The recent debate in the US about the elitist nature of the university system should give our own educational leaders food for thought. Among Democratic White House hopefuls, there is an increasing cry for making college free in the US. A recent article in the Financial Times (March 18, 2019) by Edward Luce reports that a growing number of US cities, led by Chicago, are looking at the German vocational model. The German model, epitomized by the local TESDA-certified technical school called Dualtech Training Institute that was established by the help of Hanns Seidel Stiftung, a German foundation, channels the young manpower of the Philippines to TESDA-type vocational programs rather than to college degree programs that oftentimes produce graduates who are unemployable. The essence of the German model is the dualvoc approach, i.e. classroom work is coupled with on-the-job training in partner corporations. Because of the preference for college degree programs, however, Industry leaders are increasingly complaining about the mismatch between what our institutes of higher learning are producing and the demand of industry for the appropriate skills, especially in the construction sector.
There is no question that the Philippine educational system was designed along the American model, i.e. an overemphasis on four-year college degree programs. Even both parents and children from poor households look down on vocational or technical training in TESDA-type schools. Most prefer to go to college even if they end up unemployed. In fact, it may be just a matter of time when some of our richer parents may be accused of what their counterparts in the US have been charged guilty of and arrested in what has been called Operation Varsity Blues. Fifty parents, college administrators and coaches have been exposed in a multimillion-dollar admissions bribery scheme. The scandal involved some of the most reputable institutions in the world including Yale and Harvard and spanned private equity partners, Hollywood stars, sports celebrities and pillars of the academic community. The FBI found out that wealthy parents paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their children admitted to some of America’s most academically demanding universities. There were even extreme cases in which parents paid more intelligent students to impersonate their children in the standardized aptitude tests. Parents in the Philippines may not yet go to such extremes but it is well known that rich families donate to elite universities in the Philippines in return for their not so qualified children to be admitted, taking the place of more intelligent children of the poorer families.
The proposal of Bernie Sanders, the “democratic socialist” who may run against Donald Trump in the next presidential election, may be too extreme. It would be financial suicide in the Philippines if we make college free for all. Critics of the Sanders “free tuition” proposal point out that even if tuition were free, many Americans still do not want to go to college because other costs are steep and not everyone is cut out for four years of college. Many fail to complete high school, the sole purpose of which is to qualify for university. A realistic solution, in which Chicago is leading the way, is to reboot the antiquated system of technical education which is being delivered by community colleges, the rough equivalent of German’s vocational institutes. The biggest difference is that in Germany, a trade is highly valued. In the US, the community college suffers from the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” As an American executive sarcastically remarked, “Everyone is in favor of community college — but for other peoples’ children, not their own!”
Some of our leading cities may want to follow the example of Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Since becoming mayor in 2011, Mr. Emanuel has demonstrated two things. First, there is a large pent-up demand for technical education among young Americans, particularly in depressed urban areas. Second, it does not have to be free to all. Mr. Emanuel’s model is to make vocational education free to any high school student who achieves reasonable grades. Following the German model, employers are integrated closely with the curriculum. The aim is to offer the marketable skills. In the Philippines today, these skills are especially in demand in construction, the hospitality industry, electro-mechanical occupations (Dualtech has produced more than ten thousand of these skilled workers and has attained almost 100 percent employability). I would advise the more entrepreneurial mayors to look closely at the Dualtech model and to team up with the TESDA officials to put up the equivalent of community colleges of the US. It is not too late for us to discard the wrong educational legacy we got from the Americans in our overemphasis on college education and follow Chicago’s example of moving towards the German model. I am sure that we can get the German embassy to send more of their experts in their dualvoc system to come to the Philippines to advice our LGU heads on how to put up more technical schools that are patterned after the German model.
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