The illusion and tragedy of our educational system

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A week before school opening, our “live-out” domestic help requested her month’s salary in advance. She needs to pay for the school uniforms and other school expenses for her three children, she said. I can’t imagine where she’ll get money for her family’s food that month. I guess she will be borrowing from friends or from the friendly neighborhood “5-6” usurer.

She has been doing this for the last three years since we contracted her, and as far as I can remember, all our house helpers have always borrowed around this time of the year for their children’s expenses. While tuition in public school is free, most of the other expenses for the students are not, including the uniforms, school supplies, lunch money, and transport fare.

Next to food and housing, schooling is the biggest expense for the Filipino poor. It is such a struggle that many of them even ask their children to drop out at some point in primary school—about half of those who enter elementary, according to education department surveys.

It’s very sad, as it means that our poor, their children, and their children’s children are condemned to remain poor under our inequitable system.


For the poor, providing for the education of their children makes up the sole meaning of their lives. They believe that if only they could have a child “na nakapag-kolehiyo” (one who has been to college) they and the rest of their family would be able to live a life out of poverty.
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Unfortunately, this is an illusion. Ask your domestic help or any poor people you know: their parents and grandparents, as far back as they can remember, have been poor.

Today, about 21 million kids from kindergarten, grade school, to high school will rush out to their schools with the dreams of their parents on their back. Some will make it, by dint of luck and hard work. Most, however, are consigned to the fate that goes with an economic and social system that favors the moneyed class.

Passion for education
The Filipinos’ passion to get their children educated is a noble one, at the very least the rational response to an underdeveloped, overpopulated capitalist economy where the laborer’s wage is a commodity, which means that the surplus of laborers reduces that commodity’s price.

For the poor, and for our nation, this is a tragedy. Education for all is an illusion even in, or because of, a capitalist system.

Indeed, two surprise bestsellers in the US, and using mountains of data, Capitalism in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty and The Son Also Rises by Gregory Clark, have demolished the myths of meritocracy and social mobility under capitalism even in the richest nations.

How much worse it is in such a country such as ours, which has been in the tight grip of a rapacious oligarchy that pays so little taxes that the state can’t fully subsidize the poor people’s education?

I extracted data from National Statistics Office’s 2009 Family Income and Expenditures Survey (FIES), the latest that had information on the educational backgrounds of the head of families by income class. I then made the assumption that this predicts the educational level a member of one of our three main socio-economic classes can attain.

That is, it could show the chances of completing school for the children of the poor classes, in contrast to children of the elite.

The class divisions I have constructed are admittedly crude, as our National Census Office has not changed its stratification method since the 1970s, so that the people in the richest stratum are those who earn annual incomes of just P250,000 and more. This means then that a monthly salary of P21,000 – which could be the salary of a clerk in a Makati company–makes the clerk belong to the richest stratum.

Thus, NSO data allows us only to divide Philippine families into three: The poorest or families with a monthly income of less than P8,000, which make up 35% of the population; the poor-to-middle class, 41% of the population or those who earn more than P8,000 but less than P20,000 a month, and the middle-to-upper class or those with income of more than P20,000.

The last class make up 24% of the population, although using data from the 2003 FIES, those earning more than P42,000 a month make up 2% percent of total population, or the real upper class, the elite in our society.

Based on these data, it would be a herculean effort bordering on a miracle for our poor domestic help to get her children to finish college.

Only 1 will finish college
Among the poor, only 1.3 % finished college. An additional 4.5% had gone to college but didn’t finish, as in the case of my domestic help.

The overwhelming majority of the poor, or 94% only have education at the high school level and below, with only 24% finishing elementary.

Translate my calculation to chances for my house-help’s children finishing college, and it’s 1 out of a hundred.

My household help actually has already beaten the odds by having a child in college now. The figures would indicate that the chances are 94 out of 100 that a poor Filipino finishes only high school.

The obstacles are nearly insurmountable. Without money to buy uniforms and schools supplies, the poor parents would probably just give up along the way. The child, if he is lucky, will enter the informal work force, such as helping in the farm or tending a sari-sari store in the slums.

It has been a vicious cycle. A parent in one generation can’t get out of poverty since he doesn’t have the qualifications a college education could give. But he himself cannot provide his children a college education.

Contrast this with the situation in other countries where the government subsidizes the schooling of all underprivileged children, from primary education to high school (and some, up to college), at roughly the same quality as those provided in schools for the children of the rich.

UP boasts that anybody can enroll there as long as the student passes its qualifying exams. But how can a poor boy who could study only in the elementary and high schools in a far-flung village in Samar have the mental skills and knowledge of somebody who studied at P200, 000-per year La Salle or Ateneo? The UP system of tuition fees even subsidizes the children of the rich, even the billionaires who study there (see my column “Stop subsidizing the rich at UP”, Manila Times, March 26, 2013.)

Our educational system therefore ensures that the millions who are poor continue to be poor through the generations. Yet at the same time, it creates a working class with a level of education capitalists require, so much so that we have been trying to convince foreign investors that the country is an ideal place to build factories because we have an English-speaking working force.

Within the Marxist and even the school of sociology called structural functionalism,  that situation isn’t at all a surprise.

With Philippine unemployment at 7.5% or about 3 million individuals, there is no need after all, no pressure for the state to bring the education of the working class to college levels. Where would those with college education find jobs anyway, other than overseas employment? That level of the unemployed working class, in fact, is a boon for capitalist as it means more supply of laborers than the demand for them, which translates to low wages.

Based on a March 2012 Department of Education briefing and on 2008 Commission on Higher Education data, and my analysis of the FIES 2009 survey, the reality of our educational system is as follows:

Out of 100 who enter Grade 1:

51 finish, and enroll in high school; the 49 who drop out will make up the vast army of poor farmers, unskilled laborers, domestic help, and the unemployed.

43 complete high school, with eight dropping out.

23 enter college; the 8 who dropped out of high school and the 20 who didn’t enter college will be, if they’re lucky, the blue- and white-collar workers, clerks and other office staff.

14 graduate, with just 1 from the poor. The 9 who don’t graduate would be lucky if they can run a micro-business, work as a service crew, become an SM saleslady, or the most popular option now, go abroad to be an OFW.

A college degree is an asset, a critical one. Our capitalist system gives this privilege almost entirely to the elite, perpetuating its assets and power. The few from the poor who do attain an education provide the illusion that it is possible to cross the class divide. But in the end, judging by the numbers, it is a myth, to keep the masses in their places.

Corruption, pork barrel scams, and government inefficiency—these only scratch the surface of our country’s quagmire.

tiglao.manilatimes@gmail.com
FB: Rigoberto D. Tiglao www. rigobertotiglao.com

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13 Comments

  1. Renato O. Flores on

    If they can somehow recoup the billions of pesos wasted on PDAF then the government can afford free high school education for the poor with free lunch and adequate classrooms to boot.

  2. Eve Delgado on

    We too are part of the system that keeps the poor poor. The exploitation is a vicious cycle as we (the middle class) are being exploited by the very rich, and in turn we exploit the people who work for us. The kind of salary we pay our help is meant for slavery.

    We should pay our help well or, if we can afford, help send one of their children to school.

  3. Mr/Ms D. Canastra, I do not know excatly what the 3-day of school per week, however should it be 3 days of 9 is about the same as 3-day school week.

  4. Poor Filipinos. The uneducated girls or women enters as prosti to became rich or marry young because they had no carrer to speak of and continue the cycle, while those who graduated became old maids. Lack of job opportunities for both the educated and uneducated continue to hound the country because of lack of industrialization vision. We are being dictated upon by foreign powers to be the consumers instead of producers of high quality products. Our corrupt democratic system contributes greatly to our misery. That is the problem we have to solve in order for us to be progressive as other countries like Japan, South Korea and Western nations

  5. I agree with what innocent says ” what a stupid proposal “. You look at how the philippines makes everything complicated. The people in charge always do stupid things. Ill give a quick example. In the uk if a policeman stops a motorist & suspects he has been drinking he will immediately give him a breatalyser test. If he passes he is free to go if he fails he is taken to the police station & given another one on a higher specification piece of equipment. They are just bringing in new laws here in the philippines for drink & drug driving. Now if the policeman has a case that you might have been drinking he has to give you a sobriety test, why, why not go straight to the breathalyser as that what tells them if you are over. Its as usual the philippines sees how its done in other countries & sees how well it works but they choose to do it differently. I think your people in charge here in everything are useless. & i feel so sorry for the poor. But may i make a suggestion to the people who have these maids who are struggleing to make ends meet why not pay them a little more. That would also help them.

  6. According to Acemoglu (Why Nations Fail) the failure of government to strengthen institutional agencies (education system is just one) is the root cause of economic stagnation and widening income gap between the rich and poor, even between middle class and the top1 % of the population. The so-called GDP growth that the government is crowing(falsely at that) is generated from corporate income due to regualtory capture of crony capitalism and hardly a paltry of a trickle from the income of the majority. Calling it an ‘economic miracle’ (as Penoy’s propagandists parrot it over media) is a cruel joke, to say the least.

  7. I thought all along that only the poor catholics multiply like rabbits pero ganun din pala sa Muslim Mindanao. Verdict – no solution on education problem. How can you solve a problem of 20 thousand children born everyday nationwide.

  8. I suggest that of the 49% in Mr. Tiglao’s study who drop out after elementary school at least 10 indigent dropouts be required by law to be sponsored by each town or city in the Philippines to enter and finish high school. Even if they end up unemployed after graduation, we will have a more educated and responsive citizenry.

    AMADO F. CABAERO

    • If only the leaders elected were sincere in serving the people, they would have given emphasis to education. However, it is my belief that education was intentionally not given priority because they want to control and manipulate the electorate who would not know any better. Evidently, there are many public officials who seek positions to enrich themselves and with the money they have stolen, buy the votes of the gullible voters.

  9. The educational system of today is a farce. While before the normal public school session from grade 1 to 4th year high starts from 7am to 11am, 1 pm to 4 pm every Monday to Friday. Now there is 1 session from 6am to 12am for one section of students, 1pm to 6pm for another section of students and 6pm to 10pm, another section of night school. Meaning that all required subjects need to be compressed to enable the student to learn what they are supposed to. How on earth can a student learn so much and so quick for such a short time in their class? No wonder the Philippines is producing illiterates now rather than well-educated public school grads. Now the Education Dept is proposing and 3-day school session only. What a stupid proposal.

    • D. Canastra on

      Is that true, Mr. Inocente? 3-day school week? Maybe 3 days of 9 hours per day?