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Priority must be non-tertiary education

Priority must be non-tertiary education

By Benjamin R. Punongbayan

FOR AS LONG as I can remember, greater attention has been given to tertiary education, as compared to elementary and high school education, in both public policy and private scholarship activities. This tendency is clearly apparent in the current development of providing free tuition to students in state universities. Given the current state of scarce financial resources, I feel that such priority is misplaced. Not only that, such a policy is arbitrarily selective and, therefore, unfair. But that is a different matter and I’ll leave it at that for the time being.

There is a lot of talk about the widespread poverty in the country; everyone tries to express their own view on how to reduce it. If one examines this problem, a clear picture emerges: poor parents almost always did not complete high school or even elementary school. These parents tend to have more children, and the common resulting condition is that these children will also not finish high school. Thus, the poverty cycle goes on and on, and simply cannot be broken.

The government, of course, has an adult education program, but it cannot achieve its full potential due to budgetary constraints. It also needs more effective marketing.

Then there is the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA); its full potential, however, could also not be realized, because of inadequate budget allocation. My observation and experience with TESDA is that acquiring technical skills through them requires a significant cost outlay on the part of the trainees. In welding and dressmaking courses, for example, the trainees themselves need to buy the materials needed for training, such as shoes, eye protection gear, and iron blocks. In dressmaking, the cloth and thread needed for teaching sewing have to be bought by the trainees. The same is true for other TESDA courses. Moreover, the trainees are required to wear uniforms that they buy themselves. When the trainees finish the program, they have to pay fees to get their National Certificate (NC) 1 and 2. The training centers are usually in cities and large towns, so potential trainees in other smaller towns cannot access the TESDA, because of lack of money for transportation and meals. All told, TESDA training courses are generally not accessible to people who badly need them.

The government recently established the new K-12 non-tertiary curriculum, which is a very commendable step. However, there is also the problem of inadequate budget, especially for vocational courses in Grades 11 and 12. My high school alma mater in Tondo circulated to some of its alumni a wish list to acquire various equipment, among which are for teaching vocational courses. The equipment for vocational courses on the wish list reach a total cost of about ₱300,000. And that is only one public high school in the entire country.

It is no wonder that we cannot make a big dent in reducing widespread poverty in the country. The poor continue to lack the skills required for them to find reasonably paying and stable employment. While non-tertiary schools are tuition-free, the poor could not make use of them fully, as they lack money for meals, transportation, and school projects. TESDA vocational courses also require significant cost outlay on the part of the trainees; there is also the barrier-to-entry factor for the costs of meals and transportation while undergoing training.

The poor will forever remain poor if they cannot acquire skills better than what they presently possess. Most of these poor Filipinos reside in rural areas and do not own land that they can till. As such, they can only find agricultural and construction jobs that are seasonal and low-paying. The mix of the existing manufacturing sector is such that it cannot employ a large number of unskilled and semi-skilled labor, more so in the services sector, where much of the economic activities presently reside.

For the past several years, the drivers of the Philippine economy are in two areas: the Philippine work force that gets employed overseas and foreign jobs that are outsourced to Philippine shores. It appears that this will be the case for many more years. In both these sectors, the minimum qualification to get employed is a high school education or some vocational skills. Clearly, the poor cannot access these employment opportunities. Other economic activities do not provide good prospects to them either. Agriculture has never been a factor in recent years. We have lost low-skill manufacturing to low-cost countries, such as China, and there is no prospect of recovering them. Moreover, the historical trend is for the services industry to get an incrementally greater share in the total economic pie, but employment in this sector requires higher education and skills.

TESDA trainees
Trainees assemble electronic parts of a solar lantern at a workshop inside the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) headquarters in Manila. — AFP

Based on the 2010 census released in 2013, the magnitude of the existing pool of unemployable and underemployed labor is huge. That census showed a total population of 82 million, of which 57 million were 17 years old and older. Of this age group, the highest educational attainment of 24 million Filipinos or 41% of this age group was high school undergraduate, which means they did not finish high school. While this age group included those who were 60 years old and above, the total of which I was not able to extricate from the reference that I was able to access, these statistics indicate a huge number of unemployable and underemployed Filipinos in 2010. With the continuous rapid growth in population since 2010, the total number of this labor pool would have increased to the present time, although the proportion to the total population might have somewhat decreased. Indeed, it is no wonder why poverty persists in our country.

If we really want to reduce widespread poverty, we need to get the greatest number of Filipinos to at least finish high school, and then open the way for the high school graduates to acquire vocational skills. The basic structures already exist. All that is needed is to put more money in activities that will effectively achieve this objective and improve the effectiveness of the organization and administration devoted to this endeavor.

The basic problem of the poor is lack of money to support their children throughout their elementary, secondary, and vocational education. I do not see any reason why the government cannot provide free meals to all those who need them. Such a public policy is being implemented in many countries. Providing free transportation to poor students in elementary and high schools should not be too expensive; schools are not far from the residences of the schoolers. Providing free-fare buses roving around school routes or giving free transportation vouchers to poor students should do it.

The equipment and teaching needs for vocational courses for Grades 11 and 12 in public high schools must be fully funded. Another option would be to integrate such courses with TESDA’s. TESDA training should be made totally free at the very least. To solve the problem of cost of trainee meals and transportation, roving training facilities should be extensively expanded to cover town clusters within the entire country until the objective has been substantially met.

The barangay system should be used to get all school-age children and youth to remain in schools and finish their education. Solutions to specific problems must be found with the help of the town government.

Getting these things done is not rocket science. What are needed are clear focus, effective administration, persistence and, most importantly, having the government prioritize funding for all necessary activities.

If we cannot make the poor sustainably employable under the current economic structure and conditions, I do not think we can break the cycle of poverty in any meaningful way, despite what our economic managers are saying about driving for high economic growth to reduce poverty as a result. The focus should be the other way around.


Benjamin R. Punongbayan ( is the founder of Punongbayan & Araullo, one of the Philippines’ leading auditing firms.


As published in BusinessWorld, dated 17 July 2018