[Opinion] The privatization of education

Victor graduated from a public high school in the province. He is now on his freshmen year taking up a bachelor’s degree in a private university in the city.

Victor went into the process of application in a state university yet he was unable to make it within the quota set by a state university in spite of the fact that he passed the examinations. Although the circumstances puts his parents in a dilemma, they have no other option but to enroll Victor in a private university wherein the tuition fee is expensive.

Many Filipino parents confronts a similar problem every time their children goes up to higher level of education. This continuing problem provides the reason why we continue to witness rejections on tuition fee hike and privatization of our state universities.

The students of my generation are now parents themselves and by this time they find it unreasonable the continuing rise on the cost of education.

There are two pronounced trends that has unfolded in the Philippine educational system since the restoration of democracy in 1986. First, the mounting ‘social debt’ incurred by the Philippines Government to education and to the youth of our nation. Second, the increasing relinquishment by the Philippine Government of its basic duty to provide education to its citizens to private and corporate business.

The concept of social debt was developed by the Freedom from Debt Coalition. This is a relatively new concept to many of us yet this is in recognition of the historical fact that the country’s historical debt burdens and continuing debt dependence have stood in the way of the Filipino people’s development and well-being. The Philippine Government continues to uphold a law on automatic appropriations for debt service which prioritized debt payments over other public expenditures, including such vital public services as education, health and housing.

Social debt is defined by FDC as “the State’s unfulfilled obligations to its citizens, which can be approximated from the State’s commitments in its Constitution and its laws, the socio-economic targets set by all previous development programs and plans, and the international standards set by the United Nations and other international covenants.”

To measure the social debt to education, FDC used the UNESCO recommendation of at least 6-percent of the country’s Gross National Product (GNP) for public spending on education which government expenditure cannot sink without serious consequences for fulfilling, protecting and realizing the human right to education and the universally shared aspiration of quality education for all.

Part of the measurement likewise includes all the unfulfilled commitments the Philippine Government made to education in its series of Medium Term Philippine Development Plans since 1986, other national policies and the promise of the 1987 constitution of universal secondary education for all Filipinos.

The research undertaken by FDC, however, reveals the telling impact of a consistently low level of public spending on education. Since 1996, when the Delors Commission submitted its recommendations to UNESCO pegging its benchmark for public expenditure to education at 6-percent of GNP, the Philippine government’s “Education Debt” to all Filipino youth, students and teachers accumulated to roughly around P 3.763 Trillion.

Despite the declaration in the Constitution that education shall be the budgetary priority of the State, from 1986-1996 and 2000-2012, interest payments to debt exceeded education spending. In 2012, budget for principal and interest payments totalled to P739 billion, considered three-fold compared to that for education which was only P224.9 billion.

For 2013, earmarked education spending is even lower than 15.03-percent post-EDSA  post-EDSA administrations’ average (1986-2012), a meager 14.97% of the national budget.

In fact, of the ASEAN-6: Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam; the Philippines has the lowest education spending in proportion to the total budget. Except Singapore, as percentage of GDP, and per student, as percentage of GDP per capita, according to UNESCO and World Bank data. Further, the country’s spending level which is 2.7-percent of GDP is below the East Asian regional average of 3.6-percent and South Asia’s average of 3.8-percent of GDP.

While we note the Aquino administration’s efforts to increase the education budget, we lament that these are not enough. The public education expenditure of 2.2-percent of GNP in 2012 is a far cry from the UNESCO’s international benchmark of 6-percent of GNP.

The mounting social debt has been the trend and it has gained strength especially during the last 10-years. This is a result of the increasing relinquishment by the Philippine Government of its basic duty to provide education for our people, especially the youth to private business or big corporate interests in the country.

The privatization or corporatization of Philippine education is evident in government’s program, such as; the Government Assistance to Students and Teachers in Private Education (GASTPE), Private-Public Partnerships, weak regulation over private schools as manifested by brazen tuition and other fee increases through the years, decentralization of public school management which encourages the entry of private business, and the continuing tax privileges to Catholic schools and other schools.

For one, through the Education Service Contracting (ESC) and Education Voucher System (EVS) programs under GASTPE, government “contracts” out the excess capacities of private high schools through subsidies of the tuition of students who enroll in private high schools in lieu of public high schools that can no longer accommodate them. An amount of P10,500 is allocated for each student in the GASTPE program in the National Capital Region while P6,000 is allocated to each student in other regions. According to DepEd, there are a total of 637,794 ESC grantees while EVS has 59,914 for a total of 697,708 beneficiaries enrolled in 2,580 participating schools nationwide to date.

At the surface level, it appears government is merely utilizing the existing resources of private education in its attempt to decongest the public schools. In the words of Education Secretary Armin Luistro, “[they]’ll be happier if [they] have to build fewer classrooms… to save more by giving subsidies instead”.

If we weave this with the unabashed granting of tuition fee hike applications of more than 600 schools, colleges and other educational institutions for this school year alone, and with the remorseful National Achievement Test performance of students of private schools compared to that of public schools (which, by itself, is already deplorable), government’s underlying policy becomes clear.

The Philippine State has no intention of owning up to its constitutional obligation to ensure access of all to quality education at all levels. Thus, it looks to the direction of private business. However, capital dictates that its investments have to gain profit. To guarantee this return, for decades, government used and continues to use tax payer’s money (through GASTPE) and increasing out-of-the pocket expenses of households (through tuition fee hikes) to subsidize the private business in education, without regard on the real cost and on the outcome of the program as long as government can say it was able to send this number of kids to school.

There seems to be no stopping for DepEd, as for this school year, no less than the Education Secretary boasts that its budget for the program has increased to a whopping P7 billion, for a million grantees, and says that they plan to send more students to private school, particularly a third of the expected one million students who will be entering senior high school in 2016.

Increasing private or corporate business incursions into Philippine education has been consistently justified by the Philippine government on grounds that it lacks the money or the fiscal capacity to respond to the expanding needs of Philippine education.  But public budgeting is basically a question of priority.  Philippine budgets over the decades do not show education as a central priority of the government.

Why? Since the late 1980s, successive Philippine governments from Cory Aquino to Ramos to Estrada to Macapagal-Arroyo and now under P-Noy have adopted the neo-liberal development model which has been imposed globally by global capitalist powers led by the United States government and by the International Finance Institutions. This development model assigns the main role in promoting economic growth to the corporate sector and even concedes to this sector an increasingly alarming space in the delivery of vital public goods/services like education. This model looks at education as more of a skills training regimen to prepare our labor force for the available jobs in the market than anything else. In short, education is primarily a commodity.

Farther back is our colonial and post-colonial legacy of an educational philosophy long implanted in our society which assigns to parents or families the main if not the exclusive burden of providing for the education for the young.  Ask any young man or woman today why he or she stops schooling.  The invariable answer is his or her parents cannot afford anymore to send him or her to school.

And yet, it is the State which has the primary responsibility of carrying the main burden of providing education to our people.

Section 1, Article XIV of the 1987 Philippine Constitution provides that “The State shall protect and promote the right of all citizens to quality education at all levels and shall take appropriate steps to make such education accessible to all.” Sec 5(5), Article XIV further says that “The State shall assign the highest budgetary priority to education and ensure that teaching will attract and retain its rightful share of the best available talents through adequate remuneration and other means of job satisfaction and fulfillment.” This is so and must be so because education is not only for developing skills for jobs offered by markets but more importantly for the total human development of its citizens and the inculcation of citizenship values geared towards national development and a just society in our country and the world.

The social debt is the flip side of decades of Philippine indebtedness to international financing institutions like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other bilateral sources. The IFI and bilateral debts have been granted on condition that the Philippines adopt policies like liberalization, privatization and deregulation with onerous terms of payment.

To make sure that the Philippine government will pay, automatic appropriations for debt service has been adopted as a law first by Marcos and extended by Cory Aquino. This has greatly provided limitation on the ability of the Philippine government to spend for basic services for the people like education.

The biggest challenge of Philippine education is to bring education in the center of State priorities and to assert the central role of the State in providing education to our people.

The first step is to increase to 6-percent of GNP its annual budget for education. This can be done by repealing the automatic appropriation for debt service law and by a set of progressive taxation to raise more revenues for education.

The other important step is to stop the trend of allowing more private corporate incursions into our education sector. Stopping private sector intervention into our education sector will be a step for our government to gradually reclaim its obligation of providing education a primary obligation by the State. It will likewise transform our education from a money-making effort into a genuine service to people by the State.

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