Does one fling open the gates of a university so that the hordes coming from the K to 12 basic education scheme may freely troop in? Nowhere in the world and at no time ever in academic practice has there ever been such an audacious claim as that of universal entitlement to university admission. When we sat down to draft a constitution for a federal republic as we are mandated to do by an executive order, we had to wrestle with that issue. It admits of no facile solution. First, it raises a philosophical question: Is there such a thing as a right to university education? Obviously this is a question of ethics, in general, but of social justice, more specifically. Fundamentally, it is a question of ontology because all claim to right must somehow rest on some identifiable feature of human personhood that grounds the claim. Second, and related to the first, it raises a question of educational theory. What is university education in the scheme of the education of the person? Third, it provokes a query on the meaning and the intent of the Constitution, insofar as one must balance the constitutional decree that the State provide a “complete system of education” and the equally constitutionally established academic freedom of institutions. I have always relished debates of this kind, because they are necessary if resolute but intelligent action is to follow. Quite clearly, an issue as involved as this cannot be done justice by those who are wont to fallacy and populist appeal.
A human person is driven by the dynamics of his own humanity to flourish, to develop. Ricoeur puts the imperative in his popular book Oneself as Another in the following way: “To live a good life with others in just institutions”. Rightly then, someone who chooses to waste his life away in one vice or the other, or simply to skulk in the shadows and while his days away in utter purposelessness is adjudged perverse and degenerate. From this human drive there follows the entitlement to that which enables him to flourish—and this will include the nurturing of heart and mind, and “education” is what, in Kantian fashion, we may call the “transcendental idea” for this. Broadly then the right to education is the right to what a person needs to develop his potential, sate the intellect’s drive to understand, respond with wholesome affectivity to various situations especially sympathy, but also anger, when necessary,orientate towards himself towards the good, the noble and the beautiful, and hone the skills he needs not only for a living but for a worthwhile life. Clearly, this does not simplistically translate into a right to be admitted to a school, not even if it is a public school. The right to education imposes on parents the obligation to educate—and sadly, the insistent clamor of parents to get their children into schools—and to compel schools to admit them—is a guilty admission that they have been remiss in their primordial duty to educate them. With equal clarity the right to education as I think its entailment to be is met when a member of society receives those resources that correspond to her personal goals balanced by an empirical consideration of her capacities and the resources available to society.
Then there is the issue of educational theory about the nature of a university. In summary, there is general agreement among academics that the university is the locus of high levels of study and of research. Even the regulatory agency of government for higher education, the Commission on Higher Education, adopts a typology that classifies institutions into “professional institutions”, “colleges” and “universities”. Quite clearly, the university is at the apex of the institutional hierarchy. As expectedly it should admit only the most capable of students who are able to optimally make use of the resources of the university for instruction and research, and also for development-extension. The history of education makes clear that universities were not principally training centers for those who were to fit into industries and job opportunities but for that “community of professors and scholars” capable of reconfiguring society through a continuous ferment of ideas. It is dangerous to undervalue the potency of a revolutionary idea.
It is often asked in relation to the challenge of access to education: When a university becomes selective of those it admits, what happens to those who are not admitted? In Germany as in other countries, the answer is: Acquire a skill some place that will allow you a decent living and a happy life. Why should the university be the be all and end all of human fulfillment? Much of this is a matter of Filipino culture. It seems to be a cultural bad habit on our part to think that everyone should go to a university to be truly accomplished. The result has been detrimental to the cause of a workforce that is truly skilled and capable. It has also spawned so many second-rate universities that barely warrant the charters they brandish. So it is that students will insist on taking a course like B.S. Marketing and Finance and shun a TESDA program for plumbers, even if there is such shortage of plumbers that the few you can find are free to charge you handsomely for the simplest of jobs they accomplish and hardly any need for B.S. Marketing and Finance graduates. And even if a notary public ekes out a living by notarizing one document a day for a measly fee, many will still study law and consider a vocational course a poor alternative because of the “glamor” attached to university education. But since when have cultural bad habits been sound bases for policy? And the point is that we must humbly admit that there are so many problems that we are not able to fix, given the scarce resources we have. The question—Where do those who are not admitted to university go?—is not all too different from the question: What happens to those patients who public hospitals cannot attend to? And the humble reply we must give, but one that hearkens to ever-present realities is that given limited resources, some tough choices must be made. And while we can and should improve access (which is not to say that university should be open to all!), we cannot pretend that we can solve all problems of social inequity.
ASEAN Integration has already showed us that we need a quality framework for higher education that will allow for seamlessness of education throughout the ASEAN region. And when we look at the ranking of the Philippines’ best universities worldwide, we have a stark presentation of the misery that we are in, a miserable state to which we should never resign ourselves.
As for the Constitution, what it mandates is clear
“Establish, maintain, and support a complete, adequate, and integrated system of education relevant to the needs of the people and society”
Nowhere does it decree that every one who desires to do so should be admitted to a university or even to tertiary education. If anything at all, it guarantees all higher education institutions—public or private—academic freedom which has a jurisprudentially settled meaning and includes the university’s right to determine who to teach, who will teach, what should be taught, and how things are taught. What society needs to do is to protect the academic institutions of its universities so that they may freely carry out the purpose for which they were chartered and established. Our Supreme Court has consistently safeguarded the right of higher education institutions, whether public or private, to determine, free and untrammelled, their admission policies and standards, including the right to refuse some from their precincts.
Quality is always a good word; mediocrity, never!