Rates of Change: Two University Presidents and the Battle for Academic Hearts and Minds

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UP Vice-President for Public Affairs Prospero De Vera (left) invites questions from the forum’s audience addressed to UP President Pascual (center) and ADMU President Villarin (right).

Two university presidents from opposite ends of Katipunan Avenue appear to be on the same side when it comes to internationalization.

This much was evident when UP President Alfredo E. Pascual joined Ateneo de Manila President Fr. Jose Ramon Villarin on 19 November 2013 at the Education Competitiveness in an ASEAN Integrated Era forum.

The event, which was held at  the Edsa Shangri-La Hotel, Mandaluyong City and organized by the University of the Philippines and PUBLiCUS Asia, Inc., featured experts, leaders and policymakers to discuss how the country and its higher education institutions (HEIs) can be ready for the changes brought about by ASEAN integration in 2015.

Speaking on behalf of public and private higher education institutions, respectively, Pascual and Villarin highlighted both the advantages and the challenges their respective institutions face with the impending formation of a single market and production base within ASEAN.

While  both leaders came prepared with a healthy amount of statistics and cases to support their claims, it became clear that in one important respect both private and public HEIs faced this common conundrum: Beyond any necessary physical changes, how can the hearts and minds that run our country’s HEIs be changed to compete with the world’s best?

Paradigm Shift

“We have to go through a paradigm shift,” Pascual pronounced gravely. While his talk was primarily concerned with the principles that could guide SUCs in navigating the channels of internationalization, he also gave due cause and context to why Philippine HEIs should not be caught flat-footed by 2015.

“Now the move towards ASEAN integration is happening within the context of globalization,” he explained. “There is a need to band together for the countries in Southeast Asia so that together as a region, we can be competitive globally.” And with the creation of a single market and production base in ASEAN also comes the free flow of services—more specifically, the free flow of professional services provided by the graduates of ASEAN universities.


Students in UP Diliman at class.

Pascual said that with the mutual recognition agreements for professional qualifications in place to facilitate the movement of professionals within the region, it has become the responsibility of HEIs like UP to ensure that the graduates they produce meet national and regional expectations.

Seven fields will be covered initially by these agreements: engineering, nursing, architecture, accountancy, medicine, dentistry and surveying. Many HEIs produce graduates in these areas.

“With an integrated ASEAN, we expect that the advantage of our graduates will somehow be challenged by graduates from universities and colleges from other ASEAN countries,” he said. Despite the current monopoly that local HEIs have on professional and high-level executive positions, this situation may very well come under threat.

“With the opening of our borders within the ASEAN region and the freer flow of professionals we expect competition with graduates from other universities in our region, even within the Philippines—particularly for jobs in multinational companies…It’s already happening (in the country).”

Filipinos are also losing their edge, particularly in English. Pascual recounted the story of a colleague who visited the University of Indonesia to do quality assurance on behalf of the ASEAN University Network. “And she was amazed to see,” he said, “that people from the faculty to the students that she dealt with…were very fluent in English.”

With these developments, and with the relatively humble ranking of Philippine universities compared to their peers in the other ASEAN founding member countries in mind, Pascual offered the following principles  local higher education institutions could “bank on” in their journey towards internationalization.

“In a number of universities, including my university, there is tension between nationalism and internationalism,” he said. “There is resistance from certain sectors to going international.”

Pascual noted that this stems from the traditional mandate of SUCs as publicly funded institutions to put the needs of the people and the country first. He, however, believes that SUCs need not take a step back from either the promotion of Filipino identity or serving the needs of the country to internationalize.

“In fact, our sense of nationalism will be the basis for us to achieve the Filipino distinctiveness in the world…If we don’t have this distinctiveness, we will be hard put to attract researchers or tourists from other countries. Because there’s nothing different we can offer in our country. So we have to keep and nurture our nationalism as we play the international field.”

Number One

Another vital component of this paradigm shift is the move from a comprehensive lineup of program offerings towards developing niche programs. Pascual noted how the change could start with UP, one of the most comprehensive universities in the country, which boasts of more than 300 graduate and close to 200 undergraduate programs.

“What is the number one university in Asia?” Pascual asked, for context. “It is a relatively new university (about 20 years old)—the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.” It has only five schools or colleges, but whatever programs they have in these colleges are reputed to be of high quality. “Size does not matter in terms of reputation,” he reminded his audience.


UP Diliman students in an organization’s activity at Palma Hall.

This is more telling considering Pascual’s observation that university rankings in publications and citations were made on a per-faculty and per-paper basis, respectively, supporting the claim that quality rather than quantity was the more significant element in making a world-class university.

“I know SUCs, including UP, have very limited resources,” Pascual said. “So we need to focus…we need to define the niche programs we can pursue based on our competitive or comparative advantage, based on the needs of our regional locations. And focus our resources on a few chosen niche programs to achieve excellence in them.”
“And with excellent programs, we can become competitive.”

Closely related to this push to streamline program offerings is the need to move from what Pascual called “disciplinal enclaves” to transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches. “It is very clear that to tackle the problems of the country and the world we need to address them from many fronts and we need a combination of disciplines.”

“In our research, the funding we provide from the UP System is only for research proposals that are interdisciplinary.”

This would necessarily mean bypassing one of the touchiest of academic culture’s offsprings—“turfing.”

“Academic departments have created strong parapets,” Pascual explained, “to protect their turf.” Because of this, it remains a constant challenge to get faculty members to work together.

“But in order to thrive in the complexity of the globalized world, our faculty members should collaborate more” Pascual stressed. “If we are promoting cooperation between universities, I think we should start with collaboration, say in education or research, among our own Philippine colleges and universities.”

Lastly, Pascual prescribed developing competitive programs for student mobility. These would be primarily composed of student exchange programs, inbound and outbound. In UP, this could be more easily achieved with the shift of its academic calendar from a June to an August start.

For and By Manila

“It’s interesting,” Fr. Jose Ramon Villarin noted, “that while Fred was speaking I was resonating with many of the points.” And indeed, despite the distinct challenges faced by private universities, his lecture hit several notes that harmonized with Pascual’s.
Villarin said that his overall vision for the Ateneo (he explicitly mentioned not being in a position to speak for all other private universities) began to take definite shape when Ateneo reviewed its strategic directions.

When it came to identity, he and his colleagues identified two ‘DNA’ issues as being related both in their primacy and their interrelation. These are publishing and internationalization.

Internationalization, in particular, was something they took pains to emphasize. “(Any) university worth its salt has to be international. It cannot just be local. Any university by its very nature has to have broad horizons. Its reach cannot be just very parochial. We said we need to state it.”

“Now I am sorry to say that Ateneo de Manila is no longer ‘de Manila’—for Manila or by Manila. It has to be more. And that’s difficult.”

For Villarin, however, Ateneo de Manila’s internationalization strategy is easy to describe. “Increase our sense of global citizenship,” he said. Despite what he calls both the country’s “colonial history” and its proverbial “hospitality to the foreigners,” it practically remains an archipelago in its physical and mental geography.

“Actually universities can be one of the most conservative of institutions,” Villarin admits, “even though they are free thinkers.” (It’s as if they say:) Pinag-isipan na namin ito eh. Marunong ka pa? Mas marunong kami. And therefore this is the challenge: how do we move beyond our narrow interests? The challenge of internationalism vis-a-vis nationalism.”


Ateneo de Manila students at a university activity. Photo from the Ateneo de Manila University website (http://www.admu.edu.ph/ateneo-student-life/gallery)

In Villarin and the Ateneo’s case, internationalization is never an end in itself. Instead, it presents an opportunity for them to strengthen both the institution and the quality of education that it offers. “It is about being able to navigate and contribute to shaping our interconnected world.”
Five Challenges

Villarin then introduced the five points he presented to the Ateneo’s board of trustees, which encapsulate what he believes are the major challenges facing HEIs in the 21st century. Though some of them were not explicitly educational, they would later be shown to have components in which education could play a decisive role.

The first challenge is inclusive development. “I think the response to this challenge is still education,” he stated. “One, you want to destroy the feudal structure, the padrino system, the PDAF—you want to destroy that? You educate. You let people finish.”

Ateneo de Manila’s experience in mobilizing manpower and coordinating the relief effort in the aftermath of Supertyphoon Yolanda also taught Villarin a powerful lesson. “If there’s one thing that Yolanda has been teaching us, it is the need for leaders, the need for managers.

“Tama na yung inspire-inspire. What we need is logistics-systems people. When we were packing, we packed about 80,000 relief goods. And that was a logistics challenge.”
“Trucks were coming in at different times, yung supply chain hindi consistent eh. How do we get this to the pier to deliver to Leyte? It’s beyond physics. So we got advice from the different disciplines.”

The second challenge was what Villarin called the democratization or “massification” of knowledge in the 21st century. “You’ve heard of Coursera? You’ve heard of edX? Let me explain what this phenomenon is. If I want to study Physics 101 or Calculus, I don’t have to enrol in UP or Ateneo, I can go to the Internet.”

The relative ease of access to knowledge that was previously contained behind the bailiwicks of academia has been a challenge even to climate experts like Villarin. Because of this accessibility, experts like him have to work harder to attain two vital things—depth and breadth—with respect to the knowledge they have.

What experts could provide is a guiding light amidst the dizzying cornucopia of information. “You need people to actually shepherd others through this maze… Have you ever tried surfing one night, and how one branch leads to another, before you realize, Gabi na. Puyat na ako.”

“You need leaders who don’t go down that path. So the challenge here is to achieve greater depth and specialization while simultaneously developing synthetic expertise that can handle, rationalize, and process complex data in diverse ecosystems.”

The third challenge is international competition. And here, Villarin echoed Pascual’s call for HEIs in the country to seek their respective niches. According to Villarin, differentiation is not only the underlying rationale for trade between economies, but also between universities across borders.

“Kung pare-pareho tayong lahat (ng expertise), there will be no trade. Why will they come to us? What do we have to offer? What is our cultural, geographic and natural advantage? That’s something we have to think about.”

The fourth challenge is speed, specifically the rapidity of change in systems and societies. This rapidity forces us to be “light, versatile and mobile.” And this consequence will require the mastery of what Villarin calls modularization and systems thinking.

“You cannot plan for something to last that long. Why? Because if you enter first-year college now with this course, by the time you graduate from college four years from now, that course may not be needed.”

His response is not the adoption of radical methods, but a strengthening of fundamentals. “What is the response? I say to enhance the foundation offered by the liberal arts and the sciences. Basic science. It will help us cope with the speed of change in this century.”

He recalled his education as a physics major, which he credits with developing an “openness” to new knowledge because of its diversity. If, he said, his education was simply in an overly-specialized or narrow field, it would have made future adjustments more difficult.

“My analogy here is the Swiss knife. Hindi lang po ako screwdriver, but there are other skills that I have learned because of this broad base of the liberal arts and basic education. And it is important, I think, to be flexible.”

The last challenge is that of geo-hazards. “In view of a more uncertain and perilous world we will need greater competence in assessing and reducing risks,” said Villarin. “A better understanding of the nature of risks includes knowing our exposure, our vulnerability.”

“Climate change is not just an ASEAN phenomenon, it’s a global phenomenon. And therefore we need to be concerned. Not just with Vietnam… We have to be concerned with Africa, we have to be concerned with Latin America. This is a global thing and we have to come together.”


Ateneo de Manila students in campus. Photo from the Ateneo de Manila University website (http://www.admu.edu.ph/ateneo-student-life/gallery)

“In closing,” Villarin said, “the gearing up or preparation we need will have to deal with these five challenges. The quality of that preparation, the appropriateness of our response will determine the extent of our advancement or stagnation in the regional and global arena. Gone are the days when regional alliances in the global stage were just an option.
“We can only disengage at our peril.”
Hugging Each Other at the Bottom

It became clear as the conference proceeded that while both Pascual and Villarin believed that factors such as increased funding for HEIs and the adoption of new technologies played a central role in preparing for internationalization, the battle would be won not in board rooms or laboratories.

The key to victory, they seemed to suggest, is to be found in the Filipino mind.
“The problem that we all face is never how to get new innovative thoughts in our minds,” Pascual said, paraphrasing American businessman Dee Hock. “We are all full of thoughts. But how to get old ones out.”

To make his point clear, Pascual used the case of Vietnam to highlight how far adrift higher education in the Philippines has found itself in a number of key aspects. “Look at Vietnam,” he said, “which was ravaged by so many wars. We have a two-decade head start. The war that ravaged the Philippines ended in 1945; in their case it was in the late 1960s.”

“Vietnam already beats us in terms of publication. In terms of embracing internationalization, they’re very much ahead of us. Their national university has set up a number of satellite universities. They now have the likes of Ho Chi Minh International University, offering international university degrees. They’re all focused on fields that are needed now.”

“Which universities here offer a degree in biomedical engineering? (Or) in financial engineering?” Pascual asked. “None, not even UP.” Even in the arena of joint programs, Pascual claims that UP is late for the party.

While there are now joint programs being formalized with foreign universities, UP has for so long been offering only dual degrees, where degrees are conferred separately.

When the Philippine-California Advanced Research Institutes (PCARI) was instituted by the Commission on Higher Education, Pascual said they encountered strong resistance from certain sectors. “We must allow programs that will operate under non-traditional rules to go ahead so we can have stars to hitch our wagons.”

The only hope for Philippine higher education to progress faster, he believes, is to let go of the so called “crab mentality.”

“We are all happy hugging each other at the bottom,” he said. “I think we should now allow some of us to rise, support institutions that are ready, so there would be an engine that can pull the others forward, so that there would be a model that others can follow.”

Pascual ended with a quote from former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch. This, it appeared, summed up his views on how ignoring the lessons and opportunities of the changing times could spell disaster, even for the greatest of the country’s institutions:

“When the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change inside, the end is in sight.”


Residents of the UP Diliman International Center hold flag ceremony at Quezon Hall.

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