By Phillip Tubeza, Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines—Ateneo de Manila University president Fr. Bienvenido Nebres has criticized the Aquino administration’s plan to add two more years to basic education, saying the government should focus first on cutting the number of “illiterates” the country produces annually.

Nebres, who headed the Presidential Task Force on Education (PTFE) in the Arroyo administration, said that with its meager resources, the government should first address the backlog in schools, textbooks, teachers and classrooms, and then cut by half the number of students (estimated to be around 700,000) who drop out of elementary school and are “illiterate.”

“Once you have achieved that, then let’s talk about the two years,” Nebres said in an interview in his office at the Ateneo.

President Aquino in his State of the Nation Address announced the plan to add two more years to basic education, which currently consists of six years of elementary and four years of high school.

The plan is aimed at aligning the Philippine education system with international standards.

But for Nebres, the plan would take away precious government resources from more pressing needs. Proponents of the plan say it would cost the government an additional P100 billion to implement it over a five-year period.

Nebres said records showed that 700,000 to 800,000 elementary school students—or around a third of the 2.4 million who enter the grades each school year—drop out before Grade 6.

“That means they’re illiterate. They’re unemployable. The estimate is that there are 12 million to 15 million illiterates in the country. So every year, you’re adding another 700,000 to 800,000,” Nebres said.

“That’s what should be addressed first because the country cannot move with so many poor unemployable people being added every year,” he said.

Instead of adding two years to basic education, Nebres recommended that the government instead add extra years to “select college courses” whose graduates would be required abroad to have 15 to 16 years of education.