Disbelief and dismay were not uncommon reactions to the initial news that a UP coed had committed suicide, apparently despondent over her inability to continue her studies due to financial difficulties. One could only make some sense of the tragedy when more background information was disclosed by her parents and a teacher-confidante, including some insights into the kind of student the sixteen-year-old freshman, Kristel Tejada, had been.
An honor student from elementary to high school, Kristel had overcome the initial disadvantages of not having studied in one of the exclusive, top-rated schools to pass the highly competitive UP entrance exams. She was one among 10,000 who made it out of 50,000 examinees.
A Psychology major, she dreamt of going to medical school, but from the outset her quest was hobbled by her family’s financial difficulties. The father had a good-paying job two years ago but was laid off; her mother was a housewife raising three other young children. From a modest middle class status, the Tejada family found itself pushed to the brink of poverty, having to make do with the small and unstable earnings of its sole breadwinner who had been reduced to driving a taxicab part-time.
Still, Kristel held fast to being a UP student and her dreams of helping her family overcome poverty despite the daily strain and even humiliation of being hard-up.
The public is not privy to what other problems weighed her down. But the fact is, this fledgling university student was stripped of her status as a student in good standing after having attended almost the entire semester as a ‘sit in’, hoping that somehow her father would produce the money needed to pay her loans or that the school authorities would grant her another reprieve.
Unfortunately neither happened and two days after she was forced to go on a leave of absence as well as surrender her precious UP student identification card, she laid dead, a suicide.
Whatever the reason or reasons for her suicide, any responsible administration, from UP Manila all the way up to Malacañang, should consider it a wakeup call to re-examine its policies and conduct in implementing these, and seriously, if contritely, pursue corrective measures to prevent this tragedy from happening again rather than wash its hands of any responsibility and worse, pass on the blame to the victim.
By being defensive and resorting to the distasteful tack of insinuating that serious family problems likely triggered the suicide, UP officials not only miss the entire point but also the opportunity to confront the real problems plaguing the entire university.
This is nothing less than its growing inaccessibility to the best and the brightest of our nation’s youth because of high tuition and other fees in a backdrop of endemic poverty, worsening unemployment and underemployment, incessantly rising cost of living and state abandonment of the already meager and pitiful provision of basic social services including education.
Since 1989 UP has been implementing the so-called Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program (STFAP) wherein students are bracketed according to their family’s income levels. The well-to-do students (incomes of more than 1 million pesos) pay full tuition and other fees while those with incomes of 135,000 pesos and below enjoy free tuition sans all other fees and those below 80,000 also get a stipend.
At first blush, it appears to be a fair and rational approach to the university’s dilemma of growing expenditures versus a shrinking budget where students subsidize other students. But in its more than two decades of implementation, the STFAP has resulted in a big percentage of passers of the UP entrance exams unable to enrol at UP for lack of means and only 1 in 100 students able to avail of free tuition. To be “lucky” enough to be categorized as destitute and therefore “deserving” of free tuition, a student must undergo a laborious and oftentimes demeaning process.
More to the point, the STFAP has actually been used to justify the periodic raising of tuition fees with the inevitable result that the socio-economic profile of today’s UP student is a far cry from that more than half a century ago up till the early seventies when students with peasant or working class background, from the provinces, and graduates of public high schools had a fair chance of entering and graduating from UP.
We have observed that UP has become quite attractive even to the “burgis” whose children graduate from Ateneo, La Salle and other exclusive, sectarian high schools. The scare that their children will become “atheists” and/or “communists” given the tradition of liberalism and activism at UP no longer seems to matter in the face of skyrocketing costs of quality private university education.
But the UP system itself is a victim of wrong government policies even as university officials have basically bought into the same and tailored the university’s policies in conformity with these. The prohibitively expensive and commercialized tertiary educational system we now have is the inevitable outcome of unrelenting budget and subsidy cuts for state colleges and universities coupled with almost complete deregulation of the private sector.
These policies are the result of successive Philippine governments blindly following neoliberal policy dogma and prescriptions of imperialist institutions like the World Bank that are premised on the state’s renunciation of its responsibility for upholding social rights such as education and health and relegating these to the workings of the “free market” in the name of efficiency and viability.
In plain language, public resources for social services are sacrificed for debt servicing, defense (aka internal security and counterinsurgency programs) spending, bloated infrastructure projects and the ever present systemic graft and corruption; meanwhile students and their struggling families are rendered easy prey to the profit-hungry private colleges and universities.
Kristel Tejada’s death is an indictment not just of the restrictive policies of UP Manila nor of the UP system’s STFAP, it is an indictment of the Aquino administration’s education policy which amounts to an abandonment of its bounden duty to provide universally accessible education to the Filipino youth.
A word about student protests in light of Kristel’s unacceptable demise. Whether the UP administration will acknowledge it or not – the big protest actions in 2010 and 2011 including campus strikes by a broad array of UP’s constituencies paved the way for higher state subsidy for UP the following year. It was not the kind heartedness or the enlightenment of the Aquino regime that underlay this hike in UP’s budget; rather, government’s neoliberal policy thrusts being beaten back by the UP community’s vigilance and militancy.
* The second installment of a 2-part series on the GPH-NDFP pece negotiations will continue in the next issue of BusinessWorld.
Published in Business World
22-23 March 2013