Mark, a male PhD candidate in his 20s sitting on a bench at the Downing College Paddock. He is wearing a pair of blue jeans, longsleeved polo and a colour-block sweater in dark blue, red and white.
Mark, following Michaelmas term, the first academic term of the academic year deriving its name from the Feast of St Michael and All Angels on 29 September, at the Downing College Paddock ©

Karol Mark Yee

November 2020

1. Tell us about yourself — what’s your story and what are you studying?

I have been working in education policy for the past ten years. I was lucky to have joined the Senate in 2011 as a legislative officer. There, I received the best mentorship in education policy anyone can ask for— learning from the late Senate President Edgardo Angara and the likes of Dr Dionisia Rola. Senator Angara was a forward-thinking visionary who was a stickler for excellence, and for whom the Ignatian motto Magis was the baseline and Dr Rola was a pillar in the sector who served as Executive Director of the influential Congressional Oversight Committee on Education, among many of her other hats. We worked on laws like the Universal Kindergarten Education Act, the Early Years Act, and the K to 12 law. This first foray in government showed me that despite all the criticisms and imperfections, much good could be achieved through disciplined policy work.

Later on, my time at the Commission on Higher Education taught me invaluable lessons:

  • First, that working in the sector requires honest-to-goodness research and consciousness of our geographic bias. On my first year in CHED, it dawned on me that my Manila-centric perspective of which universities were the best required reconsideration. In fact, we have many public and private institutions doing exceptional work outside of Manila deserving much support and recognition.
  • Second, that given our context, if we aim to improve access to quality higher education for more of our countrymen, it is more productive if our first instinct is developmental instead of punitive— to ask ourselves: ‘How could we enable our not-so-great colleges and universities to attain quality?’, instead of always finding fault.
  • Third, that despite all our progress in education access in the past decades, opportunities continue to be determined by our origins (such as the education and occupation of our parents) and geography.

This last insight has driven me to pursue my PhD in Education, focusing on inequalities in education opportunity.

2. Why did you choose the UK as a study destination?

In my work in CHED, I realised how higher education systems operated differently from one another: ours for example is very much a reflection of our colonial past, borrowing a lot of its features from the United States (for example, the outsized role of the private sector). On the other hand, some structures and certain policies in universities find their roots in the UK higher education system.

When I was doing my Master’s degree in Harvard, I proposed to do an independent study that allocated time for me to just sink my teeth into research for an entire semester, with the supervision of an adviser. It was out of the ordinary to do one, but I felt it was something I ought to do to ‘synthesise’ my learning. I did mine on teacher education policies in the Philippines with Prof Pasi Salhberg, a foremost expert in teacher education and the Finnish education system. In the end, it was possibly the course I found the most rewarding and enjoyable during my time there.

Because of this, when it was time to pursue my PhD, the UK was at the top of my list because I knew that graduate programmes were more research-oriented; quite different from the often course-heavy US model and shorter (most programmes are 3–4 years compared to 5–6 years in other countries). Also, since I work in the higher education space, the chance to be able to experience first-hand how the UK system operates was an extra incentive, as more and more cross-border collaborations are happening between Philippine and UK universities. Of course, that it is home to excellent gins, stouts and scones was the real bonus.

3. Has your experience been different from what you expected?

Yes and no. I am becoming intimately acquainted now with how research degrees operate, and it has been quite an experience. I find it profoundly rewarding to be able to shape my own learning experience: pursuing ideas and studies depending on where my mind takes me (from journal articles to well-studied non-fiction work and podcasts, to Netflix shows like Sky Castle — all of which tackle education inequalities), choosing which classes and seminars to attend and deciding when to work. It is fulfilling but also a lot of hard work, requiring self-discipline and conscientiousness.

Studying at the University of Cambridge, I expected world-class teaching, extensive access to resources, a diverse community and attending classes in Harry Potter-like buildings. I suppose what I didn’t fully expect was the wholeness of the experience: from attending formals (wearing academic gowns to dinners and not just on graduation), student-produced opera and classical concerts, wine tastings and college bops (parties), to learning how to play the piano and tennis — I feel like I am growing in all directions, making the experience enriching and enjoyable.

It is of course a bonus to have such a strong and cohesive Filipino student community in the Cambridge University Filipino Society (CUFS). While the UK may not be top-of-mind for most Filipinos, we had the largest cohort of Filipino students in Cambridge last year with 32 of us pursuing undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, with an equally diverse group joining us this year. The group is a home-away-from-home, a support system, which has been invaluable especially with the isolation and anxiety brought about by the pandemic.

4. What are your ambitions for yourself and for Philippine education?

For Philippine education, it would be for us to be able to widen our latitude in terms of innovation and inclusion. Volumes have been written on what is wrong about Philippine education and our recent performance in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment or PISA) reinforce these convictions. It is important to take an honest look at ourselves, to tie up loose ends, and to strengthen our institutions. But it is equally important for us to look ahead, to look forward and to have an equal passion for innovation as we do for regulation.

Other countries have been aggressive in investing heavily in their universities, strengthening their capacity for research and attracting top talent. What is our hope and vision for ourselves? Where do we see our education system 10, 20 years from now and how do we get there? There’s a quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry which I love: ‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.’

My second hope is that we become more inclusive. A book I read recently, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy by Tressie McMillan Cottom describes the importance of having a ‘porous’ education system: one that allows learners to go in and out of school without being penalised— a system of second chances. As our government allocates more and more resources towards universal access, it is important for us to grasp that the truly disadvantaged (1) could not enter college because they cannot even complete elementary or secondary education, or (2) dropout of college after one or two years. Thus, if we are to succeed, we must place as much attention to keeping them in school and lowering barriers for re-entry, as we are in providing support for them to enter the system. 

My ambition for myself is to be able to contribute to these two, in any way I can. My previous boss, former CHED Chairperson Patricia Licuanan would always say that we should ‘save us from our weaker selves’. For those of us who’ve had our fair share of heartaches, this could be jadedness or pessimism in what could sometimes be impossible reform work. My hope perhaps would be able to build the tenacity required by the mission.

5. What advice would you give to Filipinos who aspire to pursue a postgraduate degree in the UK?

I think in general, the most important advice I would have is to find a school based on the programme you want to take, and not the other way around. The UK is an exciting area to study in as it attracts a diverse range of scholars from around the world, offers a unique educational and cultural experience (different from what we are used to in the Philippines and in other US-influenced education systems) and is in many ways still a gateway to Europe.

I think for the most part, many shy away from the UK because the unfamiliarity — of the culture, of the system or of the application process — could be disconcerting. But keep an open mind and reach out! More and more Filipinos are studying in the UK, who could be great exemplars and even resources for those wanting to study here. In the last year alone, I know four Filipinos who have finished outstandingly in Cambridge: Chino Cua, Julia Cabanas and Marianne Vital, all completing their Master’s degrees with distinction. Recently, Sharmila Parmanand, a Gates scholar, completed her PhD in Gender Studies, defending her thesis with no corrections— a rare feat.

For those interested in studying at the University of Cambridge, do reach out to us via our email and we would glad to be of any help in the process.

13 female and male members of Cambridge University Filipino Society wearing black university robes smiling for the camera while standing.
The Cambridge University Filipino Society at Wolfson College following their monthly formal dinner. ©

Karol Mark Yee

A group of seven international Caucasian and Asian students sit around a wooden dining table. They are all smiling towards the camera and are wearing crowns made of gold aluminum foil.
Mark with fellow PhD candidates at the Faculty of Education ©

Karol Mark Yee

Foreground: an open laptop, lamp and paper on top of a dark wood desk; background: glass window overlooking a street with fallen autumn leaves
Autumn view from the Faculty of Education Library, University of Cambridge ©

Karol Mark Yee

Four Filipino students in their 20s take a selfie in front of the National Gallery in London. They are all wearing black coats/jackets.
Mark, together with (l-r) Micci Erum, Marianne Vital and Chino Cua, officers of the Cambridge University Filipino Society, in front of the National Gallery in London ©

Karol Mark Yee

Five Filipino students in suits flank the Philippine Ambassador to the UK Antonio Lagdameo who is wearing a grey suit with red necktie and has white hair..
Mark, with Philippine Ambassador to the United Kingdom, HE Antonio Lagdameo (fourth from left), and other officers of the Cambridge University Filipino Society ©

Karol Mark Yee

See also

External links