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Philippines' 'diploma mill' rep may attract low-tier foreign universities, expert warns

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com
Philippines' 'diploma mill' rep may attract low-tier foreign universities, expert warns
Students from the City University of Pasay gather yesterday at the Philippine International Convention Center for their graduation ceremony. Pasay City Mayor Imelda Calixto-Rubiano was among the attendees.
Ernie Peñaredondo

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines' reputation for having so-called “diploma mills” makes it vulnerable to the entry of substandard foreign universities if proposals to open up higher education to foreign ownership push through, an education expert warned during a Senate hearing on Charter change.

Representatives from EDCOM 2 and a former Commission on Higher Education chairperson gave senators a reality check on Tuesday about the extent to which foreign investments can improve the country’s higher education system — the focus of one of three economic amendments proposed in the Senate’s Resolution of Both Houses (RBH) 6.

Cynthia Bautista, EDCOM 2 adviser and former dean of the University of the Philippines Diliman College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, raised the possibility that the Philippines could attract low-quality universities instead of prestigious higher education institutions (HEIs) seeking to expand their reach in the region.

“What we must guard against is opening up to lower-tier HEIs. Because we are not a market for the higher-tier (schools) yet. … Our reputation is not as good as we imagined [compared to] the 1970s,” Bautista said.

“Our reputation for diploma mills is very high,” she added.

Philippines different from Singapore

During the Senate constitutional amendments committee hearing, the sociology professor explained that several factors differentiate the Philippines from neighboring Singapore and Malaysia — two Southeast Asian nations that pro-Chacha proponents say have been successful at bringing in reputable foreign universities.

Bautista said that Singapore and Malaysia became "de facto" education hubs in the region because of a favorable education and business environment, including incentives for foreign investors and "the existence of a Singaporean and ASEAN market for students."

“The Philippines at present is not similarly situated with the limited number of HEIs recognized by other countries to be of quality. So we're not in that position at the moment,” she said.

EDCOM 2 adviser said that Singapore and Malaysia also had specific goals in bringing in foreign universities according to industry needs. Singapore, for instance, has been tightening restrictions in recent years after it already “got what they need” in terms of engineering programs, and its Yale campus will be closing doors soon. 

Limited market 

Bautista also said that the Philippines is still beset with challenges in terms of ease of doing business and addressing corruption, which gets in the way of efficient construction of facilities and procurement. 

“We also have a small number of foreign students. And it’s not because of the 30% cap (the maximum number of students that can be taken in). Regardless of that, we have a few foreign students coming in,” she said.

Even as the government can guard against the entry of low-tier universities, Bautista cautioned against the limitations of legislation.

“While safeguards can be put in place through legislation and executive orders, we must be mindful of our implementation track record, a culture tolerant of circumvention of regulations, lack of capacities of government agencies to regulate substandard HEIs even among Philippine HEIS,” she said. 

During the hearing, former CHED Chairperson Patricia Licuanan said that the commission’s partnerships and agreements with foreign universities can already address the need to internationalize higher education in the Philippines.

Like Bautista, Licuanan also stressed the absence of a viable market for top-tier universities.

"Foreign universities, while possibly attracted by our large young population, will soon discover after careful market studies that branch campuses in the Philippines will not be sustainable," the former CHED official said.

Without stating explicitly their stance on RBH 6, EDCOM 2 Executive Director Karol Yee said that data shows that the Philippines has one of the strictest regulations on foreign ownership in education in the ASEAN bloc.

Yee said that opening up higher education to foreign ownership, however, is just the first step.

“There’s a need to strengthen the capacity of DepEd, CHED, and TESDA to regulate the possible entry of poor-quality institutions,” he said. 

Meanwhile, teachers' group Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) has also opposed the proposed foreign ownership of HEIs, saying that this will lead to "denationalization" and further commercialize education.

In a statement on Thursday, ACT said that introducing full foreign ownership of Philippine education would "all the more produce docile and cheap labor graduates who will only serve the big local and foreign profit-oriented entities."

"We must be firm in safeguarding our national identity in education," ACT Chairperson Vladimer Quetua said in Filipino. 

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