Aligning education with an uneven labor market

The Philippine legislature has been debating “education reforms” for nearly three decades.

In 1992, Congress came up with an Education Commission (EDCOM) report, which detailed the weaknesses of the educational system in relation to the economic performance of the country.  Among its major findings: limited access to education of a large part of the population; inadequate investments on the teachers and facilities of the primary educational institutions, which account for a low rate of functional literacy among the elementary and high school graduates; and lack of curriculum upgrading, industry coordination and market focus in the case of both the tertiary and technical-vocational institutions, resulting in mismatches and poor placement records for graduates.

One positive outcome from the foregoing EDCOM report is the rising budgetary allocations for education through the years. However, a complex and confusing outcome is the legislated  “trifocalization” of the educational system with the creation of the following agencies – Department of Education (DepEd), Commission on Higher Education (CHED) and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA).

Despite the foregoing reforms, problems in the basic, tertiary and technical-vocational education have persisted, foremost of which are issues related to the inclusion or exclusion of a large number of the unschooled members of society, the missing educational facilities and equipment/materials in poor urban and rural districts, and questions on the quality and relevance of course offerings in many educational institutions.  In particular, the question on whether the educational system is able to 1) empower citizens with the knowledge and skills needed to survive and prosper in the 21st century, and 2) meet the development requirements of a country trying to catch up not only with the West but also with the frontrunners in Asia such as Japan, South Korea, China, Singapore and Malaysia.

Nonetheless, the government, under various Administrations, keeps investing on education.  Thus, the continuing rise in budgetary allocations for education due to expenditures on free basic education, training vouchers for TESDA-accredited institutions, free tuition in state universities and colleges, more school buildings and better education facilities and equipment.

However, the most significant measure was the institutionalization of the K-12 program, which divided the politicians as well as teachers, parents and students in 2014-2016.   The process was difficult and complex because the proponents had to overcome complex transition challenges such as the placement/displacement of some faculty at the senior high level and at the lower level of college as well as orient/re-orient the parents, students and other stakeholders on how the program would be implemented.

The main rationale given by the K-12 proponents is that the reform aligns the country’s educational system with the world’s quality standards for basic education.  Accordingly, it enhances the employability of the graduates as well as their readiness to pursue higher education for those entering college.

Will the K-12 program deliver these promises?  We shall know the concrete answers from those graduating in 2018 and thereafter.   But one thing is clear: matching the K-12 graduates with the labor market will not be easy and smooth.  The high unemployment rates among high school graduates are likely to persist before they are reduced.  Job search for quality jobs is a long process and usually involves a succession of low-quality short-term job stints.  For those in a hurry to get jobs, they are likely to end up either in the “endo” labor market or in the large unprotected informal sector.

This brings us to a major challenge for education planners – how to design and develop the curriculum in relation to the requirements of a highly uneven and complex labor market.  The Senior High program supposedly provides the opportunity for senior high school students to specialize in one of four tracks: academic, technical-vocational-livelihood, sports or the arts.  The question:  Is there a demand for those with specialization in the four tracks in the different regions of the country?  The four tracks, especially the technical-vocational, may be good in Region III and Region IV, which has huge demand for those with skills in auto and electronics parts manufacture as well as call center/BPO service work.  But in the depressed Caraga Region and war-torn Western Mindanao, how should the four tracks be shaped and be made relevant?

The reality is that the labor market of a very uneven Philippines has become complex, as admitted by a recent study of the Asian Development Bank.  It is made more complex by the overseas labor market and the co-existence of numerous segments of the economy and the labor market.  In the past, economic planners simply reduced the development task for the country into a question of how to transform an inward-looking (ISI) or protectionist economy into an outward-looking or export-oriented (EOI) one.  The idea is that like the neighboring Asian tigers such as Japan and South Korea, the Philippines would become a modern industrialized country exporting goods to the world.  These countries invested a lot on the education and development of a skilled industrial work force.

The problem is that the Philippine ISI-to-EOI transformation did not materialize.  Instead, the country has become dependent on overseas Filipino remittances and earnings from the call center/BPO sector, while a large majority of the workers at home have become part of  the huge informal sector and an “informalizing” formal labor market.

How should education planning then be undertaken, especially at the basic education level?  There are no easy answers.  But one good practice being done all over the world is close and continuing consultation and coordination between and among government (both national and local), industry, civil society and academic institutions.  Given the segmentation of the economy and the labor market at the national and regional/local levels, there is also clear need for such consultation-coordination be pursued on a sectoral and area basis because different regions have their priority development needs, which should be reflected in the educational plans and curricular changes of the regions.  In this regard, we can all learn from Panglao, Bohol, a premier tourist destination.  Panglao’s hotel and restaurant operators have opened their facilities as workplace classrooms for senior high students.

****

The point is that the education and human resource development agenda for every region should be a product of multi-stakeholder consensus and should have the commitment of all the sectors.