Assessment of forestry education in Southeast Asia

Juan M. Pulhin, John Freeman, Lourdes A. Breva and Maricel A. Tapia 1


The dawning of a new forestry paradigm focusing more on people-oriented or participatory forestry management has brought major changes to the forestry profession. This study assessed the responsiveness of the forestry education to the challenges created by the new paradigm in forestry. It presents a profile of the forestry profession as viewed by five important stakeholders: the forestry undergraduates, forestry graduates, forestry educational institutions, forestry employers, and non-forestry graduates with certain association to foresters/forestry. Recent trends, realities and needs of the current forestry profession were identified and analysed.

The results showed the discrepancy between the skills and competencies expected by the employers from the graduates and the training provided by the educational institutions. Hence, major reform in the forestry curriculum was suggested giving more emphasis to the social dimension of the course and field exposures of the students.


The past two decades witnessed significant changes in the forestry sector of many Asian countries. Mounting concerns over upland poverty and deforestation, indigenous people's rights, and empowerment of local communities have, in many instances, eclipsed the conventional focus on commercial wood production (FAO 1998). Parallel development has likewise occurred in the realm of forest administration and management. A new mode of governance has evolved from the traditional large-scale, commercially-oriented mode of forest production controlled by the central government and business corporations, towards a small-scale, sustainability-oriented management by individuals and communities.

This shift in forestry orientation in favor of people-oriented or participatory forest management has been described as the dawning of a new forestry paradigm (Gilmour and Fisher 1991). The new paradigm ushered the development not only of new ways of doing forestry, but also more fundamentally, new ways of seeing and thinking about forestry (Rebugio 1996).

The paradigmatic shift confronting the forestry sector poses new opportunities and threats to the forestry profession. If the profession is to be more responsive to the needs of the society, it must be able to anticipate and seize the challenges associated with this shift, as well as turn present and future threats into opportunities. A major requisite to achieve this is to provide future foresters with sound forestry education anchored on the current trends, realities and needs of the forestry sector.

The aim of this paper is to assess the forestry education in Southeast Asia in terms of its responsiveness to the paradigm shift that confronted the forestry sector. It presents a general profile of the forestry profession in Southeast Asia as viewed by five important stakeholders: forestry undergraduates; forestry graduates; forestry educational institutions; forestry employers; and non-forestry graduates with certain association to foresters/forestry. From these, recent trends, realities and needs related to the forestry profession were identified.


The study surveyed five important stakeholders in the forestry profession to answer its objectives. The respondents included the forestry undergraduates; forestry graduates; non-forestry graduates with some forestry exposure or association; forestry educational institutions; and employers of forestry graduates. A set of self-administered questionnaire was developed for each concerned sector to generate a profile of each stakeholder, from which the assessment would be based.

A total of 551 respondents from Southeast Asia participated in the study. They were composed of 167 (47%) forestry graduates, 124 (32%) forestry undergraduates, 78 (20%) non-forestry graduates but with affiliation to forestry/forester, 8 (2%) forestry employers, and 7 (2%) educational institutions. The respondents were selected through a purposive sampling technique, which yielded incidental samples.

The questionnaires were either directly handed to the respondents or sent through e-mail or by post. The survey was also advertised in the Internet through the Global Association of On-line Foresters (GAOF), which have more than 1,500 members around the world. Direct interviews were also performed especially among forestry students, graduates and employers in the Philippines. The survey was conducted from August 1999 to February 2000.


Forestry Undergraduates

The 124 forestry undergraduate respondents, composed of junior and senior students, mostly came from the Philippines (65.42%), Vietnam (21.77%) and Indonesia (9.68%). Almost half of the students were motivated by the need to preserve the environment (24.64%) and being a nature lover (21.54%) for pursuing a forestry degree. Parents, other family members and relatives - through their inspiration, encouragement and prompting - were likewise found to be influential for taking forestry. Majority of the respondents (52.38%) also hoped to be employed in the government, while around 34% preferred the academe or the private sector.

The undergraduates' assessment of the forestry education revealed that social forestry, silviculture, and forest/timber management were the most important subjects, while forest timber harvesting/ergonomics, forest range management and cattle raising, and forest road construction/logging engineering were the least important. The strengths of the forestry education were believed to lie on the presence of highly qualified academic staff (11.59%) and the ability of the course to address environmental problems (10.14%).

Limited teaching facilities, limited field exposure, and lack of teaching materials were found to be the major shortcomings of the forestry course. In general, students proposed capability building of the educational institution in terms of faculty and physical resources, instituting a more dynamic and responsive curricular program, and strengthening educational support to improve the current forestry education.

Forestry Graduates

A profile of the forestry graduates suggested a high degree of similarity to that of the undergraduates'. About 75% of the 167 graduates came from the Philippines (64.67%), Vietnam (12.7%), and Indonesia (5.39%). More than half of the graduates (53.89%) were young professionals who graduated from 1991 to 1999, while 56.29% have either completed or are currently pursuing graduate studies.

Consistent to the experiences and expectations of the undergraduates, being a nature lover (22.16%), environmentalist (16.77%), and the desire to learn more about nature (16.77%) motivated the graduates to take the course. Family members and relatives were also influential in their choice to pursue a forestry degree.

Majority of the graduates worked in the academe (41.92%) and the government sector (31.34%). Their tasks varied depending on the nature of their job, but at least 20% of their time was spent in at least two of these activities: teaching, research, fieldwork, community work and administration. Results also suggested an inadequacy in the training received by the forestry graduates vis-à-vis the expectations from the workplace.

Silviculture, forest management and development, and social forestry were the subjects that the graduates identified as most useful in their work. Timber harvesting, forest engineering, and wood science, meanwhile, were recorded as the least helpful. Except for the variation in the degree of preference, it is interesting to note that the undergraduates had identified similar subjects in both categories.

While survey results seemed to suggest that forestry education over the last decade has adequately addressed the technical skills required of the profession, other important competencies needed in the workplace were noted to be wanting. Skills in information technology, interpersonal communication, legal organization management, participatory community development, and research analysis were found to be lacking among forestry graduates. Adding to this problem are the major constraints faced by the graduates in their professions such as policy instability, government bureaucracy, corruption, limited resources, and political intervention. Hence, the graduates recommended improving the current forestry curriculum by increasing the field exposure of the students and by employing a problem-solving approach.

Non-Forestry Graduates

Seventy-eight non-forestry graduates with some forestry exposure or association participated in the survey. More than 80% of the respondents were Vietnamese (43.59%) and Filipinos (38.47%). They were employed in universities/colleges (47.44%) and the government sector (35.90%). They were also either directly or partly associated with forestry/foresters through the same work organization, collaborative undertakings, and friendly or business relations.

Survey results revealed that technical and practical knowledge about forestry, together with some specific skills and competencies, are needed by forestry graduates to effectively perform their job. The forestry graduates should also possess a right attitude towards work, strong determination, honesty and patience. Among the participants, 43.32% believed that forestry education equipped foresters with the needed skills for their profession, 23.68% said "partly", 14.47% said "no", while the rest (32.90%) did not indicate any answer. Findings seemed to indicate that forestry education, in general, has low professional image as viewed by other graduates.

Inadequate social forestry subjects, lack of knowledge on related fields, and limited field practice were some of the limitations of the current forestry education identified by non-forestry graduates. They likewise suggested increasing the fieldwork or hands-on experiences of the students.

Forestry Institutions

The eight respondents were from seven forestry degree-granting institutions in the Philippines, Nepal, Thailand and Vietnam. The respondents occupied relatively high positions in their universities/colleges, either as a dean, department head or campus chief.

The number of faculty members of the participating institutions ranged from 9 to 38. A total of 12 different staff specializations were identified. Social forestry and silviculture were found to be the common specializations. Several specialization fields unique to each institution included: agroforestry, forest economics, pest management, education administration, extension, and tree physiology.

In general, institutions had increasing enrolment trends and number of graduates over the last 5 to 10 years. Meanwhile, all but one institution provided development programs to their staff through post-graduate studies. Scholarships were also provided by most of the institutions (71%). Majority also claimed to have sufficient physical facilities in terms of school buildings, laboratories, classrooms and libraries. However, five expressed their need to replace, upgrade or procure additional equipment.

Four institutions engaged in research in the fields of silviculture, agroforestry, social forestry, and forest management. Since funds from the government were minimal, the institutions depended on both local and international funding agencies to augment their financial needs. All but one institution also claimed to have local and international linkages although the extent of these linkages cannot be determined.

Forestry Employers

Eight employers from Indonesia and the Philippines assessed the performance of forestry graduates in their organization. Most organizations were government-managed forestry departments, research institutions or technical cooperation projects. In general, the employers engaged the graduates to a multiple of tasks, ranging from research, management/planning, forest inventory, certification, training, social forestry, rehabilitation, and economics.

Employers expect a right attitude (40.91%), skills in communication, computers, and problem analysis (38.64%), and knowledge in technical forestry and sociology (20.45%) from the graduates. Majority of the employers (58%), however, feel that forestry education is not equipping the forestry graduates with the knowledge and skills needed in the workplace. The forestry graduates were found to have weak skills in report writing, community organizing and valuation techniques; limited knowledge on environment and social dimension of forestry; and negative attitude towards work. These results seemed to validate the earlier observation that, in general, forestry graduates may have relatively low professional image in the eyes of their employers.

The employers suggested improving the current forestry curriculum by giving more emphasis on practical application, communication skills, creative teaching approach, community orientation, and global policies and agreements.


Profile of the Forestry Students and Graduates

Recent trends in forestry saw an increasing number of females joining the profession as can be gleaned from the increase in the percentage of female respondents from 32% for forestry graduates to 49% in the undergraduates. This result is consistent with the experience of the University of the Philippines Los Baños College of Forestry and Natural Resources, the oldest forestry school in the Philippines, which started with 20 male students. Now females comprised more than 60% of the student population in the college. The increasing number of women and their role in the changing context of the forestry profession suggest a need for further research.

While this research did not probe into the socio-economic background of the respondents, a previous study in the Philippines indicated that forestry alumni, in general, came from low-income families (CFERDAP 1981). The graduate and undergraduate students themselves noted that they would not have chosen forestry as a profession had their families' financial resources been sufficient to support their taking of other degrees. This finding suggests a need to attract students from the middle and upper socio-economic strata who normally have better educational preparation, to improve the academic quality of forestry students.

Results of the study indicated that most graduate and undergraduate students were driven by their desire to protect the environment for taking a forestry degree. Meanwhile, parents and other family members were also seen influential in the decision of the students to take the course. These findings may give insights in the promotion of the forestry profession through the incorporation of forestry education in the primary and secondary level curricula, and the involvement of the parents in forestry curriculum development.

Profile of the Forestry Education Institutions

Survey results showed a growing recognition of the importance of social forestry in the current forestry curriculum. Increasing efforts among the forestry educational institutions have been exerted to incorporate this course into the existing forestry curricula to complement other forestry courses such as silviculture and forest management. However, developing the skills of the students in communication, conflict resolution, and other cognitive and interpersonal abilities is another concern that the institutions should pay attention to. Such skills should be complemented with an appreciation of the role of rural people in forest management and development.

While student enrolments, and consequently the number of graduates, were generally increasing, the quality of graduates should be closely monitored. The multiplicity of skills and competencies required of foresters in their jobs has brought up issues regarding the training provided by the current forestry education. In response to this, some considered making the forestry degree a five-year instead of a four-year course. Also, the realization that the current forestry education is too "theoretical" entails reorienting the present curricula by providing more time for field exposures and laboratory activities. Most of the schools claimed to have access to demonstration areas and practicum sites, but whether these sites are effectively used to enhance the acquisition of the needed skills and competencies of the students is not clear at this time. These increasing challenges faced by the forestry profession posed a new task for the institutions to explore the impacts of these on the current forestry curricula.

Forestry Graduates On-the-Job

Forestry graduates are expected to perform multiple tasks ranging from teaching, research, community extension, administration, computer works, and policy development. These demand multiple skills and competencies not adequately provided during their four years of forestry education. Meanwhile, forestry graduates have identified some courses, especially those oriented to forest exploitation, that were least relevant to their jobs. This suggested that the existing curricula of most forestry schools have to be significantly reviewed and revised in order to meet the skills and competencies required of the graduates in the workplace.

Politics was also seen as a major constraint confronting the forestry graduates in their workplace. Courses in forest policy and administration should therefore be developed or strengthened to prepare the students in this area. Meanwhile, some forestry graduates were able to engage in private ventures such as establishing their own tree plantations, managing forest-based enterprises, or organizing their own NGOs. Developing the entrepreneurial capability of forestry students could also help widen the employment options of graduates.

Demand and Opportunities for Graduates

The government - including the forestry departments, research agencies and degree granting universities/colleges - continues to be the major employer of forestry graduates. Except in timber rich countries like Indonesia, employment in the private sector, particularly in the Philippines, has continued to decrease through time. Non-traditional sources of employment, meanwhile, have emerged like the non-government organizations (NGOs) and the local government units (LGUs). These institutions have the potential to absorb the forestry graduates, hence should also be included in forestry curriculum development.

In general, findings suggested that the employers' expectations from forestry graduates in terms of knowledge, skills and attitude were not being met. This poses a major challenge to the educational institutions, as it is their primary duty to prepare the students to the demands of the forestry profession. This result also calls for the involvement of the employer sector in shaping the forestry education, especially in the area of curriculum development.


The paradigmatic shift that confronted the forestry sector in the past decades has brought dramatic changes in the way that people do, see and think about forestry. This created new threats, challenges and opportunities to the forestry profession. A sound forestry education anchored on the recent trends, realities and needs of the forestry sector is needed to be able to respond to the current demands of the profession. It has to adapt to the changing demands of the professionals if it is to maintain its relevance and significantly contribute to the advancement of the societal welfare as a whole.

Expectations from the forestry professionals in Southeast Asia have gone beyond a comprehensive knowledge of technical skills in forestry, though this remained a major hallmark of the profession. A thorough grounding on socio-economic and political realities of the profession has become a major requisite in order to deal with multiple publics from government officials to the community people. This requires skills of using high technology-based decision-support tools, and knowledge of participatory rural appraisal and related methodologies.

The clamor for new ways of seeing, thinking and doing forestry in response to the changing times seeks for an urgent reform in the forestry education. This suggests a need for the development of a more responsive and dynamic forestry curriculum that would address the technical competencies and skills of future graduates, as well as the social dimension of the course.

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1 Associate Professor and Associate Dean, Department of Forestry and Forest Governance, College of Forestry and Natural Resources, University of the Philippines Los Baños, College, Laguna 4031, Philippines. jpulhin@laguna.net