Faded glory

Photo credit: Alfredo Camba Jr.

Written by Ana Marie Pamintuan, Philippine Star

Many summers ago when my father was still alive, our family visited relatives in Los Baños, Laguna.

My mother proudly told us that her cousin-in-law, a professor at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños, was part of the team that developed the so-called “Miracle Rice” at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

The Miracle Rice, or rice variety IR8, had a yield of 9.5 to 10.5 tons per hectare when it was first introduced in the 1960s. With average global rice yield at the time standing at only two tons per hectare, Miracle Rice was credited with helping avert famine in Asia.

My uncle-in-law has since joined his Maker, and Miracle Rice now produces only a maximum of eight tons per hectare. Based on preliminary studies, IRRI researchers attribute a 15 percent drop in the average yield of Miracle Rice to global warming – hotter nights and air pollution.

IRRI remains one of the world’s top research centers for agriculture. American colonizers in the previous century, recognizing the Philippines’ rich biodiversity, turned the country into a center for cutting-edge research and development in the natural sciences. That tradition of excellence lives on in the IRRI.

Sadly for the UP system, the tradition appears to be weakening – that is, if the results of surveys on institutions of higher learning around the world are reliable.

* * *

Last year UP and other top Philippine universities saw their rankings slip in the annual survey on higher education institutions around the world. The survey was started in 2004 by the London-based education and career company Quacquarelli Symonds. QS provides information on education abroad. After its 2009 survey came out, QS partner the Times Higher Education or THE broke away over methodology. In 2010, THE came up with its own World University Rankings.

Last week THE released its rankings for 2011-2012, with not a single Philippine university making it to the top 300 in the world.

California Institute of Technology topped the list with a score of 94.8 percent in five headline categories, on the learning environment, research, citations, industry income and innovation, and international outlook in terms of staff, students and research. Below CalTech were Harvard University, Stanford, Oxford, Princeton, University of Cambridge, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Imperial College of London, University of Chicago and University of California-Berkeley.

I’m sure the ranking has its critics particularly in countries where English is not the first language. Even among US and British universities, the methodologies of both QS and THE have been questioned, with basic factual errors noted in the studies.

Philippine educators may also complain, were it not for the fact that even among the Asian universities that were included in the top 100 in the latest THE survey, no Philippine institution of higher learning made it.

At the top among the Asian universities, at No. 30, is the University of Tokyo, followed by the University of Hong Kong at No. 34 and National University of Singapore at No. 40. The others in the top 100 are universities in China, Japan and South Korea.

Singaporeans, practical and realistic about their strengths and weaknesses, have allowed top-rated universities such as Harvard to set up extension facilities or link up with local higher learning institutions in the city-state. The move, I was told by Singaporean diplomats, is meant not only to offer their citizens world-class education at more affordable costs than if they have to study overseas; it is also meant to turn the city-state into a regional center for education.

* * *

A regional center of learning was what the Philippines used to be, before our English proficiency gave way to show biz Taglish and public schools started giving equal grading weight to physical education, mathematics and science.

As our neighbors left us behind in economic prosperity, they invested more in public education. In our case, economic hardships drove many of our best teachers to find better paying jobs overseas, with some of them working as maids. Funding limitations and the absence of an effective family planning program led to a booming student population with no corresponding increase in school facilities.

Today our overworked and underpaid teachers – the ones who have not yet shifted to cooking and left the country – have to work two to three shifts a day. Even then the average class size is still far from ideal for a teacher to attend to every student’s educational needs. The average public school class also suffers from an acute lack of textbooks and modern tools of learning such as computers.

Countries such as China are working to bring quality education to their masses, aware of its importance in national competitiveness. Education is supposed to level the playing field and open opportunities for liberation from poverty.

Today, however, quality education has become a luxury for millions of Filipinos. Only the children of those belonging to that tiny fraction of the population that controls the nation’s power and wealth are the ones who can study in those expensive, top-rated universities abroad. That edge perpetuates their privileged position in the nation’s scheme of things.

Children of the middle class can afford to attend local private schools. For individuals like me who were born and bred in the bowels of Manila’s rough Tondo district, UP offers a chance to obtain quality education at subsidized rates.

Today I’m still rough and uncultured, unable to appreciate fine wine and Italian opera, but I like to think UP otherwise gave me a good education.

It is with deep disappointment that we read about the progressive fall of Philippine universities in international surveys on the quality of services. The rankings may be unfair and the results not entirely reliable, but why are those Asian universities rated way ahead of those in the Philippines?

As in many other aspects of development, the Philippines may not actually be deteriorating in terms of quality of education. But we’re being left behind as other countries strive for world-class excellence in their centers of learning.

All we’re left with are recollections of past glories.

[The writer was born and grew up in Tondo. A graduate of the UP College of Mass Communication,  she is currently editor-in-chief of the Philippine Star.  Read the original article here.]

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