Saturday, March 23, 2013

No sympathy for the poor

In the Philippines, a country so full of promise but has not really taken off to the next stage, most Filipino families consider their children’s college education as a viable option out of poverty. The paradox is you have to be well-off to get a college education today in the Philippines.
Despite the economic downturn, people continue to remain optimistic that a college degree is the key to a good job. It is the contemporary belief that we educate ourselves to get a job; that education could determine one’s economic destiny.
In an interview after his daughter Kristel Tejada, a first year Behavioural Sciences student at the University of the Philippines (Manila), committed suicide for failing to pay her school tuition, Christopher Tejada repeatedly stressed that it was his daughter’s hope and dream to finish college so she could lift the family out of the claws of poverty. The Tejadas, most particularly Kristel, saw education as a means to a better life, a tool to rewrite their story. Poor families share with the better-off and the rich this aspiration for upward mobility through education. This is true anywhere in the world, whether in rich or poor societies.
In an outpouring of support, students from the University of the Philippines join
a vigil for Kristel Tejada. Photo courtesy of the Philippine Star. Click image to
view, Kristel Tejada laid to rest.
Education is a right proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thus, it shall be free at least in the elementary and fundamental stages, and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
But here comes an uninformed and somewhat skewed opinion from Jose Montelibano who writes a column for the Philippine Daily Inquirer where he challenges the basis for subsidizing public education (See Subsidized scholarship, he says, is “an extension of an old tradition when benefactors choose to support the most deserving who cannot afford a college education. This has less to do with education and more about rewarding talent, or an act of charity.”
Obviously, Montelibano doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Education has never been, in our colonial past or present, a charitable act. When the state provides funding to a public higher institution of learning like the University of the Philippines (UP), it is not doling charity to its students, but it is performing a fundamental obligation to make education accessible to its citizens. There is a big difference between charity and obligation which Montelibano apparently doesn’t seem to understand.
While the state recognizes education as a right, it must also be aware that higher education cannot be for everyone. The self-evident truth is that higher education also discriminates. Education will help everyone to improve their lot, this is almost a universal truth. But not everyone can enter university or college because there are standards that must be met. There are other ways the rest of society who are not accepted to institutions of higher learning can have real opportunities for improving their lives. Not everyone can be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, an accountant or a nurse. In the same way as not everyone can have the skills and aptitude of a mechanic, an electrician, a carpenter, or a plumber.
Montelibano writes: “Government scholars, though, must have a different criteria [sic], a standard that demands service to the people ahead of service to the self or family. The state must help those who are determined to help the common good, who are committed to become models of good citizens.”
However, this is not the purpose for the establishment of the University of the Philippines.
The expectation is noble and dignified that when they graduate, Iskolars ng Bayan will reciprocate the government for its assistance. But imposing it as a student’s contractual obligation is not a fair quid pro quo when it is the government’s fundamental responsibility to make education accessible. Service to the people is a loose concept that could include students joining protest rallies against the government for its anti-poor policies, for its incompetence in governance, or against a do-nothing Congress, or demanding minimum wage increases and improving working conditions.
It is the emphasis on contractual thinking based on commercial or private agreements that is rotting the core of the subsidized or socialized tuition policy of public universities such as UP.
Because the institution has adopted a policy to subsidize or socialize tuition, there is an implied authority that it can restructure and readjust tuition anytime on permissible grounds like the effect of inflation on the cost of running the university. The idea of restructuring tuition rates on the basis of inflation is essentially a commercial argument, a justification that comports with concerns for the bottom line. But it is not that simple since it is the obligation of the state to make education accessible that it must consider all other revenue options rather than conveniently impose on the students and their families the burden of equalizing cost with revenue.
The declaration of policy for the establishment of the University of the Philippines is very clear that “the State shall promote, foster, nurture and protect the right of all citizens to accessible quality education.”
Under Section 9 of its Charter, UP has a mandate to take affirmative steps to enhance the admission of disadvantaged, poor and deserving students. This should be what we must be concerned about, not Montelibano’s suggestion that state-sponsored scholars should not use their education for themselves but for the people, an arrogant idea that comes from the smugness of a privileged life.
A World Bank study has pointed to inequality in access to higher education in the Philippines as a continuing problem, together with the glaring gap between the labour requirements in the market and the quality of graduates produced by local colleges. The study also found out that although more and more students are entering college and universities over the years, the growth is concentrated on people belonging to higher-income households. To address this inequality, the Work Bank proposed that there should be more grants of scholarships and loans to deserving students.
But more access to student loans does not guarantee completion of a college degree, and finding a good paying job after graduation.
In the United States, steep hikes in student tuition and fees have increased the debt levels of both students and universities. The cost of university per student in the U.S. has risen by almost five times the rate of inflation, making it less affordable and increasing the amount of debt a student must take on. Even though student loans are often available, the idea of repaying student loan debt, with high interest rates and low job prospects, is a significant roadblock for many.
So, if availability of student loans is not a guaranteed formula in equalizing access to higher education, what can be?
Click link below to view  College Tuition: 1k to 75k per semester with graphic
showing the wide range of tuition at private and state universities in the
Philippines, courtesy of GMA News Online.
The University of the Philippines has in place what it calls a Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program, or STFAP for short. Under this policy, every UP student regardless of capacity to pay and financial need is subsidized since tuition and other fees are much less than the direct cost of their education. Furthermore, it socializes tuition through grants and subsidies for tuition, miscellaneous and laboratory fees based on ability to pay and financial need of the student.
On paper, the STFAP sounds adequate and a decent program. In practice, however, it doesn’t work.
Since everyone is subsidized, students from economically privileged families enjoy this benefit even if they don’t need the subsidy. They pay tuition that is substantially way lower if they would enrol in a private university that offers the same quality of education. For example, the average cost per semester for a course in civil engineering or computer science at UP is P20,000. In Ateneo, the cost would be between P75,000 to P80,000. Only children from well-to-do families can go to Ateneo, so the high tuition is not a financial concern. In UP, even the poorest but bright students will not cut it for a year, a situation that befell Kristel Tejada.
UP’s STFAP assigns brackets for students based on family income and other family characteristics and socio-economic indicators. These brackets are good for one year, which is unrealistic because it does not take into account the changing economic conditions of families and society as a whole like the possibility of unemployment as a result of lay-offs or economic slowdowns. Kristel Tejada’s father was laid off from his job but Kristel remained slotted in her bracket although the family has lost its declared income.
What UP should be doing is to charge wealthy students the equivalent rates prescribed by comparable private universities and use the difference as additional amounts available for subsidies to economically disadvantaged students. This, to my mind, is the right way to socialize tuition, not to apply the subsidies across the board that also benefits the wealthy. But as tuition is steadily increasing at a record-breaking pace in the last two decades, it is even feared that children from wealthy families might consider enrolling in public universities, a fact that UP’s STFAP has not considered into account. This raises the spectre of student quotas in addition to economic brackets, which could possibly displace slots for needy students, thus making the socialized tuition program even more irrelevant.
To address the crisis in higher education in the Philippines, President Noynoy Aquino has developed its government’s response called Road Map for Higher Education Reform (RMHER), which identifies three fundamental problems: lack of overall vision, deteriorating quality, and limited access. But instead of eliminating barriers to entry to college education, Aquino’s RMHER simply continues the emphasis of his predecessors (Ramos and Macapagal-Arroyo) on the eventual commercialization of higher education, its subservience to the needs of the global market, and gradual abandonment of state-funding. RMHER intends to focus on five priority areas, which include agri-fisheries, mining, electronics, services and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO).
During the term of President Fidel Ramos, the government implemented a Long-term Higher Education Development Plan (LTHEDP) which stressed cost-efficiency and global competitiveness. Ramos also signed the Higher Education Modernization Act (HEMA) allowing state universities and colleges to embark on joint business ventures with the private sector, privatize management of non-academic services and determine their own tuition and other fees. As these institutions started generating higher internal income, government funding of higher education also begun to fall.
When President Gloria Arroyo assumed the presidency, she revised the LTHEDP to make public universities and colleges self-sustaining, with the ultimate goal of abandoning state funding for higher education. President Aquino’s higher education reforms are already in the LTHEDP, and nothing in the RMHER is new. It merely reiterates past proposals which have already been enacted but rejected by students.
Aquino’s RMHER intends to socialize tuition for all state universities and colleges following the UP’s STFAP model that emphasizes cost recovery without limiting access among the poor. As mentioned here earlier, the experience of UP in socialized tuition resulted in periodic restructuring of tuition fees. Instead of widening access, the STFAP has become instrumental in excluding many indigent but deserving students, of which Kristel Tejada is the latest victim. A study of the STFAP shows that in two decades it has decreased the percent of student population enjoying free tuition, from 20 percent in 1991, to less than a percent at present.
There is a much bigger picture than Kristel Tejada’s suicide, but the young student’s death symbolizes the fast accelerating exclusion of the poor from access to higher education such as the University of the Philippines. Kristel wasn’t alone in her financial predicament, but UP and the government don’t seem to care.
If Noynoy Aquino has extended his sympathy to the Tejada family for the loss of their daughter, that, Mr. Montelibano, is a charitable act. But the president seems to have no place for charity in his heart.

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