Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A university of the people

The recent suicide of Kristel Tejada, a freshman at the University of the Philippines (UP) Manila, for her inability to pay her tuition is a clear indictment against a university that has, as a whole, failed itself badly.
To any reasonable person, UP is culpable on at least two significant counts. One, on the policy level, both in strategic and administrative/procedural terms. And second, on the matter of being a public university devoted to social causes such as education for the people.
UP Manila Chancellor Manuel Agulto told a press conference on Monday, March
18, they did everything they could  to help Kristel Tejada, the 16-year-old freshman
who committed suicide reportedly over failure to pay tuition on time. Click link to view University of the
Philippines press conference  on death of Kristel Tejada.
As an administrative/procedural issue, it is surprising that UP still adheres to the impractical and useless medieval practice of disallowing students to attend classes if they have not paid their tuition fees. As if it will compel students to pay or discourage non-paying students from attending classes for which they are not welcome. Here in Canada and in the United States, or even in U.P. during our troubled days in the late ’60s, practically anybody can attend classes, but only those who are enrolled and have matriculated will earn credits for attending. For as long as you do not disrupt classes or assassinate the professor or your seatmate, I have not heard of anyone being disbarred from a classroom. In other words, the operative word must not be the non-payment of tuition, but non-granting of credit to those not enrolled or have failed to pay tuition, which makes sense. Period.
Corollary to this impractical policy of not admitting students for failure to pay tuition is the even sillier procedure of requiring students to go on a leave of absence if unable to pay their tuition. Leave of absence is usually resorted to in extenuating circumstances in order not to lose student status; otherwise a student has to apply for re-admission if his or her status is lost. Financial difficulty is not generally an acceptable reason for going on a leave of absence. This type of leave is reserved for cases like medical and compassionate grounds, e.g., student illness which may include surgery or therapy, or a close family relative is ill and requires care by the student.
A more effective way to compel students to pay on time is to penalize them with fines for late payment of fees or to withhold their final grades. This will encourage students to budget their financial resources more responsibly. Private universities adopt this common practice of imposing fines for late payments, a practice banks also impose when loan or mortgage payments are late.
But the abject failure of the university to address the strategic policy of subsidizing education for bright and intelligent but financially indigent students is as tragic and unjustifiable as Kristel’s suicide. In some schools in the United States, this concern is dealt through an affirmative action program. Here in Canada, the government heavily subsidizes tertiary education and many universities offer bursaries, scholarships and other forms of assistance, while both federal and provincial governments also offer generous loans which students pay after finding work when they graduate.
In Quebec, students are serious about the idea of free tuition as it has deep roots written in the most fundamental text of the Quebec educational system that there should be free education. The underlying narrative is about making university a fee-less service like health care. The student strikes in Montreal which started last autumn and continue until now are dubbed as the Maple Spring comparing them to the Arab Spring that toppled dictatorships in the Middle East. Quebecers are known to be more aspirational when it comes to social rights and, to them, any hike in tuition signals a weakening of government commitment.
At present, UP has what is called the Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program or STFAP. In December 2006, the UP Board of Regents restructured the STFAP by increasing tuition and miscellaneous fees due to inflation and for the purpose of serving the needs of students who are most deserving of financial assistance. Obviously, this did not mitigate the financial difficulties of Kristel Tejada that she saw taking her own life as the only option for failing to pay tuition for the second semester.
Under the STFAP, UP students are assigned brackets based on their family income and other family characteristics and socio-economic indicators. According to reports, Kristel was classified under bracket D with an annual family income between P135,001 to P250,000 and was required to pay P300 per unit, or a total of P4,500 for 15 units per semester, the normal student load.
There is only one wage-earner in Kristel’s family: her father who works as a taxi driver. Her mother is a homemaker, in other words, she looks after housekeeping and caregiving for her family while her husband works. We don’t know the size of Kristel’s family but it is highly unlikely for a taxi driver to earn as much as P250,000 annually. Realistically, Kristel should have been assigned a lower bracket, say P80,000 to P135,000, which would give her the benefit of free tuition, miscellaneous and laboratory fees, plus a standard stipend of P12,000 per semester.

Click link
to watch interview of Kristel Tejada's father who said that his
daughter really aspired to finish her education at UP and how
much she was devastated in filing a leave of absence.
Kristel’s father found out the availability of a student loan only later, so when the family applied, the student loan office even reprimanded them for applying late. Because of bureaucratic red tape, Kristel never got a student loan. Not letting students know of the existence of student loans or other forms of assistance like available scholarships is a common shortcoming among public universities. Colleges in the United States, for instance, currently give little or no advantage in the admission process to low-income students, compared with more affluent students of the same race. A recent American study concluded that better colleges in the U.S. are failing to lure talented poor students despite a stated desire to recruit an economically diverse group of students.
Even with the STFAP in place, UP still fails miserably to inform financially indigent students that this program and other forms of assistance are available. Perhaps this shortcoming is not unintended because the UP Strategic Plan for 2011 to 2017 fails to address the growing problem of financial capability of some of the best and brightest students across the country who come from economically underprivileged families.
Assigning students to certain brackets is not necessarily an effective way of subsidizing education. As it is, it has become an instrument for periodic restructuring of school fees on the pretext of inflationary costs. Inversely, it also has the effect of favouring students from well-off families because even if they are slotted in the higher income brackets and thus required to pay full tuition, this has no effect on their admission at all. Their privileged economic status already guarantees their admission and a stress-free college life without the financial woes that weighed down on Kristel. As a result of economic bracketing, the tuition these well-off students pay is also subsidized since their fees are still way lower than those prescribed by private universities offering the same quality of education.
According to the UP Office of Scholarships and Student Services, a study of the STFAP in 2009 showed that only 1 in 100 students enjoys free tuition, which is very disturbing for a public university that is supposed to be accessible to the people. Under section 9 of the UP Charter, the university has the mandate to democratize access to this premier institution:
The national university shall take affirmative steps which may take the form of an alternative and equitable admissions process to enhance the access of disadvantaged students, such as indigenous peoples, poor and deserving students, including but not limited to valedictorians and salutatorians of public high schools, and students from depressed areas, to its programs and services.
“No student shall be denied admission to the national university by reason solely of age, gender, nationality, religious belief, economic status, ethnicity, physical disability, or political opinion or affiliation.”
Those who presently run the university and are responsible in designing its strategic plan must review thoroughly the UP Charter so they will not lose sight of the original mandate given to them. It is not enough for the university to seize the leadership (a fact not lost that other private universities have apparently overtaken UP’s great tradition of excellence) in the making of a globally competitive Philippines. This type of aspiration speaks of the goals of a large public corporation. But UP is not simply a large corporation. While it must be managed and run with the most progressive and advanced business practices, the university is still mandated to provide a haven for those who cannot afford the high quality of college education it offers.
The university is being sidetracked by a singular focus on promoting academic excellence, strong research and creative capability, and building modernized physical facilities and technological infrastructure for teaching, research and administration. Undoubtedly, these are all legitimate concerns of a modern university. But achieving these goals should not be at the expense of paying lip service to the university’s mandate to democratize access by disadvantaged people or those without financial means.
There are many like me, pejoratively called Iskolar ng Bayan, who have benefited from a UP education despite my economic circumstances. Without access to scholarship opportunities, I would not have possibly obtained the best education at home that enabled me to pursue further studies abroad. After completing high school, I was faced with the most serious crisis in my young life. I had always wanted to pursue higher education but my family was so destitute they could not send me to university. It was a feeling of life and death similar to what Kristel must have felt. After missing the first semester at university, I had to weigh the benefit and hardship of accepting a missionary scholarship in a foreign country versus entering the workplace at a very young age. Fortunately, I was able to find a UP scholarship opportunity, but only after a rigorous search and connecting with the right office.
Kristel Tejada wasn’t alone in her financial struggle. Poverty did not deter her from enrolling at University of the Philippines, where, she thought (as I did), she could get the best education in the country. In the spirit of being a humane institution, UP must reignite its commitment as a public university, to be open and accessible to a diversity of students that includes bright but disadvantaged and financially destitute youth. A truly socialized tuition and financial assistance program is one that fully recognizes the primordial obligation to nurture the education of those who are economically disadvantaged and underprivileged.
Whereas Kristel Tejada’s tragedy may justify blaming those who might have been responsible for her death, one way to recover from this tragedy is, in fact, to learn to stop the blaming. No one gets absolved from this tragedy. When we cease to blame, we either take responsibility for our actions or become free to recognize that blaming is futile and paralyzing. As one philosopher puts it: “for such things happen as part of the whirligig of life, and laying blame is a waste of energy which could be better directed at repairing damage or starting afresh.”
How do we start afresh?
First, let’s re-examine our university’s mission, find out how the university can become again the university of the people, where the young can aspire to be the best they can be under a system that nurtures its brightest, particularly the disadvantaged and the less privileged, not because it ought to but because it recognizes that in a democratic society the right to education is a fundamental right that provides equal opportunities for everyone, not only for those who can pay the fees.
Second, let’s offer opportunities for bright but poor students to avail of bursaries, grants, loans and even work placements so students can work and study at the same time.
Third, let’s inspire our youth to exert their best efforts through volunteer and cooperative work opportunities that engage them not only to excel in the academe but also to give of their talents to their communities and future workplaces.
Though we need to probe the circumstances that brought about this tragedy, the time is ripe to get our ideas for change off the ground now.

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