred by their participation in the partnership project. Through such incentives, the Adopt-a-School Programme aims to leverage private-sector participation to address infrastructure and educational resource shortfalls, which in turn enhances teacher performance and student achievement. From 2000 to 2013, about P30bn ($666m) had been donated or invested from various private sector entities through the auspices of the programme.


Efforts to align technical and vocational education and training (TVET) qualifications with industry requirements and standards are being made through better coordination between CHED, TESDA, and DepEd. Two initiatives, the Train the Teachers (T3) programme and the Service Management Programme (SMP), serve as noteworthy examples of this type of coordination. Through the SMP, the combined IT and business process outsourcing (IT-BPO) industry, the government and private educational institutions are working in concert to design and administer curricula to ensure a sufficient number of qualified graduates for the BPO segment.

“As the fastest-growing private sector in the country, the IT-BPO industry will continue to employ more people in the coming years,” Benedict Hernandez, Business Processing Association of the Philippines (BPAP) president, said during an SMP signing ceremony in March 2013 . “Our goal is to ensure that aspiring professionals can take on the demands of an increasingly competitive global market.”

Currently offered in universities and colleges in addition to existing courses, the SMP aims to increase the employability of over 20,000 students and provide training to 500 teachers for 2013/14. Jointly developed by the IT-BPO industry and academia, the programme is designed to enhance competencies in digital literacy, critical thinking, communication and to help promote the service culture.

The SMP is supported in turn by CHED’s T3 programme, which aims to produce a constant source of teachers with IT and digital skills. Conducted by SMP professionals, T3 sees teachers trained in real-world IT-BPO work environments. “While our main goal is to increase the competency of college students, we are also indirectly extending the same privilege to the faculty members. Through proper training and immersion, teachers can acquire additional skills as well as increase their marketability,” said Hernandez.

Another government programme to increase the accessibility and take-up of TVET is a project to open 400 cyber-TVET centres across the country. This project is being run by the Department of Science and Technology in concert with different local government authorities and PPPs (see analysis). TVET is a main thrust of the two extra years of senior high in the new K-12 education system. Education administrators and the government have included TVET as a focus area to help create a skilled labour force.


As the country embarks on a long-awaited but controversial change to the basic education system, educators and students at all levels, from kindergarten through to university, are witnessing a time of transition. This transition is putting some strain not only on those in the education system, but also on administrators and government officials. Many are looking to private schools and TVET institutions as safe havens, but these institutions are themselves experiencing a measure of uncertainty as a result of the changes occurring on their own campuses. It is, however, very likely that in less than five years’ time many Filipinos will look back on 2016 as the year the education sector was progressively reformed.

If government funding and partnerships with the private sector continue on their upward trajectory, the financial bedrock of the education system should remain solid. And if technical education and volunteerism really takes hold as planned – and industry creates jobs for those with the appropriate technical skills and degrees – the graduating labour force should be well-matched to industry needs.

Whether or not these goals can be fully achieved in the short-term, the system as a whole is evolving in the right direction for long-term growth. To be sure, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about the competencies of and opportunities awaiting the graduating class of 2016, as well as those that will follow it – and this trend is not simply good for the economy, but for the wider country as a whole.