More than 23 million students, roughly 85 percent of total enrollees in both public and private schools last year, enrolled ahead of the new academic year in the Philippines, prior to President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to move the opening of classes to Oct. 5.

The education department said the coronavirus pandemic resulted in lower enrollment in schools this year as many families could no longer support the basic education of their children when businesses closed and jobs were cut.

The introduction of blended learning methods, including online classes, added to the burden of poor students who cannot afford computers and do not have access to internet connections.

According to education experts, the pandemic would further pull the Philippines behind its Southeast Asian neighbors as neighboring Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have quickly transitioned to distance learning education.

Before the decision to postpone, Education Secretary Leonor Briones said there would be no stopping the opening of schools nationwide on Aug. 24, as the Philippines would lag behind its Southeast Asian neighbors that had started classes. Aside from the Philippines, only Cambodia has not opened schools.

Even in higher education, only a few colleges and universities have online and distance learning capabilities and the number of enrollees is substantially down.

Last year, the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd) said fewer Filipinos were enrolled in colleges and universities, at 3.4 million. There were no figures available for the incoming school year. The enrollment rate is probably be lower than in basic education, which offers free elementary and high school.

In the school year 2019-2020, more than 25 percent of students were enrolled in business education, nearly 20 percent in the teaching profession, only 12 percent in engineering and a much lower 9 percent in information technology-related disciplines.

An even smaller number of Filipinos seek education abroad for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. CHEd figures showed that less than 20,000 Filipinos were enrolled in foreign schools, mostly in the United States, Australia, Singapore and Europe.

It’s about time the Philippines overhauled its education system to power its own industries, by sending more engineers and scientists abroad to gain more knowledge in high-technology fields.

The Philippines should refrain from sending lawyers and local government officials to post-graduate courses that they could not apply in their jobs. It is a waste of government resources.

What the country needs are more engineers, scientists and technicians to push the country’s modernization, like Singapore, a small country with far more advanced biotechnology and related sciences.

In the past, other countries in Asia and Africa sent their students to the Philippines to learn more about science and technology, particularly in agriculture and medicine. Hordes of Iranian and other Middle Eastern students studied medicine and related disciplines in Philippine schools.

But slowly other countries pulled abreast and have, in fact, moved up faster. China has been sending tens of thousands of students to learn higher technology in American, Australian and European universities.

Chinese students brought home new knowledge and advanced technology as China catches up with the West in biotechnology, space and other high-tech industries. Of course, some might say it was also done through reverse engineering, industrial espionage and computer hacking.

As China levels up, it has gained enough confidence to invite talents from other countries to contribute to its knowledge-based industries and help put a smiling face on Chinese hegemonism.

China learned this trick from the West to gain further power and influence across the world.

Tens of thousands of students, potential leaders and policy makers study, visit and attend seminars in the United States, which earned a lot of goodwill and improved its people-to-people relations with other countries. In a way, these exchange programs helped soften its image as an imperialist state.

When the Japanese economy was booming, Tokyo tried the same approach with its neighboring countries, aware of the historical hatred toward the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War.

Without the military might of the United States, it used checkbook diplomacy, pouring development aid and investments to many countries in Asia and other parts of the world.

Now, China is doing the same. It has invited Filipino scholars to Beijing and has set up Confucius institutes all over the country and in the world to propagate Chinese language, culture, and arts. These institutes serve to expand Chinese influence abroad through universities and similar educational institutions.

In the end, it would help change Filipino’s impression and attitude towards China, just like how the United States used education and Hollywood to influence the country’s political, economic and socio-cultural life.

Education is becoming a tool to expand power and influence. It’s time for the Philippines to strengthen its educational system and refocus on science and technology to catch up with the rest and regain its past glory.

Now is the best time for our policy makers to send Filipino technicians, scholars, engineers and scientists abroad to learn and apply the knowledge back home. The coronavirus has taught the Philippines a valuable lesson. It must not rely on China and other countries to develop vaccines and drugs.

It has to learn to do it on its own. Scientists from the University of the Philippines have shown that Filipinos can make their own test kits and market them at much cheaper prices than foreign brands.

It has to step up research and development. It has the talent and expertise, and it only needs funding and support. Let’s protect and value our own scholars and scientists.

Don’t let other countries drain the country’s brains. It’s not too late to catch up.