Philippine reforms maritime schools’ curriculum to comply with STCW 

Compliance with European safety audit.

The Philippine Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) has submitted to the European Union (EU) its report on compliance with the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW), with a pledge to do more to meet the requirements of the convention.

Retired vice admiral and MARINA head Robert Empedrad said they were able to submit their report before the March 10 deadline set by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) which reported unfavorable findings, mainly on the Philippines’ maritime education, training, and certification system. 

“Substantially, we complied (with the EMSA requirements),” Empedrad told Maritime Fairtrade a week after the agency submitted its response to the European Commission (EC). He said most of the unfavorable EMSA findings were already addressed, except the findings on maritime higher education institutions (MHEIs).

“Compliance with some requirements was not implementable before March 10, so we will implement after March 10,” he said, adding that the EC only sent the notification last December. 

“We cannot comply immediately, because some requirements take time. There are still schools to be inspected. But we provided a timeline in the report,” Empedrad said.

He admitted that the EMSA threatened to withdraw the certification of around 40,000 Filipinos seafarers working on European vessels because some Philippine agencies were unable or unwilling to implement reforms since the first EMSA assessment in 2006.

In the 2006 assessment, the EMSA said some maritime training institutions in the Philippines did not comply with the STCW. Similar findings were reported in 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2017. 

“In 2020, they came here to validate our compliance in the previous inspection. [But] when they arrived, they found additional findings,” said Empedrad, who was named MARINA chief in 2020. 

To remove shipboard training from maritime schools

“For me, I will just comply with their requirements even if it goes beyond March 10 because I don’t like fooling around. Our report clearly addresses their findings,” he said.

Empedrad that while the country requires a bachelor’s degree in marine transportation or marine engineering for certification, EMSA was concerned that some Philippine maritime schools could not even give their students a structured shipboard training.

“That’s one of our plans, to remove onboard training, so EMSA will no longer interfere in education. EMSA will intervene in their onboard ship training, and that’s MARINA’s responsibility. We mentioned that to EMSA as part of our compliance,” he said.

“We plan to remove the onboard training at school. Because that’s where the school fails,” Empedrad said.

He explained that students must be on the ship for one year for onboard training. “The problem is, some schools are unable to get their students on a ship. Sometimes, it takes seven to eight years, they still cannot get their students on board a ship,” Empedrad said. 

By removing onboard training in the school curriculum, MARINA can take responsibility for the appropriate training, possibly in the Philippine armed services, said the former Philippine Navy chief.

To step up on inspection

“Our next step is to execute what we put in the EMSA report. For example, we are transitioning to a new curriculum. The first year of the new maritime higher education curriculum will start this academic year,” he said.

“We will also inspect schools that have problems. We have a timeline for that, so we have to execute that,” Empedrad said, adding that a team is formed to monitor and ensure the implementation of the plans and programs they submitted to EMSA. 

Empedrad admitted that, in previous years, the Philippines did not really act on the concerns raised by EMSA, so the trust was broken when the European agency returned for another audit. 

The Philippine shipping and crewing sectors are well aware of the importance of the STCW convention but, through the years, some have chosen to argue over interpretations of the 1978 agreement, rather than comply with the safety considerations.

Clarifying MARINA’s role vis-à-vis education

Moreover, Empedrad clarified that while MARINA is responsible for the maritime industry, higher education, including maritime training, is governed by the Commission on Higher Education (CHED). 

“As far as the school is concerned, the CHED will be the one to decide and not MARINA. The closing of schools, improvement of standards is CHED jurisdiction because it’s higher education. We are just recommendatory,” he said.

“EMSA is questioning education, so that is not MARINA’s responsibility. We deal with the seafarers, after their education,” Empedrad added.

Nonetheless, MARINA worked with CHED on reviewing existing policies and MARINA has now been included in the inspection of maritime training institutions, however Empedrad stated “but if we see something wrong, CHED will still be the one to decide whether to close the school. We can do nothing about it.”

He knew that there is still much to be done to bolster the country’s compliance with the STCW convention, but he hoped that the EMSA would see Philippine’s resolve in implementing reforms.

“We did our best and we are proud to report that we are doing what we were not able to do from 2006 up to 2020,” he said, hoping that his compliance report also addressed the EMSA’s trust issues.

“It is a matter of winning their trust. If it is based on what we did in our report, I don’t expect a negative decision. But I don’t want to preempt the EC, it’s still up to them.” 

Preparing for the worst scenario

However, if the EC should still decide to terminate Filipino seafarers’ certificates of recognition, only about 500 ship officers will be affected because most of the 45,000 seafarers still have valid certificates issued by European shipowners.

“The only ones to be affected will be seafarers whose licenses are not current. But if your license is new, you will not be affected, because the seafarer’s license is up to five years,” he explained.

But Empedrad still hoped that the EU would recognize the training, exposure, competence, and ability of Filipino seafarers, the same qualifications which are recognized by European shipowners themselves.

He said European shipowners were among the first to express concern at the EMSA warning not only because they like Filipinos in their crew, but also because “most major accidents at sea do not involve Filipinos.”

“So that’s what we can be proud of. Let’s be proud of that,” Empedrad said. “Why would you remove competent people aboard a ship who have never incurred an accident?” 

“We were still the number one last year, and continue to be the number one source of seafarers in the world.” 

Despite EMSA’s adverse findings, he said shipowners are still choosing Filipinos because of their willingness and competence to fill gaps.

“With the problem in Ukraine and Russia, where they have many seafarers affected, there will be a demand for seafarers, and we have many Filipino seafarers who are willing and able,” Empedrad said.

He also assured Filipino seafarers that MARINA is working very hard to raise compliance with the STCW convention. 

“That’s my concern, and we included that in our report to EMSA, along with our program to enhance our compliance.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of EU delegation to the Philippines. Philippine Maritime Industry Authority administrator Robert Empedrad (2nd from the right) met with H.E. Ambassador Luc Véron (middle) at the European Union delegation office to submit the Philippines’ reply to the European Commission assessment report regarding the country’s maritime education, training, and certification system. 

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