The middle class, that struggling segment of society that straddles between the rich and the poor, may soon be a thing of the past. And perhaps, even their schools. Despite stories of economic growth, the fact remains that the gap between the rich and the poor has been widening, leaving fewer and fewer people in between. As a consequence, services that cater to this segment may eventually fade away as well.
The World Inequality Report released last year, as reported by CNBC’s Sam Meredith, found that since 1980, “the top 0.10% of wealth owners, about 7 million people, captured as much of the world’s growth as the bottom half of the adult population — around 3.8 billion people.” The report added that “the gap between rich and poor has increased in almost every region of the world over the last four decades.”
At the home front, I saw a TV news report the other day regarding poverty, and a government official was quoted as saying that if a household earned P10,000 monthly, then it wasn’t poor. For a family of four, that’s a budget of P2,500 per person per month, or about P84 per day — for food, clothing, shelter, transportation, utilities, education, etc.
If I am not mistaken, the present poverty threshold is about P30 per day. So, only those earning less than that are considered poor, under the government’s definition.
But the reality is that even those on minimum wage, or at P500 day, are already struggling to survive. And for many of those struggling, they see education is the key to a better life for their children.
It seems, however, that we are now working on policies that make quality education even less accessible to a greater number of people. Thus, making the poor’s dream of a better life harder to achieve. This, of course, is an opinion that is open to debate. But, more recent developments seem to point to this conclusion.
For instance, I will argue that lowering or removing tuition payments in state colleges and universities will do more harm than good.
Instead of making quality education more accessible, it will make state college entrance more competitive. And, this competitiveness will benefit the better-educated rich students from urban areas rather than the poor graduates of provincial or rural schools.
Second, without any tuition fees, state colleges and universities will have less funding to improve facilities and the faculty. They will have to rely more on grants and donations. And, there will be increasing pressure on the national government to subsidize public education through higher taxes and fees, at the expense of other public services. And the pressure will continue to increase as the population continues to grow.
Third, fiscal balance will have a more significant impact and consequence on the sustainability of the “free” education program. Therefore, any adverse implications on state finances will have an almost immediate consequence on state-sponsored education. Where do students go when a state college or university suddenly goes bust? Soon enough, private schools may not be an option.
“There’s a phenomenon of small private schools closing – not the big ones which are happily surviving — but the small ones, mostly in the provinces but also in cities,” Education Secretary Leonor Briones was quoted as telling the Manila Bulletin in a story published last week. “They are, in a sense, losing students and teachers.”
Briones cited the case of a private school in Palawan that was just donated to DepEd by its owner after it closed down. She noted that not only students are moving to public schools but also teachers, to get higher salaries and more benefits. Caps in tuition fee increases in private schools also limit salary increases that can be given to teachers annually.
The emerging scenario is that “education shall be a choice between schools for the rich and the free public schools for the poor [because] the affordable private schools for the middle class will simply disappear,” claimed Eleazardo Kasilag, president of Federation of Associations of Private Schools & Administrators (FAPSA).
In a statement also carried by the Bulletin, Kasilag was quoted as saying that small private schools close down because many students transfer to public schools “to save” money, while teachers also leave “to earn” more money. And this shifts the burden of education, and financing education, primarily to the government.
Sought for comment, a friend from the academe who also happens to sit on the board of two small private schools had this to say: “Private schools are not able to raise tuition fees. They need to compete with public schools that offer free education. They are also constrained by law to limit the tuition fee increase and where such increase can be spent.”
Given this, he said, private school teacher salaries “remain radically uncompetitive” with those given to public school teachers, and that private schools are not able to attract or retain teachers willing to dedicate their skills for the goals of private schools. If this persists, he added, “only private schools for the wealthy are going to survive.”
He also said, “the poorest who rely on our schools are going to have less control over their lives in the future. Education offered by public schools offer less compared to what we offer in terms of capacity to have control over their lives. It is truly sad that the public at large does not feel what we feel as we manage our schools.”
As things are, the public-school system is already over-extended. It doesn’t have sufficient facilities and resources to meet the demand of our growing population for “free” quality education. Not everybody can be accommodated in public schools. Good private schools, meantime, have also become very expensive, with annual tuition now running in the hundreds of thousands of pesos.
If smaller, affordable, but good quality private schools — including parochial schools — cannot survive the prevailing environment, where will this put poor but deserving students seeking an education? What about children who cannot be accommodated in public schools but cannot afford expensive private schools? What about collegiate level students who cannot compete for “free tuition” slots in state colleges and universities but cannot pay tuition in private colleges?
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council