Saving Filipino seafarers’ jobs (2)

Today’s column continues the discussion of the serious threat facing Filipino seafarers, who stand to lose their jobs as ship officers in European vessels if the European Commission withdraws recognition of their Philippine training certificates. I first tackled this dire prospect in Public Lives last Nov. 6.

At a recent meeting in Brussels (the seat of the European Commission, the European Union’s governing body), President Marcos Jr. informed EU maritime authorities and shipping company owners that he was deeply concerned about the certification issues threatening the accreditation of Filipino seafarers.

He emphatically stated that the Philippines will comply with the recommendations to correct deficiencies in the country’s maritime education and training. He announced that he was creating an advisory council to sort out the issues and to decide how to proceed.

I doubt that the formation of an advisory body was what his audience of EU accreditors and ship owners came to hear, for that can only mean further prolongation of a process that began in 2006. But I am sure they found some assurance in Mr. Marcos’ forthright acknowledgment that the country does have a problem with its maritime education and certification system. This is a far cry from his immediate predecessor’s penchant for badmouthing the European Union whenever he felt they were interfering in purely domestic affairs.

How a country educates its citizens is indeed its sovereign right. But when its people move abroad to seek employment or further education, the diplomas they bring with them are subject to the evaluative scrutiny of the host countries. Quite often, these may be judged to be inadequate for the kinds of positions or academic programs they are applying for.

With the globalization of education and the labor market, attempts have been made to define global standards for specific occupations and to operationalize the meanings of these in terms of competencies and skills. These competencies form the basis for the formulation of courses, syllabi and training manuals, and procedures for assessment and advancement to the next levels.

The transition from traditional models of learning, with their emphasis on sheer school attendance, and uniform and often unchanging curricula, to competency-based training may be especially jarring to those who hold very definite views of what constitutes a proper education irrespective of the changing demands of a given career, job, or profession.

The particular issues bugging the country’s maritime training and certification might be new for Mr. Marcos. But they surely are not unfamiliar to the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) and the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd). The key officials of these government agencies, as well as the heads of the country’s major maritime schools, have been repeatedly made aware of the unflattering reports of European maritime officials over the last 15 years.

One creates an advisory council to determine what the problems are, how to solve them, and who should be responsible for implementing the solutions. Yet these are the same topics that have been discussed in every report of the European Maritime Safety Agency (Emsa) since 2006. Emsa reports have consistently highlighted inadequate Philippine compliance with the training requirements set out in the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping.

The latest Emsa report, completed in 2020, offers a detailed list and description of these “recurrent deficiencies,” and here I mention only the most important: 1. Failure to specify the competencies that are supposed to be the end-goal of curricular programs; 2. Incoherent sequence of courses and topics, and failure to define learning outcomes; 3. Inadequate training facilities and equipment; 4. Incomplete course syllabi and absence of basic and up-to-date references; 5. Inconsistent monitoring inspections and evaluations of maritime schools by Marina and CHEd; 6. Failure to implement closure orders on substandard schools and academic programs.

The main problem has always been the absence of the political will to enforce the needed reforms. Like many other problems facing the nation, the future of our seafarers’ jobs transcends the six-year lifespan of any political administration. It demands continuity of attention.

We have an abundance of career civil servants working in various agencies of government, but, if they have not been corrupted, they tend to defer to the political appointees who are usually ignorant of the key functions and responsibilities of their offices. Worse, some of them may have sought these positions to protect vested interests in areas that are regulated by their agencies.

At another level, the reform agenda for maritime education that has been neatly presented by Emsa seeks changes that, in truth, underscore basic deficiencies in our country’s overall educational system. Due to space limitation, I will name only three that, I believe, are directly related to the state of maritime education, namely: 1. The policy of continuous promotion in basic and secondary education, which passes on the gatekeeping function to higher education institutions; 2. The inability to grasp the meaning of competency-based training; and 3. The commercialization of maritime education, which thrives on the easy money earned from the certification of ordinary seafarers.