Philippines: Overcoming challenges of maritime schools in world’s biggest seafarer-producing country 

Maritime Fairtrade spoke with Dr. Michael Morales, president of Mitsui OSK Lines (MOL)-Magsaysay Maritime Academy (MMMA), about the various challenges Maritime Higher Educational Institutions (MHEIs) face and how crucial it is for the country to address these issues if Filipinos are to remain the most sought-after seafarers. MMMA, launched five years ago, is a joint venture between Japan’s MOL and the Magsaysay Maritime Corporation, one of the Philippines’ largest shipping lines, and its subsidiary, the Magsaysay Institute of Shipping.

Dr. Michael Morales, president of Mitsui OSK Lines-Magsaysay Maritime Academy. Photo credit: Mitsui OSK Lines-Magsaysay Maritime Academy

Around 50,000 Filipinos working in European-flagged ships could have lost their jobs last year had the European Union (EU) stopped recognizing Philippine-issued competency certificates for seafarers. Fortunately, the EU granted a reprieve.

In 2021, the EU, through the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA), threatened not to recognize the certificates issued by the Philippines unless the country put in place “serious measures”. The EU wanted the Philippines to fully comply with the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW). Since 2006, EMSA has warned about the Philippines’ non-compliance with STCW. 

Filipinos working on European-registered vessels are a small part of the total 578,626 seafarers, data from the Philippines’ Department of Migrant Workers showed. Nevertheless, the EU’s recognition of Philippine-issued certificates for seafarers is essential for the country’s continued dominance in supplying seafarers the world over, and the amount of foreign exchange they send home. 

The recent EU warning highlighted perennial problems in the training and, most importantly, education of aspiring Filipino sailors. The Philippines’ Commission on Higher Education (CHED), in response, promised to “enhance” the curriculum of MHEIs to comply with stringent international standards. 

Aside from enhancing the curriculum, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. asked congress to fast-track the approval of a bill called Magna Carta for Seafarers, which seeks to resolve problems related to training under maritime-related courses, including onboard ship training. However, while these efforts are all laudable, some are contentious.

Dr. Morales also discussed the demand for maritime-related courses in the Philippines, which currently has 83 MHEIs. He emphasized the need to improve the curriculum to ensure that Filipino seafarers are equipped with the latest skills and knowledge in emerging technologies, particularly in the areas of green fuels and AI.

Mitsui OSK Lines-Magsaysay Maritime Academy. Photo credit: Mitsui OSK Lines-Magsaysay Maritime Academy

How serious is the problem with the maritime education system? What are the factors causing it? 

This is a serious concern. But this has resulted from many years of failure of the sector to address some deficiencies that were first noticed as early as 2006. So, over the years, some discrepancies and deficiencies were allowed to propagate. And so, we were threatened with delisting by European ship owners. Fortunately, through the efforts of the government, particularly the MARINA, and President Marcos’s personal involvement, we were granted a reprieve. 

So, one major factor that caused this was the failure of some maritime schools to meet the equipment standards and the training of the students. You know, being able to deploy cadets and students aboard a ship for the required 12-month onboard training. That has been a challenge for many maritime schools. And that has been a source of the negative findings of the EMSA.

The (lack of equipment and onboard training issues) are the biggest challenges facing MHEIs. Additionally, based on EMSA findings, the defective curriculum in the areas of delivery, exercises, and competence assessment/examinations was not suitable to evaluate the achievement of the learning outcomes and competencies.

Mitsui OSK Lines-Magsaysay Maritime Academy. Photo credit: Mitsui OSK Lines-Magsaysay Maritime Academy

The CHED imposed a five-year moratorium on opening new programs in 2022 to allow the government to focus on enhancing the curriculum of current maritime education courses. What’s your take on this?

Given the EMSA findings and the reprieve we have fortunately received, I think the government has to exhibit sincerity and implement and take reforms. The moratorium is a very strong message to EMSA, the shipping industry, and maritime schools in the Philippines that the government is serious about this. 

There are 80 maritime schools in the Philippines compared to Japan, a major ship-owning country with less than ten maritime schools. You can see the disproportionate share of maritime schools, contributing to the significant number of seafarers in the Philippines. 

However, the downside is that the quality of training has suffered because some schools are not that equipped to deliver the curriculum as required by CHED, MARINA, and the industry based on the required competence and skills as per the STCW Convention. 

A deck officer at the bridge. Photo credit: iStock/ Igor-Kardasov

What are major changes in the curriculum, at least for last year, and how would you assess these changes?

The changes have been mainly in the areas of organization and the sequencing of some courses. There hasn’t been a significant revision in substance, but it’s more about the sequencing of some courses. Some courses have been combined, and some content has been removed. Nothing earth-shaking, nothing really dramatic in terms of content.

In addition, CHED and MARINA, the two government agencies tasked to regulate, monitor, and approve compliance with MHEIs curriculum, have issued joint memorandums over the last few years. The most current of which is Joint CHED-MARINA MEMO Circular 01, Series of 2023, to continuously align the curriculum on the acquisition of skill and competence in line with the requirements of the STCW Convention. 

The major areas of changes, other than the sequencing of some courses, include the revisiting and revisions or alignment of the Bachelor of Science in Marine Transportation (BSMT)’s and Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (BSME)’s Competence Mapping, Course Specification, Detailed Teaching Syllabi, including the Course Outcomes and KUP requirements.

Two engineers standing in front of a port. Photo credit: iStock/ junce

CHED said it would roll out an enhanced curriculum last year. Is MMMA already implementing this?

The curriculum has been revised several times over the past few years. It seems almost every year, there is a new curriculum. So, we’re always on the alert for changes. We are implementing the latest revision. Yes, there have been recent revisions; from what I gather, there will be additional revisions. The maritime curriculum is in a state of flux at the moment.

The latest revision is the JCMMC 01 Series 2023, rolled out last year. There will surely be another revision in view of the upcoming revisions of the STCW Conventions due to new regulations brought about by new technologies and environmental protection requirements that need certification and training, specifically the advent of green fuels to reduce greenhouse gases and the introduction of AI in the shipping industry, including the advent of autonomous ships.

A ship in dry dock. Photo credit: iStock/ Iam Anupong

One of the challenges maritime training institutions faces is hiring experienced instructors. In the case of MMMA, is this also a problem? 

Yes, it is a continuing concern because many of our seafarers and instructors are still active seafarers. So, they still go aboard the ship. They teach for one or two semesters and then return to sea. There is a continuing challenge to find qualified instructors. 

But we have been fortunate that we have also been accepting qualified instructors to teach here. But that is a continuing concern because we want our seafarers to be current with the technology. We want them to have shipping experience. It’s a good thing to have this, you know, continuous ins and outs of our seafarers. But it also has its share of challenges because we want to ensure we have enough instructors for the next semester. So that’s a continuing challenge for us. 

A seafarer working on a ship. Photo credit: iStock/ Hector Pertuz

Do you have a long-term strategy to address this? 

We do have some regular instructors. These are older instructors who have decided that they don’t want to go back to the sea. They are the mainstay of our faculty. But the larger proportion of our faculty are part-time because of the nature of their employment. We’re a new school. So, we’re establishing, we’re professionalizing our faculty. 

We are implementing an academic ranking system so that our faculty will rise up the academic hierarchy: instructor, associate professor, and professor, with ranks in between. That would encourage our faculty to gain the credentials required for higher educational institutions. (We have) continuing efforts to upgrade our faculty members through our continuous faculty development program, of which we have conducted numerous training and education for the last two to three years.

A deck officer using walkie-talkie. Photo credit: iStock/ Igor-Kardasov

The Magna Carta for Filipino Seafarers has a provision for shipboard training. Some in the industry are not in favor of this. How hard would it be for MHEIs to comply with this specific provision?

Yes, that’s one of the more controversial parts of the Magna Carta. The reason is that it is a challenge for many maritime schools to find berths, to find placements for their students for the fourth year, and to do the required 12-month onboard training. 

Ship owners own our school. We’re owned by Mitsui OSK Lines of Japan, which has about a thousand ships, and Magsaysay Maritime Corporation, a human resource company, which mans about 300 plus ships. So, even with those ships, we can only place 300 cadets a year. So, you can imagine, with over a thousand ships between our owners, we can only place 300 cadets a year. 

Some schools have over a thousand students, and shipping companies do not own them. Their challenge is to find ships to accommodate these thousands of students. That is why there is a strong reaction to this component of the Magna Carta bill) because many maritime schools will find it very difficult to comply with the requirement that they must be able to place every single student they have for the 12-month onboard training.

A navigation officer keeping watch. Photo credit: iStock/ Iam Anupong

What solution can help address this problem regarding onboard training? 

One solution that many in the industry propose is to remove the school’s requirement to provide a 12-month onboard training so that the schools won’t be burdened to find vessels for their students. The question is, whose responsibility will it fall under? Will it be the students’ responsibility? That was one proposal I think congress, the bill’s proponents, opposed. Because, of course, it doesn’t solve the problem. It just lifts the burden from the maritime schools and passes it on, perhaps to the students.

Another proposed solution is for the government to procure training ships, like some countries, like the United States. And these training ships can also double as disaster aid ships. So, when in times of disaster, the ships can be used to support disaster relief. In normal times, they can be used as training ships. So, as a major seafarer-producing nation, I think this is a solution that the country should perhaps study well if we want to maintain our dominance as a major seafarer-producing nation.

A container ship at port. Photo credit: iStock/ Kosal Hor

The maritime industry also employs AI and other innovative technologies such as IoT, to streamline operations and services. Are tech-related subjects a part of your curriculums? 

Yes, the shipping industry is undergoing many technological changes, particularly in the area of greener oceans. So, alternative fuels, AI aboard ships, autonomous vessels, and all these technologies are beginning to be used. 

The CHED curriculum is still trying to catch up. Without waiting, we are already implementing some innovations to our curriculum. We have started a robotics club. It’s not yet part of our curriculum, but it’s part of an enrichment activity for cadets (where) they are exposed to robotics and remotely piloted vehicles. We’re beginning to look in that direction.

A container ship at port. Photo credit: iStock/ Kosal Hor

You said the CHED is trying to catch up. Should the government urgently consider including maritime-related emerging technologies in the curriculum? 

I think that’s really part of the forthcoming provisions – the revisions that CHED is doing. They are tweaking the curriculum because the industry demands it, particularly regarding alternative fuels. The design of engines is now changing. Port states now require a higher standard of emissions, and so forth. So, we in the industry are forced to adjust. As a result, we too have to train our seafarers in that emerging technology. So yes, we need to leapfrog to be at the forefront of these technological changes. 

AI is a very fertile area of research and this could be an area we could invest in and try to be, if not in front of, at least at par with the technology. For example, autonomous vessels, in Europe in some canals, are currently operated remotely by one captain sitting in an office with controls, and he may be controlling three or more ships, small ships in a row in the canals. It’s within the realm of the possibility that, in a few years, this will apply to sea and ocean-going vessels with the way technology advances. 

So, we need to think ahead of what this technology will mean for the Philippines and the Filipino seafarers and prepare them for that inevitable future.

A container port. Photo credit: iStock/ Kosal Hor

How strong is the demand for Filipino seafarers? Will we see an increase in the hiring of Filipino seafarers in the short to medium term? 

The demand for Filipino seafarers is strong and will remain strong in the coming years. For example, the fact that MOL established this academy in the Philippines in partnership with Magsaysay means that nearly 70 percent, maybe 65 or 66 percent, of all MOL crew are Filipinos. That says Filipino seafarers are part of MOL’s long-term plan. They could have established this academy in India or Indonesia.

But no, they established it here in the Philippines because they see Filipinos as part of their future. So, I am confident that Filipinos will remain a valued asset to shipping companies.

A container ship. Photo credit: iStock/ Suphanat Khumsap

What factors could explain this high demand? Is it because developed maritime nations are facing labor shortages?

Yes. The more developed a country, the less willing its people are to go to sea because they could find, of course, that seafaring is quite stressful and risky. And the impact on family life is quite severe. And so, if it can be helped, people want to avoid going to sea. In Western countries, fewer and fewer of their nationals want to go to sea. In many European countries, maritime schools are shutting down because of a lack of students.

But Filipinos are among the people willing to go to sea. Other factors include the fact Filipino seafarers speak good English, they are resilient, can withstand harsh work environments, and tend to stay with the company longer. 

A container ship. Photo credit: iStock/ DINphotogallery

How can the Philippines maintain its position as a top seafarer-producing country?

While we’re still number one, other newer entrant countries like Eastern European countries are gaining more market share, although not close to where the Philippines is. How do we retain our predominance as a major seafaring nation? Well, education. We need to improve our educational system so that our seafarers are better prepared to accept and adapt to the new technologies that are coming up. 

We need to do something about primary and secondary education. There needs to be a comprehensive, progressive approach because we in the Maritime Higher Education Institutions are the recipients of the product of the primary and secondary school system. And there needs to be a stronger foundation for us to build maritime education. So, education needs to be addressed, and the challenges to our educational system. 

Navigation bridge of a crude oil tanker with a watch officer. Photo credit: iStock/ MenzhiliyAnantoly

How would you assess the government’s current efforts to improve maritime education in general? 

The Magna Carta is a very strong signal from the government that they are serious about strengthening the maritime industry, especially in the education sector. I think the government is doing meaningful and substantial measures to keep us competitive.

In primary education, the Department of Education is trying to address the deficiencies. I believe they are crafting a comprehensive solution. It’s a good start in the right direction. But again, this problem didn’t happen overnight. And we will not be able to solve this in a year or two. It will take a while. But some reasonable steps are being taken already. 

Navigation officer at the bridge. Photo credit: iStock/ Igor-Kardasov

Can you give us an idea regarding the demand for maritime-related courses among Filipinos? 

There is a continuing high demand of applicants wanting to become seafarers and applying to maritime schools. So, we don’t see a decline in young Filipinos’ interest in entering the maritime industry. In fact, there is an increase, especially among women. As the industry is opening up to more women, our principals are requesting us to provide more women for them. So, this year, we will be increasing the number of women we will accept because of this growing demand. 

The challenge, though, is the cost of education. Many of those who want to enter the maritime sector come from the lower-income group of our society. And so, there’s always a request for scholarships. Some schools offer scholarships, and they don’t run out of applicants because, you know, the state-owned maritime school, which is fully subsidized, is free. They have plenty of applicants.

But for schools like ours, which is a fee-collecting school, some young people who want to enroll might find it challenging. And so, we offer a study now, pay later program in partnership with a financial institution so that deserving, high-potential applicants who might not be able to afford the tuition fee can still attend with the help of a student loan. They pay the student loan as soon as they get employed as officers aboard ships.

A container ship going into port. Photo credit: iStock/ Suriyapong Thongsawang

What jobs do female graduates usually take? 

The same jobs that the men take. Either deck or engine. There is a misconception that women are only for deck positions. But no, we have women studying marine engineering who will serve in the engine room, getting their hands dirty with grease and all that heat and noise. We’re for equal opportunity. And we’re getting there. Women are still a tiny minority in shipping, but the numbers are growing. And for an industry that was once upon a time exclusively male, that’s progress. 

In the case of MMMA, how many women graduates do you have this school year, and how many more do you plan to accept? 

The first batch had about five women because we initially could only accept about seven women a year, out of 300 (we are required to take). We could only accommodate 20 women in our dorm when we were established over five years ago. 

But now, due to the demand of the industry, we will accept 30 women this year alone. So, in the next three years, we will have 90 women, or 10 percent of our enrolment will be women because that is the industry’s demand. And, some people say that in the future it will be even higher than that. 

A container ship going into port. Photo credit: iStock/ pigphoto

What could explain the increased demand for maritime courses in the Philippines? 

The pay of seafarers, you know, is typically higher than a land-based job. And it is tax-free. So, the seafaring industry is viewed as a way to lift the family out of poverty and financial distress. Many of our students come from humble backgrounds, and this industry provides a way for them to improve their lot in life and provide better for their families and their children. This industry is demanding. It’s risky, but the rewards are worth it. And there’s a lot of testimony to support that. 

How many students do you expect in the next school year? And what is your short- to medium-term outlook regarding students for MMMA? 

Our design is for 300 students a year, because that’s what we could deploy in three years. Our principals can only accept 300 a year, and we will not enroll more than what we could deploy. That is our policy. It will remain that way until our owners change their structure.

Top photo credit: iStock/ Pixfly. Generic image of teamwork.

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