Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 11 January 2014


The move to change the academic calendar of the University of the Philippines, as well as other schools like Ateneo de Manila University, from the present June-March cycle to a late August-May cycle should be examined with a fine-toothed comb. Instead, there seems to have been a rush to judgment, which was stopped in its tracks by the members of the university community. The Commission on Higher Education also weighed in on the issue.

On Aug. 30, 2013, UP president Alfredo Pascual sent the idea as a “policy proposal” to all the chancellors and deans, and asked them to hold “extensive consultations” with the faculty, students, and administrators, and submit the reactions before Oct. 31. The feedback would then be incorporated into a final policy proposal that would be submitted to the various University Councils by December. Pascual assumed that the proposal would be approved, because he planned to submit the “UC-approved proposal to the Board of Regents for its consideration in the first quarter of 2014.”

It didn’t work quite that way. I don’t know what is happening at Ateneo, where the president, Jet Villarin, is just as enthusiastic as Pascual about the idea. But it may be facing rough sailing (nowhere near as rough as UP Diliman, though, for reasons that will become obvious).

What’s wrong with the proposal? Aside from the fact that there wasn’t enough time to consider all the ramifications for UP, and more importantly, for the Philippines (UP is THE national university), there are some glaring flaws in the rationale for the new calendar.

First, the move is supposed to be necessary for UP to achieve its role as a “regional and global university.” What it does not say is that only the European and North American universities are on the August/September to May/June calendar. And that is because that coincides with their fall, winter and spring.  The other countries in Latin America, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa have academic calendars that start in February, right after their summer months. Does this mean that these countries are not “global”?  Or that we don’t care to cooperate with them?

Then, much is made of the fact that we are the only country in the Asean University Network (AUN) that still adheres to a June-March calendar. But the policy paper mentions Thailand’s two academic calendars: one for the Thai system, and one for the international programs. Now that sounds eminently sensible.  Why can’t we examine that alternative, if we are so anxious to attract foreign students (assuming that they will be attracted)?

The aim is to increase student mobility, and definitely schools having the same academic calendar will help to achieve that. But not having the same academic calendar does not prevent students from being mobile. My daughter, who was studying in the United States, spent her junior year here in the Philippines in spite of the different academic calendars. No problem. But more importantly, why are we changing the academic calendar to accommodate UP students who wish to study abroad, either in the AUN or in the United States? How many students are we talking about? Isn’t that like the tail wagging the dog?

What about faculty? Does a different academic calendar prevent the exchange of faculty? Judging from our experience in the UP School of Economics, the different schedules help, rather than hinder, faculty exchange. The foreign faculty members use their summer (June, July, August) to come here and conduct their classes. Where there is a will, there is a way.

By the way, according to the chair of UP’s history department, the idea of shifting the academic calendar was tried in the Philippines around 1960, but we didn’t push through with it. Perhaps we should ask the Department of Education (there was no CHEd then) to dig up its files and tell us about it.

Another glaring flaw in the policy paper: It begins with the statement that our present academic calendar allows us to have a two-month summer vacation when “the weather is too hot.” It then says that the advantage of having classes in those summer months is that the average number of typhoons is 0.17 and 0.33, respectively. But will we be able to bear the cost of air-conditioning the classrooms? The policy paper does not appear to have looked into that.

Anyway, UP will have the opportunity to talk about the negative ramifications of the proposal. The University Council of Diliman turned down the idea of an August-May calendar in the last UC meeting in December, but a broader cross-section of the university will have the opportunity to have its opinions heard during the Diliman forum that will be held next month.  Let’s hope other alternatives can be discussed.

In any case, we are not the only ones who are talking about this kind of change. Two years ago, Tokyo University formed a committee to examine how the academic calendar could be changed to make it more international. President Junichi Hamada wanted to introduce autumn enrollment by 2015. Well, in June 2013, the University of Tokyo announced that it was abandoning the attempt to align with the Western academic calendar. Too many negatives (including the fact that the students would be graduating in May, while Japanese companies hired in April).

Instead, the committee proposed a change from a two-semester system to a four-term (quarter) system that would make it easier for international students as well as Japanese students to move around. At least, the tail would not be wagging the dog.