Jul 6, 2014

Philippines - The unbearable lightness of change

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A one-time four-month summer break!

For some students of the University of the Philippines, the unexpected long vacation was the biggest boon resulting from the sudden change in the school calendar, from June to March of previous years, to this schoolyear’s August to May time frame.

For casual observers however, the calendar shift was rather abrupt and seemingly rushed. “Railroaded” was another description that comes to mind. After all, talks about the move became rife only in the second half of 2013, with the move approved early this year. And now, it’s a done deal, with UP students looking at August 7 as their first day of school.

Where were the feasibility studies? Shouldn’t more time been given to consultations with faculty and students? Why was there such urgency anyway?

In the meantime, what happens during that four-month summer break?

Aside from offering a midyear term, or a second summer term, to cover the idle months of June and July and make full use of the break, the faculty and staff could also use the time to prepare, UP Diliman chancellor Mike Tan said.

“We thought June and July would be a good time for academic preparations like holding strategic workshops and planning curricula. In a way, those two months are really a bonus for faculty and staff,” he added.

The break has also afforded the university the much-needed time to renovate dorms and spruce up the whole campus.

“We never really had that two-month-long break to do just that,” Tan said.

For some UP students, it was the breather they were waiting for. One incoming fourth-year law student said he’d finally have the time to do his internship, which wouldn’t have been possible if the old school calendar had been followed.

“Some really grade-anxious law students won’t even commit to summer activities until all their grades are complete,” said 25-year-old Jose Aniceto David Dealino who with the summer break doubled, even had time to catch up on his favorite TV shows and learn how to cook before doing his internship in the judicial department.

Meanwhile, other issues have been dredged up: What about the Lantern Parade in December? Will there still be sunflowers during a May graduation?

Going global has been cited as the primary reason for the move. But producing globally competitive graduates have always been a goal, so why the shift t this time?

While acknowledging that the change should have been done earlier, UP president Alfredo Pascual said it was the Asean economic integration in 2015 that served as the trigger.

“We want to have closer relationships with the leading universities among member-countries… We want to be able to send them our best students in exchange programs and likewise receive their best students in our university,” he said.

If all targets are met, by 2015, Asean member-countries would see a free flow of goods, capital, services, investment and skilled labor across the region. And when that happens, Pascual added, college students and graduates must be able to look beyond national borders and “think Asean.”

“A change that will synchronize UP’s academic calendar with the major universities in Asean and around the world will provide a clear signal that UP is now internationalizing and is getting ready to fully engage universities in the country’s trading partners,” UP’s rationale statement for the calendar shift similarly stated.

UP, along with Ateneo de Manila University and De La Salle University which also announced their calendar shifts next year, is a member of the Asean University Network (AUN). After Thailand made the shift, the Philippines remained the only country in Asean implementing the June-March school year.
Pascual said it was “a necessary condition that we need to implement to support our thrust toward internationalizing UP.”

But, he clarified, internationalizing the university doesn’t mean enticing more foreign students to earn their degrees in UP. Rather, it is about enhancing the mobility of faculty and students for them to engage with the international academic community with fewer limitations.

They want to make sure that school calendars are synchronized so that exchange programs need not cost a lot, the UP official said.

Under the old calendar, studying abroad entails a lot of cost, inconvenience and wasted time, “especially for programs where units taken are not credited by the home university,” said Maritoni Molina, a UP alumna who attended an exchange program in South Korea in 2009.

Molina graduated three semesters late when she chose to be an exchange student at Kangwon National University in South Korea.

“I had to end my 2nd semester in UP Diliman abruptly and cut the entire month of March to be able to make it to the start of the school year in South Korea. Some of my professors had me drop their subjects, which were prerequisites to other subjects,” she said. “It meant that upon my return, I had to take the same subjects again instead of moving forward.”

Her exchange program ended in December, when the second semester at UP had already started. She had to wait for three more months until the summer term to get back to school, she said.

“[The delay] meant getting employed only two years after my batch mates did. But I have no regrets,” said Molina, now a law student at San Beda College Manila.

The international conventions and competitions held during the summer term of foreign universities in Europe, which is from June to July, had also meant that UP performing artists had to miss a whole semester just to join dance or choral competitions.

These problems are among those that the shift in calendar can resolve, Pascual said.

Still, the UP official acknowledged that the abrupt change entails a number of adjustments.

“Of course, nothing is free,” Pascual said. “There’s a saying, if a problem is created by man, man should be able to solve it. We would have to make some adjustments.”

Among naysayers, a major adjustment is the heat of the summer months that could deter concentration and distract students from schoolwork. It’s an argument that Tan and Pascual don’t buy.

“Summer classes have been held for as long as I can remember despite the heat. It’s not as if it’s something new and different,” Pascual said.

If anything, under both rain and sun, the UP Diliman community could certainly use more covered walks, a project that’s already in the pipeline, Tan added.

Pascual denied that the shift was meant to reduce the number of class suspensions because of inclement weather.

On average, going for the shift would save the university only two days of no classes, which is not that significant, he said. And in both old and new calendars, the rainy months of August and September would still be there.

There was nothing the university couldn’t fix, the official said confidently.

Even the dates of licensure exams can be adjusted, Pascual said, citing initial discussions with the Philippine Regulatory Commission, which administers the board exams, and with the Supreme Court for the bar exams.

“Should the dates of exams remain the same, one adjustment, according to some colleges, is to start the review while the students are still in the second semester. It’s not a big deal,” he said.

As for other UP traditions such as the Lantern Parade in December and the blooming sunflowers during graduation, Pascual has apparently given them some thought.

The first semester in the new calendar would end in December, so the usual date for the Lantern Parade would fall on finals week.

“[The parade] has not been settled yet. Shall we hold it a few weeks earlier so we don’t jeopardize the exam period of our students? Or shall we hold it in an entirely different date or month?” Pascual asked.

“The parade used to be a celebration of Christmas but it has since evolved. The theme is more universal now, no longer just a Christian theme,” he added. “I was thinking, why not Valentine’s Day?”

Regarding the sunflowers, which students feel wouldn’t bloom in time for their graduation in May, Pascual quipped, “we have scientists here, maybe they can solve that riddle.”

The new calendar also has benefits not related to internationalization. It has placed the two semesters in a more logical setup, as it rolls into one the two long vacations of the school year: the semestral and the Christmas breaks.

Tan said that under the old set-up, Christmas seemed to be huge distraction in the second semester.
“Because the sem starts in November, then by December, people are losing focus, thanks to Christmas preparations. They’re not really paying attention, being busy with our Lantern Parade and all,” he said. “And then they go off on a break, and when they come back in January, there’s a real hangover.”

Many faculty members, including himself, felt that they had to start all over again, Tan said. “And then before you know it, it’s already the end of the semester.”

Empirical evidence also shows that grades tend to be lower in the second semester than in the first. So removing the Christmas break distraction in the second sem would be pedagogically beneficial, Pascual said. Not to mention, economical, as it would mean students would have to fly home to their hometowns only once in the middle of the year.

Tan also noted that the two semesters would each have long holidays, the All Saints’ Day break for the first semester of August to December, and the Holy Week for the second semester of January to May.
Operational issues aside, some groups have described the internationalization of education as anti-Filipino, a move that would push more students to leave the country.

“While Filipino students are being packaged as globally competitive and internationally at par with foreign students, this largely means that Filipino students are being honed to leave the country to serve the global masters as global slaves. [They should instead] be encouraged to stay in the country and serve their fellow citizens,” according to a position paper on the issue released by the National Union of Students of the Philippines.

“I usually, say, fine, but we already know that our graduates go abroad. So if we improve our programs in UP, we can make sure that those who go abroad will be able to do a better job than the older graduates. They would be better prepared,” Pascual said.

UP is mandated to produce the future leaders of the country, and we are just being true to that mandate, he added.

“The future leaders of this country will no longer be confined within our boundaries. They should be able to operate across our national borders,” Pascual said.

“An internationalized UP will be in a better position to produce Filipino graduates who are internationally oriented and have the competence to assume leadership not only in the Philippines, but also in the region which will become an integrated Asean Economic Community by 2015,” the UP rationale statement declared.

But the issue is apparently a concern not only for UP but the rest of the country’s higher education institutions (HEIs).

To be globally competitive has always been on the agenda of the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd), chair Patricia Licuanan said.

But, she added, it was not desirable for other colleges to follow suit just because the top universities, UP, ADMU, DLSU, University of Santo Tomas and Adamson University, are shifting their calendars in the name of internationalization.

When the country’s top universities started shifting calendars, all of a sudden, other colleges and universities wanted to do the same, but for all the wrong reasons, she noted.

“I keep asking the question, ‘Why?’ which is a very basic question, and the type of answers I would get is ‘uhm, I think we can overcome the problems, I think we can do it.’ Sort of like they can overcome the hurdles but why they really wanted it, wasn’t clear,” she said.

Licuanan, who is also part of the university’s Board of Regents, has nothing against UP’s academic calendar shift, but said it was the possible bandwagon effect that bothered her the most.

Other institutions might have gotten worried that they would be left behind because the big universities are doing it so they started thinking that maybe they should go for it, too.

But CHEd has been firm on its stand on the matter: The shift in academic calendar may be good for a few but it’s not for all. The country’s HEIs operate on different levels, with some universities ready to engage with the international community while others still have a long way to go, Licuanan said.

“I think the goals [of internationalizing education that] they want to achieve are goals we want to achieve for the country and for HEIs, as well. But there are other ways to achieve them,” she said. “Changing the calendar is just one possibility. … and it only makes exchange programs slightly more convenient.”

According to its position paper released in March, a result of the discussion conducted by a technical work group tasked to look into the issue, CHEd firmly believes that the best way to internationalize education is for HEIs to intensify quality assurance, capacity building and institutional development programs.

“HEIs have to put a premium on knowledge generation and production as an initial step to internationalization,” the paper said.

CHEd also argued that the academic calendar is not really a big deal for the Asean integration in 2015. Efforts should instead be directed toward making sure that college graduates would be at par with their Asean counterparts.

Even UP president Pascual agreed that the shift, as dramatic as it may seem, is but a minor detail in the grand scheme of internationalization. A lot of work remains to be done in ensuring that UP would succeed in prepping its graduates and the university itself for the world.

“We need to make sure we continue to maintain a strong faculty with advanced degrees in their areas of expertise,” he said.

Facilities should also be improved, he said, “so that foreign students will find it comfortable [to] study here, especially if they are coming from a more advanced country.”

Arrangements with other universities for mutual recognition or transfer of credits should also be made, so that courses taken in the country are recognized for credit in the home universities of students, and those taken abroad will be credited here, Pascual said.

There would definitely be changes in the curriculum, he added.

Shifting the academic calendar is but a springboard to more valuable improvements in UP, Pascual said, adding that the shift was the disruption that UP needed to move forward.

“If you want to change for the better, you have to disrupt the current ways. Otherwise, there will be complacency and it would very difficult to achieve progress.

“How many people are conscious about the need to prepare the university for internationalization? Nobody was paying attention. But when we shifted the calendar, everybody (started talking) about it,” Pascual said, citing public discussions on the work that needs to be done to make Philippine education globally competitive.

As a member university of the AUN and in line with the Asean vision of harmonization and standardization, some of UP’s degree programs are subjected to quality assurance assessment and reviewed by a panel of international professors, he said.

“Back when I was coming in as president of the university, there was strong opposition to degree programs being reviewed by outsiders.”

But now with the idea of Asean integration drummed up, at least three undergraduate programs of UP have already been submitted for review, including statistics and engineering in UP Diliman and biology in UP Los BaƱos, Pascual said. A few more programs are now lined up for assessment.

“So this is what I mean about what disruption can bring about. But we have to be careful, of course, so we don’t fall over the cliff,” he said.

Change, Pascual added, is sometimes needed “to stimulate progress. It keeps people on their toes.”
But, he warned, “it also makes them feel uncomfortable.”

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