Philippines K-12 Reforms Poised to Transform Higher Education System

This month, a wave of Filipino teens will become the first students required to complete grades 11 and 12. As such, they are at the leading age of a major education reform effort that will bring the Philippines primary and secondary education systems into alignment with international norms. While aimed at the K-12 sector, the reforms are expected to dramatically affect the nation’s higher education system – and potentially Filipino students’ international mobility – as well.

Between the Kindergarten Act of 2012 [2] and the Enhanced Basic Education Act of 2013 [3], both elementary and high school systems in the Philippines have undergone an ambitious overhaul in recent years. Together, the two laws extend formal education from just 10 years to 13, adding a mandatory year of kindergarten to the elementary curriculum, and extending high school through 12th grade. (Until 2011, kindergarten was optional, and just six years of primary education were compulsory.)

Popular Reaction

While the government hopes that the changes to the K-12 education system will leave its students better equipped for employment and further study, the effort has been widely critiqued by Filipino students, parents, teachers, and others. Fear of financial hardship is at the heart of many the concerns. Some parents, for instance, oppose the reforms because the cost of keeping children in school and out of the workforce for two additional years will be a financial strain. The Philippine Supreme Court received at least six petitions seeking to block or delay the reforms. One petition argued that more than 70,000 staff at colleges would lose their jobs as a result of the changes. Others point to inadequate staffing levels and classroom space, insufficient attention to the curriculum, and even to school buildings that lack electricity and a water supply. The Court has rejected these arguments, however, and in March 2016 refused to issue a restraining order or writ of preliminary injunction.

by Rachel Michael, Area Specialist, WES

Chain Reaction

Changes to the education system are intended to better equip students for employment and further study, both at home and abroad. However, one consequence is the major and ongoing ripple effect they will have on colleges and universities. In particular, the reforms will spark a precipitous decline in higher education enrollments during the 2019/20 and 2020/21 school years, as the cohort of students who would typically enroll show up on campus instead continue on in senior high school. Despite the fact that numbers should recover the following year, the prospect has created widespread concern among university faculty, who, last year emerged as “leading voices of opposition,” said The New York Times [4]. “Many are concerned that moving classes for 17- and 18-year-olds from universities to high schools will result in the firing of at least 25,000 university employees,” the paper noted. (The government argues that this lower figure, not the higher one cited in widely circulated petitions protesting the reforms, is correct.)

An infographic showing the impact of the K-12 reforms on higher education enrollment between 2017/18 and 2021/22 [5]

The move to add two years of advanced studies to high school has also forced revisions to curricula at the tertiary level. Required credits for the entry-level General Education curriculum, for instance, have been cut by almost half, from 64 to 36. The move has further amplified job-related concerns among faculty responsible for teaching entry level courses. The Filipino Commission on Higher Education [6], which is tasked with ensuring the quality of the tertiary sector aligns to international standards, has moved to counter these concerns, putting in place several programs aimed at helping faculty navigate the transition, while also enhancing the overall quality of research and scholarship within HEIs. Such programs include the creation of development grants available to both institutions and individuals, and of a scholarship program that will provide affected faculty with 8,000 scholarships to study at the master’s degrees and another 7,000 at the doctoral level.

Anticipated Impact on Student Mobility

With a median age of just over 23 years [7] and one of the fastest-growing Asian economies in recent years, the Philippines is predicted to be a major source of international students by 2035 [8]. In fact, Filipino students have been increasingly outward focused since the start of the new millennium. According to the most recent UNESCO Institute for Statistics data available [9], approximately 12,000 students from the Philippines studied at foreign institutions in 2013, almost double the figure for 2002. Most [10] of those students are self-funded. Key host countries include the U.S. and Australia (which account for approximately a quarter of enrollments among Filipinos enrolled abroad at the tertiary level), followed by Saudi Arabia, Japan, and New Zealand.

How will current reforms affect those trends? The most likely outcome is an increase in outbound rates. The changes address a major systemic limitation on graduates from the Philippines who want to pursue advanced studies abroad: the two year deficit of academic achievement at the secondary level, which had to be made up for in college. “Many baccalaureate degrees earned in local HEIs are considered to be equivalent to only two years of college work in other countries,” noted one 2013 UNESCO report [11]. “Hence, baccalaureate graduates wanting to enroll for graduate studies in the said countries have to take back-subjects before qualifying for admission to post-baccalaureate programs.” The addition of two additional years of high school, together with reforms to the higher ed curriculum, directly address that problem.

Moreover, in terms of sheer numbers, there is ample room for growth in outbound enrollments. In fact, the number of Filipino students at universities abroad currently represents less than one percent [11] of those enrolled in Filipino institutions. Just where those students might choose to go, of course, remains an open question.

Will the U.S. be a Key Destination?

In 1903, 100 students left the Philippines, then a colony of the United States, to study for four years at selected colleges and universities across the U.S. The event signaled the start of a diaspora [12], composed of both workers and students, which eventually led millions of Filipinos to settle in the U.S. Today, the Philippines remains the fourth largest supplier of immigrants to the U.S., behind Mexico, China, and India. In years past, outbound Filipino students have, by a sizeable majority, opted to join this larger community of Filipino immigrants at least for the duration of their enrollments.

But in recent years, the U.S. has seen its pull on such students diminish. In fact, the 2014/15 academic year saw the number of Filipino students at post-secondary institutions in the U.S. fall almost 3 percent [13] (to 3,026) from the previous year’s total. Meanwhile, other countries saw a significant uptick in enrollments during the same time timeframe. New Zealand reported 1,995 Filipino international student enrollments in 2014, up 68 percent from 2013. Australia, meanwhile, saw enrollments of students from the Philippines (in both the higher education and vocational sectors) rise by 21 percent. Canada has likewise emerged as a more prominent destination, with some 2,003 students from the Philippines enrolled at Canadian institution [14] in 2013, up 22 percent over the previous year.

In terms of recruitment potential, short term change is unlikely as current reforms (and the upheaval they’ve caused) play out. However, as the Philippines aligns its once-truncated K-12 education system with global education standards, the region will begin to produce more qualified tertiary level students, moving into position as a key region to watch.