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Minella Alarcon & Fay Lauraya, CHED, Philippines

The Commission on Higher Education has launched a major transnational education project to boost internationalisation in the country’s top universities. We speak with commissioner Minella Alarcon and Fay Lauraya of CHED about the programme and the country’s ambitions to improve higher education through global partnerships.

The PIE: How did you decide the 10 institutions you chose were the best universities for the TNE programme?

We have a lot of higher education institutions – 1,937 altogether

MA: These universities are private among our autonomous universities and offer several qualifications. We also identified centres of excellence in the sciences, maths, physics, chemistry. We have centres of excellence in teacher education, economics, social sciences and encourage these universities to maintain their standards or make them better.

Our goal really is to be part of the rankings if we can. But we improve the universities in such a way that they are much better off in terms of the programmes that are being delivered – that they are internationalised programmes in terms of standards and facilities.

The PIE: Is research part of programme?

MA: Research is definitely part of it, although I would say that we are still struggling to produce better research activities. We hope that with transnational education partnerships with really good universities we can improve our research and development activities.

The PIE: Which countries does your TNE programme target?

“There is a quality assurance superimposed on the partnership, because the HEIs are already pre-qualified”

MA: The UK would be the first country that we are looking at seriously in terms of TNE, because of the British Council and because of its long history and experience – the richness of the experience of TNE in the UK. In fact, during the [EAIE conference] the different areas that we had doubts about were discussed. It convinced me that there a lot of benefits that can be gained from real partnerships working together in terms of designing joint programmes and if we can go into double degrees, why not?

FL: Since this is the first concerted effort of the commission to push higher education institutions in matching academic partners for TNE, we are expecting good results. So contrary to before, when they were just left on their own to seek their own partners, now there is a quality assurance superimposed on the partnership, because the HEIs are already pre-qualified and then the priority programmes are also being verified. These priority programmes are connected to the needs of the country for its growth and development.

MA: In fact, it’s the same general areas that we are pushing in every international initiative that we participate in: APEC, for example, and ASEAN of course.

The PIE: And the priority areas of study are informed mostly by where industry opportunities lie?

MA: I think it’s both research in and also developments in industry. Hopefully through TNE we can also attract more partnerships with our own industries, because we know that in the UK there is very strong collaboration with academia and industry and we hope that we can learn from the good practices of UK in that regard.

“In the UK there is very strong collaboration with academia and industry and we hope we can learn from that”

FL: The majority of our population is between the ages of 15-24, and we see these TNE partnerships also providing more and better choices for our Filipino youth.

The PIE: And you have other specific partner countries you’re prioritising in your international outreach, right? Singapore, Thailand, the US, Germany and Hungary.

MA: Yes. We’ve been to France to see our partners at Campus France. We’ve visited universities as well in France and Spain. In fact, we already have very good international education partnerships going on in France.

The PIE: What types of activities do you have with French partners?

MA: Students coming to the Philippines on student exchange programmes and faculty visiting on both sides.  We are also looking into Spain because of historical ties – the Philippines were discovered by the Spaniards, so for us Spain is a colonial master. Our language is greatly influenced by Spanish and there is a common desire to re-establish friendship and cooperation in different academic areas with Spain.

We also have scholarships with Campus France – similar to the arrangements with have with the British Council – and we would like to do the same with Spain. We have a similar one with Fulbright in the US and United Board for Asian countries.

The PIE: How are you deciding which foreign universities to work with?

“Filipino scholars have been all over the world”

MA: We are looking at, of course, the reputation of the university – maybe rankings are part of it. But Filipino scholars have been all over the world and many of our faculty members have their respective alma maters. For instance, I went to Swansea and I have friends who went to LSE, Saint Paul in France, London Institute in Paris, UCL, Imperial. We have these connections that have been established in the past, and also present connections with different universities.

We are also looking at the Newton Fund – we have sent scholars abroad under the Newton Fund and I think they provide good starting points for the maximum partnerships whether in research or teaching.

The PIE: Some of the criticisms of TNE have been that it’s a bit like education colonialism. Are you worried about that as a receiving country?

MA: Not any more, because really now we are going into this with our eyes open. We know our motivation for why we are doing this.

The PIE: Do you also see a difference in attitude among potential partners towards collaborating with Filipino HEIs?

MA: I think so because we’ve tried for a very long time, but it’s quite difficult to do. I think having TNE, you actually have people on the ground coming to the Philippines and discussing the strengths and weaknesses we have, which could really help us. Of course, now the timing is much better because there are more government funds supporting real developments in the universities and colleges.

The PIE: What other initiatives has the government backed to internationalise higher education?

MA: We have had different initiatives before, and that’s the reason why we’re treading with caution because those were sometimes done by enterprising colleges and universities and then it’s out of control. So this is really the first time that the commission has come out purposely identifying the first ten universities that we would like to go into transnational education, identifying the priority areas.

But I would say that we have been getting ready for quite a while already, especially because the ASEAN Economic Community started last year. Before that we have had several internationalisation initiatives in the context of ASEAN, like the the Philippines qualification framework, which includes all levels of education. We are very much into quality assurance initiatives and part of that is our efforts to invest in our leading higher education institutions.

“Before the Vietnam war, there were Vietnamese students studying in the Philippines”

We have a lot of higher education institutions – 1,937 altogether. It’s not easy running all these institutions, so we have to work on different approaches in order to motivate the better ones and make sure that they improve themselves, while we are also trying to see what the deficiencies are in the others. We give them support, but of course, if they refuse to improve themselves then we have no other option but to close or phase out programmes. The commission has both a regulatory and developmental function.

The PIE: Do you look at your ASEAN neighbours like Malaysia or Singapore for inspiration on how to expand higher education? Or maybe there’s a completely different path you’d like to forge?

MA: I think we could go down really a different path. The Philippines in fact was the start – when I was on my undergraduate there were a lot of international students on the campus. This was in the 60s and 70s – before the Vietnam war, there were Vietnamese students studying in the Philippines. I know when I first started to teach I had a student who was supposed to be a prince from Japan or something like that!

The PIE: So what happened?

MA: So many things happened in the country – in ASEAN as well. We didn’t really get much support. But we study in English, teach in English – I’ve always taught Physics in English – I couldn’t teach it any other way!  But there was martial law for 20 years under President Marcos and of course the Vietnam war happened.

FL: President Marcos started moving towards a dictatorship regime.

MA: A problem also with the Philippines is that when they went to the US – when my friends or my classmates in fact went to the US – they never came back.

The PIE: Brain drain.

“When my friends or my classmates in fact went to the US, they never came back”

MA: Yes. But I think as far as English is concerned, we are still a hub. Koreans come to the Philippines to study English, some Malaysians, some Indonesians definitely come to the Philippines to study. And some have joined higher education once they’ve studied English.

FL: And it’s also different because the government is now investing heavily in education and there’s a teaching connection now with investment in capacity building for science and technology, innovation, as part of the overall agenda for development of the country. I think that’s why it’s making a difference now and with this funding we are able to develop programmes to support higher education – increasing their capacity also for quality standards and part of that is the internationalisation.

The PIE: How many international students come to Philippines a year?

MA: Well, the number I have in mind is just about 8,000. There are a few students coming for degree programmes as well. I don’t think the new developments of international education are included, like those who come for exchange, one or two semester abroad programmes of, say, French students coming to the Philippines. Maybe it’s even higher than 8,000 if we count everybody.

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