Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

Over the past several days, the whole nation has been abuzz over the shift in the academic calendar of the University of the Philippines, from the June to March cycle to an August to May one.  When I say the whole nation I don’t think I am exaggerating as this shift will have clear implications at that level, regardless of how hard some at the UP administration try to separate the University from the rest of the country.

The rationale of UP President Alfredo Pascual and his vice presidents for this shift is to “internationalize” UP by synchronizing its calendar with those of other countries, such as those in the West and our Southeast Asian neighbors.  There are two dimensions to this issue that should have been interrogated thoroughly before any decisions were made.  First is how exactly is “internationalization” conceptualized by those in the administration;  second, what practicalities are involved in its implementation.

Let us start with the second, as Solita Monsod has already looked at the supposed practical benefits of the calendar shift in a column published last month in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.  Not all countries have an August to May/September to June cycle, she says, which does not diminish their international standing.  She adds that other nations, such as fellow Asian countries like Thailand and Japan, tailored their academic calendars to accommodate their respective national particularities as well as the need for student mobility, instead of simply imposing the August to May cycle wholesale.

The major objective of the calendar shift is to facilitate student (and faculty) exchanges, but Monsod also points out that we have no idea how many students would actually be going on mobility from and into the Philippines (also, the UP Administration hasn’t presented any studies or projections that look into this, and neither have they presented anything about academic exchanges that did not push through because of unsychronized calendars).  If the students concerned comprise a very small percentage, then it would be like the tail wagging the dog, Monsod concludes.

Let me add that, even if we are talking about a significant number of students, do we still need to shift the calendar?  At the Archaeology program in UP Diliman where I finished my MA, students were always going on exchange programs.  At any given year two or three or even up to five students would be on some sort of mobility program to Southeast Asian and European countries.  This may seem like a small number, but consider that, through the years, with the number of Archaeology enrollees plateauing somewhere in the vicinity of sixty, perhaps twenty or twenty-five of these have gone on mobility, or just under half of the active student population.  The Archaeology program had also hosted around the same number of Southeast Asian and European students, sometimes accompanied by their teachers, in collaborative scenarios that UP wishes to replicate throughout the system.  I wish to emphasize that changing the calendar wasn’t necessary for these things to happen, as this has been going on for years.  What is needed is just creativity and cooperation between partner institutions, and support for students from the faculty –good advising, less bureaucratic paperwork – in short, everybody doing their job well.

Student mobility seems to be a cornerstone of the UP administration’s decision to change the calendar, as well as their brand of internationalization.  But can genuine internationalization be achieved simply by some students being able to go overseas?  You would think that it should, as this appears to be the only reason for such a major change.  However, even the UP Administration will reply “no” and acknowledge that improvements in other areas need to be made (they devoted one whole paragraph to this in the calendar shift policy paper).  This makes one wonder then why such improvements aren’t being pursued as enthusiastically as they did with changing the calendar.

Another problem with so-called “internationalization” is how selective we are in applying it in the Philippine context.  I remember in the middle of the fiasco we call post-Yolanda recovery efforts, when the DPWH came under fire from relief organizations and a prominent Filipino architect for approving bunkhouses that were not up to international standards of safety or even dignity, Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda came to the agency’s defense.  We do not have to follow international standards, he said, because we follow our own.  So, let me get this straight.  We can actually pick and choose which “international” standards we are supposed to follow?  And if these standards pertain to matters of life and death (such as providing shelter in disaster-prone areas), we can ignore them?  But for shifting the calendar, the delay of which will obviously harm no one, this rapidly gets approved?

Still on international standards but going back to the education sector, if we do want to be competitive with our Southeast Asian neighbors, comparing calendars should be the least of our priorities.  Why don’t we look instead into how much our neighbors pour financial resources into education?  The international standard, according to UNESCO (whether or not Lacierda wants to follow this), is that 6% of the nation’s GDP should be spent on education.  Malaysia and Thailand approach this amount with 5.1% and 5.8% of their respective GDPs going to education.  Other Southeast Asian countries’ spending average at 4.1%.  For the Philippines?  Only 2.5%.  We are also behind in terms of how much is spent on one student in one year, but we are tops in drop-out and non-completion rates.

There are other, more pressing matters to address if we want to raise the quality of education in UP, and there are other, more relevant ways of producing quality graduates other than just overseas experience.  Before considering UP as a “regional and global university”, its first and foremost mandate is to be the National University.  Isolating itself from the rest of the nation – by shifting its calendar of its own accord, by privileging an international orientation – is a failure of that mandate that no amount of “internationalization” can rectify.

If the UP Administration is indeed serious in providing quality education that responds to the nation’s needs and that will put us on par with other countries, and since it has already demonstrated that it has the will and the means to rush policy and affect public opinion, then it should fight alongside students, teachers, and parents for genuine academic reforms, higher subsidies, and education for all.

Andrea Malaya Ragragio is a UP Mindanao professor of anthropology, author of the book, Archaeology and Emerging Kabikolan, and a member of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers. She finished cum laude for her Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology, and secured her Master’s degree in Archaeology at UP Diliman.

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