It is the vision of every nation to provide universal access to education for its people. The global Sustainable Development Goal number 4 seeks to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all by the year 2030.
SDG 4 is more focused on ensuring that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education, while aiming for gender equality in access to higher education.
But in today's highly competitive and technology-based world, tertiary education becomes even more crucial.
Nearly two decades ago, the late American academic, Malcolm Gillis, succinctly described the importance of higher education:
"Today, more than ever before in human history, the wealth-or poverty-of nations depends on the quality of higher education. Those with a larger repertoire of skills and a greater capacity for learning can look forward to lifetimes of unprecedented economic fulfillment. But in the coming decades the poorly educated face little better than the dreary prospects of lives of quiet desperation."
The Philippines had the enviable status of being the second most progressive nation in Asia during the 1950s and early 1960s. Our country was a model of development, second only to Japan.
We were envied as an industrial powerhouse and served as a manufacturing hub for many products - from consumer goods to medical products; cement; textile and fertilizers; as well as steel, for shipbuilding. We assembled automobiles, televisions, and home appliances.
Technology and capital from multinational enterprises during this period could have helped develop our inherent capacity for indigenous innovation, but that did not happen.
Today, the Philippines ranks 74th out of 128 countries on a range of global innovation indexes that include institutional environment, human capital and research, infrastructure, business sophistication, knowledge and technology outputs, and creative outputs.
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation classifies the Philippines as an "innovation follower" - meaning we do not contribute significantly to the global innovation system. It also means we underinvest in scientific research, and are not willing to embrace needed reforms that could bolster our innovation potential.
In the Senate, we have approved the Philippine Innovation Act, which aims to promote a culture of innovation to encourage creative thinking and knowledge creation and dissemination towards expanding and maintaining economic competitiveness; improve innovation governance in the country and to compel the adoption of a long-term vision and focused priorities for innovation as driver for sustainable and inclusive growth; and ensure effective coordination and eliminate fragmentation of innovation policies and programs at all levels.
But in order to create an innovation ecosystem, we need to invest in higher education.
Among the countries in the ASEAN, the Philippines has the most number of universities and colleges. In Academic Year 2013-2014, there were 1,699 privately-owned High Education Institutions (HEIs) and 224 were public.
However, in terms of producing researchers and scientists, the Philippines is lagging behind, producing 81 researchers per million people, higher only than Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, which produce 18, 17 and 16 researchers per million, respectively. 
Singapore, which has only six public universities, produces 6,927 researchers per million people; next is Malaysia with 1,918 researchers per million; Thailand with 581; Brunei with 281; Indonesia with 205; and Vietnam with 115 researchers per million.
Clearly, we have to invest more to create a pool of experts in our academic institutions. Our state universities and colleges (SUCs) need significant support, especially from the government, in conducting researches and projects that can keep pace with the best in the world, and we must not hesitate in investing in institutions that can in fact lead in research and development (R and D).
As your Chair of the Committee on Finance in the Senate, we have made significant strides to improve both access to and quality of higher education through increased funding for SUCs.
Under the 2016 national budget, which can be utilized until the end of this year, all SUCs received additional funding for academic buildings, equipment and the Tulong Dunong Program.
Under the 2017 national budget, we subsidized tuition fee for all SUCs to allow everyone the chance to earn a college degree. We aim to institutionalize this through the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Bill, already approved by the Senate.
Moreover, since all progressive nations have put science, technology, and innovation as a centerpiece of their development policy, we are encouraging enrolment in Science, Technology, Education, Agri-fisheries and Mathematics or STEAM programs by supporting the grant of scholarships to students enrolled in priority courses in all SUCs. Prioritizing the provision of state funds to scholars taking up STEAM courses, and other key growth areas such as electronics, business process outsourcing, tourism, general infrastructure and other priority manufacturing industries, will be vital in our effort to build a knowledge-based and innovation economy.
With the many concerns of government, budgeting is really a challenging task. But I have always believed that giving the necessary financial support to SUCs will help produce a workforce that will support our industries and companies which, in turn, propel the country to inclusive growth and global competitiveness.
For the 2018 budget, we will continue to support our SUCs the best way we can.
We also expect so much from our SUCs. You are the best partners of local government units (LGUs) in undertaking research programs for heritage mapping and inventory of the biodiversity of the provinces in the country.
As SUCs are also mandated to ensure that climate change, disaster risk reduction and management and environmental awareness and protection are integrated in the school curricula, we also acknowledge your crucial role in the creation of local climate change action plans (LCCAP) of all cities, municipalities, and provinces. With the available historical and cultural information that you already have, and the technical expertise for research and development, you can all contribute in formulating and enhancing these local plans.
We are confronted with the great task of elevating the quality of higher education in the country. We will continue to find ways to support our SUCs to become centers of excellence in Science and Technology, and to enable you to build up a world-class group of professors and researchers and to attract the brightest young minds.
Our actions must be immediate and our efforts must be doubled for we are dealing with the future not only of our youth but of our nation. May you all be filled with greater inspiration and stronger drive as we all seek to ensure better opportunities today and for the generations of tomorrow.
Source: Senate of the Philippines