Is education the Philippines’ missing link?
AS EASY AS ABC - Atty. Alex B. Cabrera (The Philippine Star) - August 9, 2020 - 12:00am

How do you reconcile having the highest literacy rate in Asia, to being the poorest in reading comprehension? Yes, that’s us. And to the government’s credit, the Philippines asked to be tested under the United Nations Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This measures the ability of 15-year-olds to meet real-life challenges using their reading, mathematics, and science knowledge and skills, reflecting the quality of education in participating countries. The heartbreaking, if not embarrassing part is that among the 79 participating countries, we ranked number 79, or dead last. Our neighbors Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam even beat us.

The Philippines participated in PISA in 2018 for the first time. PISA test scores show that we are simply way below the mean in the basic subjects of Math and Science. (The mean is 489 while our Math and Science scores are 353 and 357, respectively.)

This problem among our students has great bearing because comprehension is critical to being a good communicator – a key trait needed by great leaders. Math powers engineering that builds strong industries. Scientific prowess molds innovation that is a game changer to a country’s future.

What is also telling is that the greater the reading comprehension, math and science skills are, the more prosperous a country can be. The PwC Philippines data analytics team reports that such skills have a strong correlation to a country’s GDP and global resilience index.

Surprisingly, the outlier countries or those who perform well without these strong traits are either the oil-rich countries, like Qatar, or those with high economic freedom index like Taiwan. (Economic freedom index is a global measure that takes into account a country’s governance, justice system and investments laws, among others.)

We had the chance all along to develop our students on these basic fields. The country lags way behind developed countries in global education index. (This index refers to “taas ng pinag-aralan” or how many finish tertiary education.) But our index is just the same as our neighbors who got better scores in PISA. That tells us that if only there is better quality of instruction for every individual who had the opportunity to be a student, we could be among the best at least among our Asian peers, and as shown in the correlation in data analytics, probably with a stronger and more resilient economy.

I would rather not pick on our teachers because they are great persons and have put in a lot of sacrifice themselves. The fact is, the country’s programs on training our trainers should be much stronger, supported by updated and world-class materials, and with intense collaboration with industry. If we are talking about these basic tenets of reading comprehension, math and science that statistically drive a country’s performance, there can be national achievement even with low education index (or even if not everyone reaches college level).

The Philippines’ thrust in the K-12 system and vocational courses, I believe, is well-placed. It's true that between a K-12 graduate and a college graduate applying for the same job, employers would most likely choose the latter. But listen to this: Out of the total Philippine workforce, only 25 percent are college graduates. There is space for K-12 and vocational course graduates. However, they are unable to command the salaries here so they become OFWs whenever they can.

Yet quantity is not the issue, but quality. We need to look at how developed countries did it. Germany’s vocational education program involves only 50 percent theory and 50 percent for students to derive their learning from actually working. So it's not just an apprentice program for a few days. And if we are to give our future workforce a fighting chance at their careers, and succeed even locally, they have to be strong in the three basic tenets.

To its credit, the government already increased its budget for education to 3.4 percent of GDP (or P692 billion) but this is still below the UN-recommended figure of 6 percent (met and exceeded by Vietnam and Malaysia). The government budgets for R&D only 0.2 percent of GDP, an investment that’s significantly lower than its peers. Again I would say it's quality, not quantity. If there is no leakage, there is still a lot that can be done with that kind of money. Credit goes to the government for the resources it alloted to its initiative called Edukalidad. But it's in the execution, not the intention. And it must always look at what industries we are trying to build, and how we deliberately leverage for educational purposes the wealth of knowledge and skills that the private sector already has.

We should look at examples of successful countries. South Korea developed regional innovation centers that brought industry R&D on production efficiencies together with research facilities of its universities. Or Japan’s PRISM program that supports academic partnerships in the areas of robotics, artificial intelligence and quantum space. Or Singapore's thrust in developing Biomedical Sciences.

Quality education is a great equalizer and it has no shortcut. Where to start? How about the government calling key experts from critical industries, getting them all together in a (virtual) room, to figure out our own evolution. Then, be reminded of this: continuous flames of change are not powered by “ningas kugon”.

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Alexander B. Cabrera is the chairman and senior partner of Isla Lipana & Co./PwC Philippines. He is the chairman of the Integrity Initiative, Inc. (II, Inc.), a non-profit organization that promotes common ethical and acceptable integrity standards. Email your comments and questions to This content is for general information purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional advisors.

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