Philippine tertiary education used to be dominated by family-owned universities. Sure, the state and the religious orders build and operate tertiary schools. But that is in accordance with a global mandate. From the Jesuits to the Dominicans, running schools was part—and still is part—of a universal mission. The state has the same obligation, raised to a level of excellence by the UC (University of California ) system and some land grant universities in the US.
The axis of tertiary education in the Philippines used to be this: State, Religious Orders, Families running universities.
During its heyday in the 70s, the family-run University of the East had an enrollment that was more than the student population of the Ohio State University. It was the largest school in the so-called U-Belt, a packed territory from Mendiola—Sampaloc to Morayta—Espana that was crammed with universities and student housing.
That the first bloody confrontation of the First Quarter Storm took place in the U-Belt area was no fluke of history. The U-Belt students, mostly from low-income families, easily identified with the causes of the FQS, and made up a mass that was ripe for enlistment in causes that were in search of egalitarianism. Physically, the dark, narrow alleys of the U-Belt provided the ideal cover for the student protesters to rest the wounded and rush the manufacture of their Molotov bombs.
The U-Belt has never lived up to the Wilsonian (Woodrow) ideal of a campus—isolated from the rest of the world via vast and remote campuses exclusively dedicated to training young minds and future leaders. The U-Belt, crammed with tertiary schools owned by families, and co-existing with run-down dorms and retail shops, was more engaged.
These days, one who is fully aware of the glory of the family-owned tertiary schools cannot let the night pass without saying a prayer for the family-owned schools, from the ancient ones to newer ones such as the Manila Times College. You pray for their survival and viability—viable to a point that they will resist offers from large corporations that are forever on the lookout for colleges and universities to acquire.
You pray that they stay in the hands of the families that founded them. Today, there is a sense of urgency to such prayers. I will explain why.
The New San Jose Builders, a giant construction and real estate company that is politically well-connected, was recently in the news for acquiring – 100 percent according to the report – the university that trained Bert Romulo and Bobby Tañada in law and Obet Pagdanganan in engineering. Lawyers trained by the Manuel Luis Quezon University (MLQU) were once the most erudite members of the High Court, writing elegantly-written Supreme Court decisions.
What convinced the family that owned it to sell its university to a construction company that built the so-called Home along the Riles is something we cannot divine. Whatever the reason was, it was not for the good of Philippine tertiary education. Was the financial status so depressing that there was no other option but to sell to a construction company?
The construction company‘s acquisition of MLQU was motivated by two things: join the superrich who have been busy snapping schools and the profit to be had for running schools like corporations.
It was the precarious financial condition of the Philippine Women’s University (PWU) that apparently led the Benitez family to seek financial help from the owners of the STI group. Now, the STI Group, which has diverse corporate interests, is calling the Benitez family to surrender the university’s ownership to the Group. There is a legal case but we all know how such things would play out. At some point, under terms that can be easily arranged by the financial muscle of the STI, the family has to raise the flag of surrender.
The last report on the PWU was STI’s takeover of the Taft-based university. The Benitez family is contesting the takeover. But given the muscle of the STI and the financial challenges of the Benitezes, the legal protest is just like a whistle in the dark.
Ok, here is the list. The Lucio Tan Group now owns the UE. The wealthiest family in the country, the Sys, owns National University, which trained Fidel Ramos in engineering and former heads of the Department of Public Works and Highways. The Centro Escolar University is now owned by the family of the late Don Emilio Yap. Mapua University, our own version of the MIT, is now owned by the RCBC-Malayan Insurance Group.
A small Central Luzon university based in Nueva Ecija, the Araullo University, is now owned by the Del Rosarios.
The MLQU and the PWU are the most recent addition to the schools that have been passed on by families to corporate owners.
For sure, they will not be the last. Corporations with an eye on the balance sheet and trophy acquisitions are on the prowl for family-owned, independently-run universities. And from every angle and benchmark, this does not augur well for Philippine tertiary education.