It’s still basic education

The perpetual weakness of the products of our higher education institutions (HEIs) continues to concern the business community and the new team at the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd). It should worry business, as the quality of our human resources directly impacts the competitiveness of our organizations – especially for a country that boasts of and relies on its educated populace.

One significant proof of the poor quality of college graduates is their performance in professional licensure examinations. In 2010, the average passing rate across disciplines was below 34 percent. From 2004 to 2009, this average never went beyond 39 percent. For the more than 60 percent of examinees who do not pass the boards, going through four or five years of college preparation for a profession that they will not be able to practice represents an enormous waste of time, talent and resources.

If we disaggregate these figures, the facts become even more appalling. In the licensure examination for teachers (LET) in 2010, 35 percent of the teacher education institutions (TEIs), roughly 900 institutions, did not produce a single passer. For the period 2005 to 2009 covering 10 LETs, 154 TEIs produced no licensed teachers. These are the schools that are responsible for training the teachers on whom the education of our country’s youth depends.

There are a number of causes for the poor quality of our higher education system – from inadequate faculty credentials (more than half of our university and college professors have only a bachelor’s degree) to inadequate facilities (according to CHEd, only 5.5 percent of HEIs have sufficient facilities). Others are the unregulated expansion of local and state universities and colleges (LUCs/SUCs), side by side with what private HEIs complain is an overregulated regime; plus the excessive number of HEIs in general; and oversubscribed programs.

However, poor performance in board examinations will never be addressed until our basic education system is improved. Our college products are weak primarily because our high school graduates are weak. In the 2009-2010 National Achievement Tests, the mean scores for second year high school students were 40, 44, and 47 percents in Math, Science and English, respectively. That’s like saying their grades in these subjects were below 50. Because of the unwritten rule of automatic promotion in the public school system despite their lack of preparation, chances are these students will graduate from high school anyway.

As a result, students from public schools enter college with a Grade 6 competency in Math and Reading, which means we have freshmen who read and compute only as well a sixth grader. But in freshman year, students in nursing already read books on anatomy; those in engineering take advanced algebra; while those in education take statistics. How does a sixth grader survive such classes?

A stop-gap measure has been the addition of almost 60 units of general education to the curricula. In essence, every college student must repeat high school subjects like Algebra, Basic English and Science, in order to make up for the insufficient learning in basic education. However, the addition of almost two-years’ worth of these courses crowds out the professional subjects, constraining the preparation needed for the licensure examinations.

Therefore, the quality of college entrants, combined with inadequate career preparation due to the crowded curriculum, is in the end the cause of the low performance in professional boards. No number of PhD professors, or high-tech laboratories, or accredited programs, can make up for this basic flaw (that is not to say that we should not reform higher education itself, but I leave that for another article). The students are simply too far behind and do not have enough time to catch up. Four years or five years of tertiary education on top of sixth grade competencies at best brings our freshmen to a first year college level. These same students are expected to pass the accountancy, engineering, and nursing boards.

Some argue that not everybody deserves to go to college, and so we should establish a rigorous college entrance examination system. This would solve many of the quality issues, as it would prevent the ill-prepared from entering college. However, their lack of preparation is mainly because of a defective public education system – one full of dedicated and good-hearted teachers and administrators – that continues to produce unacceptable results. To thoroughly screen tertiary entrants would essentially mean that most public school graduates would not be able to proceed to college. This is tantamount to penalizing the poor who have little choice but to go to public schools.

The solutions to our basic education problems have been adequately discussed. These are the need to train teachers more, fill the resource gaps, and increase the number of years in the basic education cycle. And indeed, the three secretaries heading the education sector are moving in the right directions. But the system must be seen as a whole, not merely as the sum of its parts. The responsibility for our college graduates lies not only in higher education but to a larger extent in basic education.

The perpetual weakness of the products of our higher education institutions (HEIs) continues to rightly concern the business community. But this concern must then translate into support for the massive and immediate reform of our basic education sector. After all, no amount of retrofitting can make up for a weak foundation.

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