Strengthening the Commission on Higher Education at the expense of Academic Freedom

Nov 2, 2022 | Advocacy, JEEPGY: Educational Reform

(A Statement on House Bill 991)

In the Philippines, the supreme law of the land provides for Academic Freedom. By virtue of Article XIV, Section 5.2 of the 1987 Constitution, it has its place in the Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). A statutory interpretation of the same may ironically threaten the very essence of academic freedom even in the guise of strengthening the Commission on Higher Education. 

House Bill 991, seeks to amend Republic Act No 7722, otherwise known as the Higher Education Act of 1994, by expanding its mandate to cover such as sports development, supervision and regulation of higher education programs offered by local universities and colleges (LUCs); developing common standards for accrediting agencies; internationalization of higher education institutions, establishment of a national registry for academic information and mobility; and strengthening quality assurance. While these are innocent provisions, a finer scrutiny of the proposed measure reveals a possible threat that would kill academic freedom enjoyed by Higher Education Institutions in the Philippines.

In the bill, Section 4 states in part that “CHED is mandated to formulate and implement policies governing the delivery of education services by public and private HEIs. xxx As such, it shall exercise oversight powers and reasonable supervision over HEIs.” This is in effect invites CHED into perpetual and disastrous overreach into the governance and operations of an HEI since governance of the HEI belongs to its academic freedom.  The bill wrongfully allows CHED to arrogate to itself regulatory functions over State Universities and Colleges.  By what authority does CHED, born of legislation, govern and regulate
SUCs, also born of legislation?

The framing from which the bill proceeds is organically flawed. This framing separates higher education from basic education and technical education.  Therefore, our CHED, DepED and Tesda.  The separation has allowed a disastrous lack of communication and coordination between these three branches of learning.  A “strengthened CHED” as HB 991 contemplates does not solve the problem, but exacerbates it.   Higher education is not strengthened if the fundamentals in basic education remain weak.  Technical education is not strengthened if not enriched by higher education disciplines and competencies.

In academic freedom each HEI is empowered to provide instruction, formation, research and extension service according to its vision and mission.  It fulfills the minimum standards approved by CHED, but in fidelity to its mission and vision it exceeds those minimum standards in areas of its academic excellence and in responsiveness to its stakeholders.  These areas of academic freedom belong to the governance of the HEI in academic freedom, and not to the governance of CHED which does not enjoy academic freedom.  No body of bureaucrats can govern the academic community of higher education institutions exercising academic freedom.  That is why the framers of RA 7722 envisioned a weak CHED, one that only sets minimum standards.  The stronger the CHED, the weaker the HEI.

Strengthening the CHED as contemplated by HB 991 will weaken the HEIs.  All will wait for the orders of the strengthened CHED.  Instead of an array of diverse HEIs responsive to diverse situations in innovative and creative higher education (including higher technical education), HB 991 will reap a sad harvest of HEIs all walking lockstep to the governance of CHED. 

A closer look at Section 9 on the proposed legislation outlining to Powers of Functions of the CHED reveals a direct contravention of academic freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. Modalities of learning, methods of delivery, qualification standards, accreditation criteria, tuition and fees and quality assurance, are some areas in mortal peril in the hands of the Commission jeopardizing the fourfold dimension of academic freedom: the freedom to determine what to teach, who should teach, who to teach and how to teach.

Among the enumerated powers of the CHED in the bill that poses a real threat to academic freedom if granted are as follows: a) Formulate a roadmap for Philippine higher education that sets the general directions for its development, including the formulation of educational policies and standards that ensure the accessibility and continuing improvement of tertiary education services; b) Set minimum quality assurance standards and guidelines for programs and institutions for all HEIs, as well as a governance framework; c) Review, monitor and evaluate the curricula and other academic programs of HEIs; d) Exercise quasi-judicial powers in the pursuit of the mandate of the CHED; e) Set PSGs for the creation of new HEIs, as well as the conversion or elevation of schools to institutions of higher learning; f) Set guidelines for reasonable increases in tuition and other fees in private HEIs; g) Provide directions and common standards for accrediting agencies; h) Develop criteria for allocating additional resources such as research and program development grants, scholarships; and i) Fix and adjust the salaries of officials and personnel and administer the hiring of employees, promotion and other staffing concerns.

The above-cited provisions in the proposed bill actually jeopardize HEIs since academic freedom is literally transferred into the hands of a bureaucratic body. The entire Section 9 should be given to the HEIs. Imagine, CHED can even dip its fingers in the governance framework of HEIs! By what authority does CHED govern the HEIs’ governing boards and much more prescribe a “framework” for their operations? The framework of governance of a secular government is inadequate to govern the HEI whose mission and identity involve faith in God and formation in faith.  CHED is not even locally and contextually attuned to the local settings of these HEIs.

If we believe in the capacity of HEIs to govern and run their schools according to their respective visions-missions, which is their determination of quality education, then we must grant them full range of autonomy in administration, instruction and operation in their respective jurisdictions. And this must be assessed by peers in the academic community and not by bureaucrats. Academic freedom is not in CHED nor in legislation. It belongs to the Higher Education Institutions. It should remain undisturbed.

Furthermore, the bill allows the CHED to regulate the imposition of tuition fee increases in private higher education institutions. This is an absurdity for the private HEIs do not even owe a dime to the Commission. So why give them consent to pry into the affairs of the HEIs? Why not think of operationalizing the constitutional mandate of complementarity of public and private education instead of giving the Commission authority to interfere into how the HEIs run their educational mission. This misplaced authority given to the CHED permits legislators to increase the budget and salaries of SUCs and LUCs without limit while CHED regulates the tuition and fees of private education institutions according to arbitrary criteria like inflation rates.  The policy undermines the ability of the schools to provide quality education, which is always costly.   This is inequitable!  Tuition and fees must be left to the free covenant between the school and the student or their parents.

Let the HEIs increase and the CHED decrease.  Strengthening the CHED weakens the HEIs. It yields the academic freedom accorded to true academicians to limited people who cannot possibly govern the entire community of HEIs   As guardians of the truth, we call upon all HEIs to stand together in defending our constitutionally mandated freedom to provide   quality higher education in the Philippines. And to the Catholic HEIs, let us protect our freedom to provide our students Catholic education based on our vision and mission and in accordance with our contextual realities.

We reject HB 991 and all attempts to weaken the HEIs in the country by fortifying CHED.