The Philippines is an archipelagic country of over 7,000 islands and has a population of over 106 million. Like its geography, the Philippines’ population is demographically diverse with various ethnic groups and languages, of which the two largest are Tagalog and Visayan. Though declaring independence in 1946, the legacy of its long history of colonialism under Spanish and American rule has left a substantial imprint on its society; officially a secular state, the Philippines has the largest Christian population in Southeast Asia, and English is widely spoken as a second language of business and education, and is the main medium of instruction in all HEIs. The inception of formal education in the Philippines started under Spanish rule by different orders of the Catholic Church, and schools and HEIs with religious affiliations remain significant in higher education. The Philippine economy is also dependent on its sizeable demographic of overseas workers employed around the world, many of whom are trained in colleges and TVETs for the medical and hospitality industries. In 2019, Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) broke a new record by annually remitting a total of USD33.5 billion,1 contributing approximately 9% to the country’s GDP.
In 1994, the Philippines passed the Higher Education Act, which established the Commission on Higher Education (CHED), the main government agency overseeing higher education. Technical and vocational schools are managed separately by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA). While the CHED solely manages most of the higher education field, around 88% of HEIs in the Philippines are private, making the CHED an agency primarily one for regulating and granting status to HEIs. In practice, private school associations develop their own curricula and maintain their own accreditation practices. Funding and autonomy are granted to HEIs that gain additional accreditation through independent organisations within the Federation of Accrediting Agencies of the Philippines (FAAP). Private institutions that meet certain levels of accreditation through organisations affiliated with FAAP can apply for autonomous status from the CHED and operate outside of state-controlled curricula and standards.2 From the early 2000s, systematic accreditation of private institutions by the CHED with the help of independent accrediting agencies has been crucial to training large numbers of OFWs for overseas employment, showing that private, for-profit HEIs in the Philippines play a key role in the government’s economic policy.3
The Philippine higher education system is composed of several types of institutions: state university colleges, which are publicly managed and subsidised, and host the largest proportion of overall students; local colleges and universities, which are managed by local governments; other publicly funded HEIs; and private HEIs, which compose the vast majority of HEIs in the country. Although private HEIs are not officially differentiated by size or discipline, the vast majority of them provide Bachelor’s level degrees and enrol more students than state university colleges, and local colleges and universities combined. There were a total of 1,943 HEIs in the Philippines in 2018, which is approximately 10 times the number in neighbouring countries, like Indonesia or Thailand.4 However, the quality of many of these institutions in an ongoing concern as many are not directly regulated by the CHED. Enrolment in the private higher education sector has shown the largest proportion of growth, with only one third of total enrolment in 2001, compared with 42% in 2011.
Overall enrolment in Philippine HEIs is substantial, at 3,590,000 students in 2016, a massive 40% expansion compared to 2006. However, enrolment suffered in the years following 2010, when the Department of Education overhauled the standard years of basic education to 12 years instead of 10, which artificially shrank university enrolment.5 Enrolment in TVET institutions predominantly consists of younger age groups, with 61% of graduates in 2012 being 15-24 years old6. The country’s demographic structure, ongoing economic growth and continued demand for labour from overseas are expected to be supportive to higher education demand more generally. While the Philippines has a plethora of institutions and growing enrolment, it suffers from a lack of accredited programmes and an established research culture, with only four institutions appearing in international rankings. The most popular majors of study are overwhelmingly business administration and education and teacher training, which compose a combined 46.3% of total enrolment, compared to engineering and technology, which only make up 12.5%.7
National Development Initiatives
In 2017, the Philippine central government under the Rodrigo Duterte administration created the “AmBisyon Natin 2040”, a long-term, multi-faceted development agenda aiming to bring the Philippines to upper-middle income status by 2040. The first phase of the vision manifested in the Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022, one pillar of which is development of human capital, which has direct implications for Philippine higher education. Also in 2017, the government passed the Universal Access To Quality Tertiary Education Act (aka Republic Act 10931), a ground-breaking policy reform that encompasses four actions:
1) Providing free tuition for students in state university colleges and recognised local colleges and universities.
2) Free tuition for public and private TVET institutions registered with TESDA.
3) Grants for low-income students in public and private institutions.
4) A new student loan programme for tertiary students.
To implement the Republic Act 10931, the government formed the Unified Student Financial Assistance System for Tertiary Education (UNIFAST), which initiated reforms in 2018, resulting in 900,000 state university college students being relieved from tuition expenses in 2018-20198. The entire programme required an investment by the government of PHP40 billion, most of which went to tuition waivers for state university colleges and subsidies for TVETS. In 2020, the government maintained and expanded the programme, and increased spending by over 10% to PHP44.2 billion.9
A unique feature of the government’s push for equitable access is that UNIFAST also provides subsidies for students in private TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) institutions that have received accreditation as well as for students in need who are enrolled in private HEIs.
Government spending on education has grown in recent years. In the Philippine 2020 national budget, the Department of Education, along with the CHED and TESDA received a larger proportion of the government’s budget than any other agency, at PHP692.6 billion.10 Education administrators have displayed a preference for improving quality and facilities of state university colleges, allotting them the largest percentage of the total education budget of PHP77.4 billion. To meet the government’s aim of increasing access to tertiary education through the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act, CHED was granted within their budget PHP7.1 billion for scholarships, grants, student support and other financial assistance.11
Regarding internationalisation, although the Phili-ppines is behind some of its ASEAN neighbours in terms of international student recruitment, its institutions bank on its image as a provider of English-medium education, attracting non-English-speaking Asian students who seek affordable English instruction. In 2012, the Philippines had 24,000 students from South Korea studying English, compared with only 5,000 in 2005.12 Though the number of Korean students enrolled in degree programmes is significantly smaller, at 1,200 in 2017, the growing popularity of English-language courses coupled with increasing quality of degree programmes are supportive for universities to attract more international students. Overall, in 2017, the Philippines hosted 12,946 international students for undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, the majority of them from India, China, South Korea and Nigeria.13
Compared with other countries in the region, the process of applying for student visas and visas for foreign staff is relatively lengthy in the Philippines, requiring documents to pass through the CHED, immigration and foreign affairs departments in addition to Philippine overseas offices. High levels of bureaucracy act as a continued challenge to the Philippines developing itself as a higher education destination. Currently, foreign HEIs are unable to operate in the Philippines without a local partner who maintains at least 60% ownership, although some Philippine HEIs have created programmes within foreign institutions in the region.14
In March 2020, the Philippine government implemented a series of lockdowns in Metro Manila, the entire island of Luzon and throughout the country following the expansion of the COVID-19 pandemic. Regulations on movement significantly impacted the country’s higher education system. The nation’s leading universities, and particularly ones integrated in the ASEAN University Network, were the ones that most successfully coped with new restrictions, utilising work-from-home models and cloud software to switch to online teaching and allowing students to access course materials and join lectures via smartphones to accommodate those who lack internet connectivity at home. Universities have also been instrumental in developing locally made COVID-19 diagnostic kits and other healthcare equipment to reduce reliance on more costly foreign imports.15
Zane Kheir recently graduated with a PhD in Comparative Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.
National Reintegration Center for OFWs, “Remittances Hit All-Time High of $33.5B in 2019”, accessed January 29, 2021, http://nrco.dole.gov.ph/index.php/announcement/378-remittances-hit-all-time-high-of-33-5b-in-2019.
Yasmin Y. Ortiga, Routledge Critical Studies in Asian Education — Emigration, Employability and Higher Education in the Philippines (New York: Routledge, 2017).
National Economic and Development Authority, “Philippine Development Plan 2017–2022”, Chapter 10, October 3, 2017, https://www.neda.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/10-Chapter-10-Accelerating-Human-Capital-Development-1.14.2019.pdf.
QAA, Country Report: The Republic of the Philippines (Gloucester: The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, 2018).
National Economic and Development Authority, “Philippine Development Plan 2017–2022”.
The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, “QAA, Country Report: The Republic of the Philippines”, 2018.
UniFast, “Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act”, accessed January 29, 2021, https://unifast.gov.ph/uniqtea.php.
Jovee Marie de la Cruz, “P44 billion in CHED Budget for Universal Access”, September 17, 2020, https://businessmirror.com.ph/2020/09/17/p44-billion-in-ched-budget-for-universal-access/.
The Philippine Department of Budget and Management, “2020 National Budget: Continuing the Journey to a More Peaceful and Progressive Philippines”, 2020, https://www.dbm.gov.ph/images/pdffiles/2020_Quick_Glance_FINAL_v1.pdf.
Javier Joe Ismael, “Education has Biggest Slice of 2020 Budget”, Manila Times, December 27, 2019, https://www.manilatimes.net/2019/12/27/news/top-stories/education-has-biggest-slice-of-2020-budget/667937/.
British Council, “Opportunities and Challenges in the Internationalisation of Philippine Higher Education Sector”, 2015.
Philippine Bureau of Immigration, “Statistics for Foreign Students in the Philippines”, 2018.
British Council, “Opportunities and Challenges in the Internationalisation of the Philippine Higher Education Sector”, 2015.
Nymia Pimentel Simbulan, “The Philippines — COVID-19 and Its Impact on Higher Education in the Philippines”, HESB 8, June 4, 2020, https://headfoundation.org/HESB8/covid-19-and-its-impact-on-higher-education-in-the-philippines/.