education in the Philippines

[OPINION] The state of research in the Philippines

Jayeel Cornelio

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[OPINION] The state of research in the Philippines

Raffy de Guzman/Rappler

'If there’s one lesson to be learned from all these observations, it is this one: putting pressure on tertiary institutions to produce research is not going to help'

There are many ways to appreciate universities and colleges. In the Philippines, the public values tertiary institutions based on different metrics. 

Most of the time, a university’s reputation is based on the performance of its graduates in board exams. Filipinos are generally aware of which universities are strong in, say, nursing, civil engineering, law, medicine, accountancy, and architecture. A university’s passing rates in these fields are thus important.

To this metric could be added many others: employability of its graduates, performance in sports, the quality of teaching, and acceptance rates. These are all important for universities to thrive.

I feel though that one area that needs more emphasis is research. I say this given my experience having been a professor and a university administrator. I have also collaborated with many colleagues around the country. Based on these interactions, I’m convinced that greater conversations are needed not only within a university but also among universities and policymakers. 

Indeed, there’s a big room for improvement when it comes to the state of research in Philippine higher education. 

Research productivity

One can begin with the global university rankings. 

To be sure, I recognize that many value university rankings and treat them as the mark of an institution’s success. But we also need to be critical as, according to research, they are “open to manipulation and gaming.” They also rely on metrics that typically favor well-endowed institutions.

But if we could suspend that bit for now, we can also recognize that research productivity and reputation figure prominently in these rankings. Note: both feed off each other in the research ecosystem. Active researchers tend to know and work with one another. They meet in conferences, read each other’s writings, and even co-author their own publications. 

Those without resources are left behind in this ecosystem.

It is very telling then that only four Philippine institutions have made it to THE World University Rankings and five in QS. In both cases, all except UP are private universities. 

By context, according to CHED’s latest list, there are more than 2,000 higher education institutions around the country.

In a way, this pattern is not surprising. The research productivity of Philippine institutions has been consistently low compared to our counterparts in other ASEAN countries. This productivity is also concentrated in a small group of universities, a pattern that earlier research had also observed even in the 1990s.

The Philippines does not have enough scientists too. 

According to UNESCO, the ideal number of research scientists and engineers (RSEs) must be 380 per million population to aid industrialization. A report by the National Academy of Science and Technology reveals that in 2017, the gap was 110 RSEs per million.

Why

This of course is not to deny the potential of Philippine institutions to produce high quality research. A recent list shows that there are more than 7,000 published researchers across all disciplines in the country. According to Scival, the number of publications of several Philippine universities has also been increasing since the early 2000s. 

But the wider reasons for the dismal reality I described above must also be taken seriously. According to one study, professors in the Philippines do not have enough time simply because they are teaching a lot of classes. 

This is of course tied to income, with colleagues preferring to overload. Many of my colleagues would agree that income varies depending on one’s university. As Jason Tan Liwag concludes in his report, “it seems that to be a scientist in the Philippines, you must take a vow of poverty and enter a system rigged against you.”

Other reasons include fear of rejection and inadequate training. 

And let’s not forget the inadequate research infrastructure of many universities. That many libraries are underfunded is a major obstacle. 

For a study to be publishable, it needs to engage the wider scholarly literature. But that assumes that one has access to relevant books, journals, and other databases, for which institutional subscription is necessary — and very expensive. The same may be said about laboratories, office equipment, and workspaces to support faculty and students. 

(I also need to mention pantries! In my experience, they are spaces where informal but useful conversations happen.)

Unfortunately, not only are institutions underfunded. The procurement process delays much of scholars’ work in state universities and colleges.

If there’s one lesson to be learned from all these observations, it is this one: putting pressure on tertiary institutions to produce research is not going to help. At the level of universities, promotion is increasingly linked to one’s publications. 

At the level of higher education as a whole, a new policy in place is prohibitive. Graduate students are now required to publish before receiving their degrees.

The problem, for the reasons I spelled out above, is that not all institutions are prepared for this pressure. In a recent essay, Benguet State University’s Joseph Quinto expresses his worry that these policies may stifle groundbreaking scholarship and cause students to publish in predatory journals. In my conversations with colleagues around the Philippines, I’ve heard these sentiments repeated over and over again. 

In fact, what worries me more is that this pressure would only lead to unnecessary anxieties among early career scholars and graduate students. At their stage, they should be first mentored to develop their skills and build their confidence. In the Philippines, the reality is that graduate students are also working at the same time, as I am seeing now in my current capacity as a Visiting Professor here in Bacolod.

Public good

In college, many students dread research. For the most part it’s because they’re having a miserable time. Many professors, based on the stories I’ve encountered, tend to be dismissive or simply difficult. If that were the case, then it’s clear that in these settings, there’s no joy in discovery. 

That to me is a tragedy for any university. Our universities should be spaces where discovery is life-giving. Whether it’s history or economics, robotics or creative writing, universities must be the environment where discovery is enabled instead of simply coerced.

Research, after all, is inseparable from the quality of teaching and training a student receives. While I know that there are many wonderful teacher-mentors out there, universities need to be spaces where research and teaching are in a symbiotic relationship to stimulate collective learning. 

To be embedded in a research-active environment is certainly good for our students, many of whom will one day become professionals and leaders in their fields. 

“In this way,” writes David Rosowsky, “the next generation of scholars (academic or otherwise) is trained, research and discovery continue to advance inter-generationally, and the cycle is perpetuated.”

But we also need to recognize that the culture of research and creative work is in itself a fundamental public good. From disinformation to public health, the issues confronting our society call for a strong research infrastructure.

And we know it’s strong if it enables innovative work across disciplines and enables new generations of passionate scholars. – Rappler.com

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is Professor of Development Studies at the Ateneo de Manila University and Visiting Professor in the Graduate School of the University of St La Salle. He is also the Vice Chair of the Social Sciences Division of the National Research Council of the Philippines. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.

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