Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The ultimate value of education

Every year, college graduates in the Philippines face the grim reality that only three of ten graduates have a real chance of landing a job. This means that seven out of ten new graduates would end up jobless.

In absolute figures, the numbers of unemployed college graduates are staggering. The Philippines Commission on Higher Education estimates that 542,000 college students will graduate this year, and 60 per cent or 325,000 of these graduates would be looking for jobs. Add them to the 523,000 unemployed graduates as of January 2010, and there would be 848,000 new and old college graduates competing for available jobs.

Filipino parents send their children to college hoping that a college degree would lead them to a stable job, thus provide them with a better future. However, this seems to be a false hope in these modern and hard times: a college degree is no guarantee anymore.

This is a serious challenge for each one of the candidates for president this coming election in May. As usual, every candidate will promise to make job generation a priority when elected. But for all those graduates who end up jobless, their future is in working abroad, even in jobs beneath their qualifications. Canada can therefore expect more applicants for live-in caregivers and foreign temporary workers from the Philippines. The source of cheap labour to exploit is not about to dry up soon.

The country’s dismal economy is mainly responsible for the lack of employment opportunities. Of course, government leaders also share the brunt of the blame for failing to stimulate the economy and provide jobs for new college graduates. They would rather encourage college graduates and other jobseekers to work overseas and help the local economy afloat with their money remittances. However, over the long haul, this is not an effective and lasting solution. The government cannot forever rely on foreign earnings of Filipino overseas workers.

Good and honest government and sensible structural changes in the economy are badly needed if we want our college graduates to stay home instead of waste their education in slave labour abroad. In sending our graduates overseas, the Philippine government also squanders its investment in education, and in part, subsidizes the education programs of the countries where these graduates end up working. Developed countries do not have to spend so much in educating their young because it is much easier and less expensive to poach the skilled and trained labour surplus of poorer countries. Employers from rich countries usually end up paying rock-bottom wages to these workers, while their governments also save the additional cost of providing protections and other services by either ignoring or paying lip service to the appalling working conditions that these foreign workers find themselves in.

The Philippines and other like countries have become a huge source of labour surplus, an army of skilled workers who would remain unemployed if they decide to stay home. Their governments continue to invest millions of money in educating their population, ironically not for their benefit but for the benefit of already-rich countries.

Education is essential in preparing for one’s future, especially in a society that values higher education. There is no denying that any modern economy requires skilled and motivated workers, thus education plays an important function in ensuring a steady flow of these workers. But the problem with education today is that this connection has become too direct. We now educate ourselves simply to get a job. This distorts the true purpose of schooling. Instead of aiming at the development of individuals as an end in itself, college graduates have become mere instruments in the economic process.

The contemporary view is that earning and learning go hand in hand. One who has more years of schooling is less likely to be unemployed, and salary-wise, more likely to earn a higher income. People with a bachelor’s degree are expected to earn more than the average high school graduate. They are assumed to enjoy middleclass living after college, a lifestyle that includes owning one’s own home and raising a family comfortably. Thus, if one goes to college, he or she would probably earn more money and enjoy work at the same time.

What’s wrong with this belief?

The reality is that a college degree is not a guarantee at all. We see this truism in the Philippines where college graduates end up unemployed or work as modern-day slaves somewhere in a foreign country.

Besides, income also depends on one’s occupation. Some people may decide to pursue careers that pay less but are rewarding in other ways. Teachers, social workers, religious ministers, and librarians, for example, don’t make as much as other college graduates, but they often find great satisfaction in giving something back to the community.

The benefits of higher education can’t be measured just in terms of money. Yet, a United Nations task force on higher education insists that while higher education is no longer a luxury, “it is essential to national social and economic development.” This kind of pronouncement has the effect of marginalizing higher education as seen in the tendency toward market-driven education, which some criticize us the corporatization of the academe. Public schools of higher learning or state-run universities, everywhere in the world, now compete against each other in order to survive with their reduced budgets. Even international rankings of universities have induced piracy of the best talents, both faculty and students.

The Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University in the U.K. has lamented that students are now being treated as “a source of income, not an investment in the future.” A professor at Oxford once posed the following question: “Can, we in Europe, have social justice in higher education and world-class research universities?” To which the Cambridge Vice Chancellor replied that it is wrong to look upon universities as “engines for promoting social justice.”

This reminds me of an anecdote shared by a professor at the University of the Philippines during her centennial lecture in 2008 which went as follows:

“Whenever I cringe at my students’ essays, whether written in Filipino or English, they tell me that one reason they did not learn to write in UP is that when their papers or exams are returned, all they see is a number. No indication whatsoever is written about what the number actually means, about which part of the essay is poorly argued or badly written and why. So they repeat the same mistakes—because they passed those courses anyway—until they get to me. I tell them that at the senior level it is a little too late for me to undo what they have internalized, even as I apply the weapon of fear followed by horrifying grief upon reading their first draft.”

Is this probably due to a student’s ability to express himself or herself in writing, which is insignificant from the student’s point of view when considered against the inability to secure a job upon graduation? Or, is it because the student will pass the course, no matter what? Which suggests to us there are fundamental problems in the manner we educate our young today.

It is vital that we distinguish between education and training, and to recognize that people require both. However, we need not be ashamed of what is involved in training versus real education. Young children must know their multiplication tables, be able to read, spell and write correctly, in the same way an athlete trains the body for competition. After learning and building confidence from repetitive practice, children will be able to profit from the next level, which is education proper. It is at this level that a student learns to think and discern how to find and use information when needed. This is after all what education must be: to be able to refine our capacities for judgment and evaluation.

According to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, learning is only a means to acquire understanding, and understanding, the ultimate value of education. Plato considered education as “the bringing out” of an idea that we have known since time immemorial.

This belief has been modified over the course of centuries, perhaps in more sensible directions by later thinkers. They saw education as a tool by which the individual can learn how to develop his or her inborn talents and capabilities, rather than innate knowledge. In a sense, this is good and much closer to the true objective of education. We continue to believe that given the opportunities, education can help our human gifts to flourish.


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