Educational attainment in the Philippines was falling at the beginning of the 21st century, marked by declining enrolment and literacy rates, as well as persistent underfunding. In response, successive governments have worked to overhaul the education system and increase expenditure, taking measures to keep more children in school, raise the quality of tertiary education, enhance the education system’s global competitiveness, and improve employability through linkages between academic institutions and industry. All this is proving crucial to keep pace in a world adapting to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), where technological competitiveness and the hunt for qualified human capital is placing education at the centre of many countries’ reform plans.

Sector Structure

The government has identified lifelong learning opportunities for all as part of its Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2017-22. The ultimate aim of the PDP is for the Philippines to reach upper-middle-income status through poverty reduction – particularly in the regions – which would then enable more inclusive economic growth. Widening access to quality education will therefore be crucial to narrow the gap between the most and least advantaged in society, and help each Filipino contribute positively to the workforce.

Elementary and secondary education in the Philippines is governed by the Department of Education (DepEd). Students entering the tertiary level can opt for either university or an institution dedicated to technical and vocational education and training (TVET). The higher education segment is overseen by the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), with public instruction offered at both state universities and colleges (SUCs), which are overseen by the national government, and local universities and colleges (LUCs), which are funded by local governments and primarily located in more prosperous cities and municipalities. The TVET segment is overseen by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA). One of the key roles of both CHED and TESDA is to encourage collaboration between their respective institutions and industry.

In recent years sector authorities have taken a number of measures to improve three aspects of the education system: access, quality and – in the case of tertiary institutions – international appeal.

Overhauling Basic Education

The DepEd’s Education for All initiative has brought the country in line with international standards by implementing two key regulations that expanded the required period of basic education from 10 to 13 years. Kindergarten through to grade 12 now follows the K-12 Basic Education Curriculum, more commonly referred to as K-12. This spreads the national syllabus across more years in order to give pupils additional time to master the skills needed for tertiary education or entrance into the labour force.

The first of these two regulations was passed in April 2012. Republic Act No. 10157, or the Kindergarten Education Act, requires children to complete one year of kindergarten from the age of five to six before beginning grade one. Pupils then complete grades one to six in elementary school before entering junior high school. Under K-12, students from kindergarten through grade three are taught primarily in their mother tongue or local variant, which is highly distinct in some regions. This is to ensure children are literate in their first language before attempting proficiency in another. The primary language of instruction from grade four onwards is permitted to be either English or Filipino, with the former being the language of business in the country.

The second key regulation lengthened mandatory high school education in 2013 through Republic Act No. 10533. Known as the Enhanced Basic Education Act, the legislation was crafted by the combined forces of the DepEd, CHED and TESDA. Students are now required to complete not only junior high school, which comprises grades seven to 10 for ages 12-16, but also grades 11 and 12 in senior high school.

Upon enrolling in senior high school, the Enhanced Basic Education Act requires students to select one of the following tracks: academic; technical-vocational-livelihood; sports; or art and design. The academic track is intended to prepare pupils for university, and is divided into the four strands of general academic; humanities and social science; science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); and accountancy, business and management. The TVET path, meanwhile, focuses on developing practical, hands-on skills to prepare students for entrance into the labour market, while some standalone courses also offer fast-tracked certification.

Advancements in Tertiary Education

In August 2017 the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act, officially known as Republic Act No. 10931, introduced four programmes to support this segment: free higher education for students in SUCs and LUCs; free TVET for students in public institutions; a tertiary education subsidy or grants-in-aid for supplies, living expenses and transportation; and a national student loan scheme.

A flagship proposal of the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, the act faced some initial opposition, with concerns raised about the strain it would place on the education budget. Furthermore, there were a number of challenges in the initial implementation of the act. A commonly cited criticism was that the provision of free tuition at public universities would lead to decreased enrolment in private institutions. To combat this, in 2018 the government began providing subsidies to students at private institutions who hold a social welfare certificate, which identifies them as being below a certain income threshold. It remains to be seen whether this initiative will keep enrolment at private institutions at pre-2018 levels.

Public Spending

Education has benefitted from considerable public investment since the government identified human capital as key to ensuring the Philippines remains competitive during this era of constant innovation. The 4IR is harnessing disruptive technology such as artificial intelligence and applications of the internet of things to enhance connectivity and transform the way we live, study and work.

The DepEd received the highest allocation in the national budget in absolute terms between 2015 2018, growing from P367.1bn ($6.8bn) to P587.1bn ($10.9bn) over the four years. The allocation fell to P500.3bn ($9.3bn) for 2019, equal to 2.6% of the estimated P19.3trn ($359bn) GDP for the year, per IMF forecasts. This is below the 3.4% seen in 2018, and considerably short of both the 6% recommended by UNESCO and the 4.9% global average. However, when appropriations for state universities and colleges are added in – totalling P64.7bn ($1.2bn) for 2019 – education sector spending rises to 2.9% of GDP.

In 2018, the inaugural year of the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act, P40bn ($744m) was designated for the rollout of the four programmes. The breakdown of funds was P16bn ($297.6m) for free higher education to aid 1.3m students at 112 SUCs and 78 LUCs; P7bn ($130.2m) for free TVET; P16bn ($297.6m) for subsidies and grants; and P1bn ($18.6m) for the student loan scheme.

Enrolment & Performance

Conditions for pupils in basic education have improved in recent years, with a greater number of teachers and schools. The number of primary schools increased by 3.5% from 48,816 in the 2012/13 academic year to 50,525 in 2016/17, the latest year for which detailed information is available. The majority of new schools were privately operated, with 1523 such institutions opening during this period. The number of teachers rose by a larger margin: jumping by 16.9% from 463,117 to 541,563. Here it was the public sector that benefitted the most: in 2012/13 there were 377, 831 teachers in public primary schools, a figure that increased by 19.1% to 450,119 in 2016/17. This saw the teacher-to-pupil ratio improve from 1:41 to 1:32, resulting in average class sizes falling from 40 students to 35. Net enrolment for grades one to six in 2016/17 stood at 95.94% of eligible children, according to TESDA.

The secondary segment also expanded during that same period. The number of schools increased by 10.2% from 13,042 to 14,375 to accommodate a 6.2% increase in enrolment for grades seven to 10, from 7.12m students to 7.56m. The number of teachers, meanwhile, rose by a substantial 46.4%, which improved the teacher-to-pupil ratio at this level from 1:35 to 1:26. Comparing figures of public and private institutions suggests that conditions in the private sector may have improved more than those in the public sector: despite a 5.6% drop in enrolment, the period saw a 65.4% increase in teacher numbers at private schools, and a 12.1% rise in the number of private institutions. Net enrolment in junior high school for the 2016/17 academic year stood at 74.2%.

Despite improvements, local media reports that conditions remain substandard as pupils return to school for the 2019/20 academic year. For instance, one elementary school in Las Piñas City reportedly has a ratio of one teacher for every 55 students – albeit down from 1:73 in the past – forcing classes to take place in shifts. Furthermore, the number of classrooms still falls short of requirements. Of the DepEd’s budget, the share earmarked for basic education facilities fell by 67% from P105bn ($2bn) in 2018 to P34bn ($632.4m) in 2019, resulting in fewer classrooms being constructed than originally planned. Of the expected 46,415 classrooms to come on-line in 2019, Annalyn Sevilla, the education undersecretary for finance budget and performance monitoring, estimates that around 4090 will be achieved.

The 2013 decision to add grades 11 and 12 to basic education under the K-12 programme did not result in a slump in tertiary enrolment figures until 2016, as high schools were given time to prepare for the addition of two more years of instruction. According to CHED, higher education enrolment rose from 3.3m in academic year 2012/13 to 3.6m in 2013/14, 3.8m in 2014/15 and 4.1m in 2015/16. When the first cohort of students began senior high school, this dropped to 3.6m pupils in 2016/17, the most recent year for which information is available.

While comprehensive enrolment figures have not yet been published for the 2017/18 academic year and onwards, applications for the University of the Philippines (UP) saw an increase of over 60,000 prospective students for the 2019/20 academic year, according to an August 2018 media report, largely due to the free tuition policy at SUCs and LUCs.

Of those enrolling in higher education, it is hoped that the number of students opting for the STEM disciplines increases to better help the country compete in the 4IR. One intention of adding two years to the high school curriculum is to allow time for students to build their confidence in these areas and encourage them to continue with STEM subjects in tertiary education. In 2016/17, 34,923 students were in natural science programmes, 448,550 were on the technology and engineering track, 14,109 were pursuing mathematics degrees and 398,765 were engaged in IT. STEM students accounted for approximately 25% of all pupils that year, the same rate as in 2013/14. This places the Philippines behind some others in the region: 40% of Chinese graduates in 2013 held a degree in STEM, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). While the collective number of enrollees in universities fell in 2016, gains were made in TVET. In 2016, the most recent year for which TESDA data is available, around 2.27m students were enrolled in TVET programmes nationwide, of which 2.15m – or 95% – graduated. This is considerable progress compared to two years earlier, when 2.03m students were enrolled and 88% graduated.

Global Competitiveness 

The “Global Competitiveness Report 2018”, published by the WEF, ranked 140 countries according to a range of measures, including the level of each nation’s economic productivity, the quality of its education system, the efficiency of its labour force and innovation capabilities. In 56th place overall, the Philippines increased its score in both the skills and labour market categories since the previous edition, at 62.9 and 64.5 out of 100, respectively. The country ranked 36th globally for the competitiveness of its labour market.

In recent years, the Philippines has seen considerable progress in the performance of its tertiary institutions on the global stage. The country now has two universities in the Times Higher Education University World Rankings. Private De La Salle University (DLSU) joined the public UP among the top-1000 universities in the world for 2019. Raymond Tan, vice-chancellor of research and innovation at DLSU, said in a September 2018 university press release that the school’s inclusion in the 2019 list is due to its faculty adopting international standards to create a “modern, innovation-driven” university.

Moreover, eight Philippine universities appeared in the 2019 edition of the QS Asia University Rankings. The list of approximately 500 universities from 17 Asian countries includes UP, which placed in the top 100; Ateneo de Manila University; DLSU; University of Santo Thomas; Silliman University; University of San Carlos; Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology; and Mapúa University.

University Research

One factor helping to increase the appeal of Philippine universities is the country’s research activities, which have been gaining traction internationally. For instance, in April 2019 archaeologists from UP received widespread media coverage of their discovery of fossils that some scientists suggest are evidence of a previously undiscovered ancient human species. Another boon is that private universities often train students to international professional standards. However, while this improves the reputation of these institutions and students benefit from internationally focused instruction, it could be inadvertently harming the local labour market. Higher salaries and competitive careers abroad are factors in talent leaving the Philippines. There were an estimated 2.3m Filipinos working overseas in 2017, according to the latest data from the Philippine Statistics Authority, although according to other sources the number could be significantly higher. The difficulty of retaining talent in the Philippines may be exacerbated in the future by the ageing populations of neighbouring countries such as Japan, Singapore and China. These markets have the economic capacity to offer attractive career opportunities, but may struggle to meet labour needs with young locals in the coming decades, thus requiring educated manpower from other countries.

One potential avenue to keep graduates in the Philippines may be increased linkages between universities and local industry, to which some institutions are dedicating significant resources. Internships can cultivate graduate interest in domestic companies, and allowing industry input into curricula can help ensure graduates meet the needs of the country in light of the 4IR (see analysis).

The Future of Tertiary Education

Experts from CHED have identified three central objectives that will be fundamental in improving the country’s education over the longer term. The first is to continue to expand and broaden access to education. In line with the Universal Access to Quality Education Act, in April 2019 CHED and the Development Bank of the Philippines signed a memorandum of agreement to provide P1bn ($18.6m) of financial assistance to students in public and private institutions. These student loans can be used for books, exam fees, accommodation or – in the case of private institutions – tuition, and will have an initial cap of P60,000 ($1120) per student. For context on how this will aid students, the average cost of studying at Ateneo de Manila in 2018 was P160,000-180,000 ($ 2980-3350) per year, while annual fees at DLSU stood at P205,000-225,000 ($3810-4190).

The second aim is to improve the employability of graduates. The government’s target is to reduce the time between a student’s graduation and when they gain employment to an average of nine months. The most recent study of this period – conducted in 2008 – found an average time of two years. While updated figures broken down by course will enable appropriate targeted action to expedite graduates’ entrance to the labour force, linkages between universities and private industry is a vital step in the right direction. Through internships, company presentations and field days, students will have a better idea of the hard and soft skills required by employers.

The third aim is to continue to improve research quality and the country’s reputation in this area. Towards this end, in the first half of 2019 CHED officials were considering permitting only selected universities to offer postgraduate programmes. Moreover, discussions were taking place to introduce a requirement that graduates of master’s by research and doctorates by research have had their work published. In collaboration with US partners such as the Banatao Institute at the University of California, Berkeley and the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable in Washington, DC, the government also aims to expand the country’s support network for research and innovation.

Underpinning these three goals is the ongoing focus on developing the country’s aptitude in the STEM disciplines. Indeed, there is funding in place to support students who graduate from STEM courses and wish to undertake graduate programmes in the field. Filipino students have historically underperformed in science and mathematics compared to other countries in the region, thus improving these skills throughout all levels of basic education is a priority. In the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study of eighth-grade students, the Philippines ranked 41st out of 45 countries in mathematics and 42nd in science. Administered every four years, the most recent edition of the study was undertaken in 2015, but the Philippines was not ranked. The country is taking part in the 2019 iteration, however, and assessments began in March 2019. The exam was administered to fourth- and eighth-grade pupils in 16 regions using paper-based assessment in English. Leonor Briones, the secretary of education, told local media in March 2019 that scores in maths and science are improving following the implementation of K-12.

Teacher Training & Support

A significant factor in ensuring quality education is the expertise and quantity of teachers. The number of enrollees in teacher training was increasing until the 2015/16 academic year, when there were 791,284 pupils on the track, according to CHED. The following two years saw a slump in enrolment, largely due to students’ entry into tertiary education being delayed as a result of two additional years of high school. CHED took this opportunity to enhance the professional development of teachers who were already certified. This included scholarships for higher education personnel to complete master’s and doctorate degrees, as well as grants to support staff engaging in research and industry immersion programmes.

Education officials also worked to address calls for improved working conditions for teachers in 2018. In September of that year there were protests over high workloads, and members of the Teachers’ Dignity Coalition – which represents some 30,000 teachers – camped outside the DepEd office in Manila to request action. In response the DepEd issued new guidance on mandatory lesson plans, the number of hours in a work day and obligatory Saturday make-up classes.

While reducing the eight-hour day was not granted to maintain consistency with government employees in other sectors, the DepEd stated that these eight hours should consist of six teaching and two non-teaching hours, with the latter being used for activities such as lesson planning and grading. Moreover, a new directive was issued to clarify that the two non-teaching hours do not need to be completed in school, giving teachers greater flexibility.


It remains to be seen to what extent the implementation of mandatory K-12 will improve educational performance, but keeping pupils in basic education longer is hoped to translate to greater success at the tertiary level and more prepared entrylevel workers. Initiatives to further enhance access to quality education, improve graduates’ employability, and emphasise research and the STEM disciplines will be crucial to improving the Philippines’ global competitiveness. Keeping graduates in the country will be an ongoing post-education challenge for authorities, and cultivating meaningful industry linkages will continue to be important to ensure students find employment in compatible domestic companies.