The Covid-19 pandemic in the Philippines has affected not only the economy, but the country’s education sector. A failure to make redress for this as the country emerges from the pandemic will have social and economic costs.
Despite government spin, the Philippines is not winning in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. The country of 109 million is still riding a first wave of coronavirus cases with no crest in sight. At the end of June, the University of the Philippines predicted that total recorded cases would reach 60,000-70,000 by the end of July. By 20 July, 68,898 cases had been recorded by the Philippine Department of Health.
The economic costs of the Philippine pandemic are becoming clearer and the picture is far from salubrious. Unemployment surged to 17.7 per cent in April. Total trade fell in year-on-year terms by 60 per cent in April and 39 per cent in May. Government infrastructure spending in May fell 37 per cent in year-on-year terms, while government revenues plummeted by 52 per cent. Remittance inflows, a vital source of funds for educational expenses, are already starting to shrink with worse expected in the months ahead.
The education sector is a noticeable victim of the Philippine pandemic with all the long-term social costs associated with children falling out of the education system or being forced to accept lower-quality services. A week after the end of the extended 2020 school enrolment period, only 77 per cent of expected students had enrolled. For the private school sub-sector, only 27 per cent of the expected enrolment target was reached, suggesting that many parents and guardians can no longer afford their preferred schooling options. One can expect a number of private education providers to close.
When the Philippines can move from the pandemic response to the pandemic recovery stage, getting students back into their preferred classrooms and helping those currently not enrolled due to the pandemic should be a priority.
Even for the three out of four potential students that have enrolled, their education will suffer. Fortunately, President Duterte has stepped back from his stance that no physical classes would be offered until a Covid-19 vaccine is available. He has verbally agreed with the Department of Education’s request for limited classroom hours in areas with few coronavirus cases. Currently Metro Manila and Cebu City are not covered by this apparent relaxation.
Even in these low-risk areas, students will only attend physical classes for one or two days a week, and then, like their Metro Manila peers, rely on a mixture of online teaching and instruction via the radio and television. More than one-quarter of the Philippine population is not online. Many who are connected, often through mobile phones only, suffer slow download speeds, limited data availability and frequent dropped connections.
The 2020 budget for the Department of Education – which boasts of the government’s biggest budget by department – has been cut. Government monies have been reoriented to address the pandemic and savings sought due to plummeting revenues. The department has seen its 2020 budget trimmed by 5 per cent, while funds to support state universities and colleges have been cut by 12 per cent. This has already affected tuition subsidies for these educational institutions created to implement the 2017 Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act.
When the Philippines can move from the pandemic response to the pandemic recovery stage, getting students back into their preferred classrooms and helping those currently not enrolled due to the pandemic should be a priority. If not, the social and economic legacy of the Philippine pandemic will be longer and deeper.
Malcolm Cook was previously Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Editor at Fulcrum.