Drug issues suck national energy

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Marlen V. Ronquillo

An education issue managed to get a rare, prominent break into the tight news pages of the major dailies a few days back. It was about the tough act of getting into the University of the Philippines, the country’s premier university. Some 80,000 hopefuls took the entrance exams across the country, and 30,000 of them crammed into the main campus in Diliman. Acceptance for the whole system will reportedly be at 15 percent and only less than 4,000 will gain entry into the Diliman flagship campus.

Were it not for the blood, sweat and tears related to getting an acceptance, it would have been a non-story.

To break into the news pages crammed with Marawi City and drug-related stories was truly a rare feat for the long-obscured stories about Philippine education. The “new normal” on reportage is a third-priority play on education issues, supposedly the number one priority of the state and public policy. That education is sacrosanct and that is even enshrined in the Constitution, does not even factor in. And there is no tradition to back up the third class treatment of education issues. During my early reporting days, our education beat reporter, Cas Mayor, filed Page One stories on a daily basis.

There are many reasons behind the obscured, downgraded status of education in the national conversation. Education, in every society, is supposed to be a life-changer and a game-changer. Nothing of that reverential attitude toward education is current in the country. In every occasion Philippine education pops up, one description comes to mind – a sustained lurch to mediocrity.

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I will not roll out massive data to prove the point. In an age of trolls, data and facts do not make up for persuasive arguments. The “truth” is made up of the wicked, devious, bizarre verities concocted in their alternate universe. So I will just tell a story about two universities in the Asean, and that is just timely as the 31st summit of the regional grouping will take place in Manila next month: Chulalongkorn University, the premier, public research university of Thailand (it has been that country’s Number One university for quite a long time) and our own UP, which has never been dislodged from its premier standing in the country’s university system.

A few decades back, UP was several notches higher than Chulalongkorn in the global and Asian university rankings. In those years that the Philippines was an Asian powerhouse, the status of UP was what Chulalongkorn aspired for. In those exalted years of Philippine education, you would often see Chulalongkorn undergrads shifting to UPLB whenever possible. Or finishing their BS at Chulalongkorn and taking up graduate studies in agronomy, animal health at UPLB.

We are talking of UP Los Baños here, not even the flagship campus.

Today, the often-played “compare” stories about Thailand and the Philippines have been about Thailand’s seemingly unlimited capacity to dump on us their Made-in-Thailand products. Thailand has been flooding us with all sorts of goods. From their stiff-riding SUVs and pickup trucks (It is now the Detroit of Asia, remember while we are assembling those wobbly, dangerous bantam cars made of de lata) to their disposable rice surplus. Up to their toyo and patis. Up to their lanzones and atis.

But the greater embarrassment lies elsewhere. It is on the reversed fate of Chulalongkorn and UP. In the latest QS World University Survey ranking, Chulalongkorn was the 252nd best university in the world, a part of the 300 best universities.

UP was about 100 notches lower at 367th. Worse, CU, as the university is known, is posed to fulfill its dream of getting into the list of elite Asian universities, while UP appears to be deteriorating in all fronts. Take note that even all the political chaos in Thailand, the never-ending struggle for power between its “reds”—which make up the Thaksin camp—and the “yellows“—which make up the establishment camp – has not slowed down the rise of Chulalongkorn University.

It was not a case of a mere “simple twist of fate.” As Philippine education marched to its dream goal of attaining mediocrity, its university system began its decline into the abyss.

How about basic education? The figures will make us weep.

The figures say that one in six school-age-children does not get the most basic of education. The enrolment rate for secondary education is only 59 percent, a global embarrassment.

Close to 10 million kids in the public school system suffer from varying forms of malnourishment. The scrapping of the pork barrel system made the problem worse, as the congressional pork barrel, whether we admit it or not, was a prodigious provider of supplemental feeding in public schools with high rates of malnutrition.

NGOs working on education concerns admit that education issues are at the “back burner” and without state attention to the needs of education, we are guaranteed of the steady and perhaps, irreversible, slide to mediocrity. Right now, borrowing from Jack Ma’s immortal words on the state of the country’s internet, we can candidly say that the state of PH education is “ No good.”

Right now, with the war on drugs sucking up national energy and attention, education, the state priority according to the Constitution, will not get the priority attention that it deserves. And with it will be the dumbing-down of an entire country.

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