Part of the problem

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CERTAIN events have the capacity to capture the complexities and contradictions of a situation that should not have been allowed to happen in the first place, but which, having occurred nevertheless, was not even being addressed, and had been allowed to fester beyond human endurance.

The suicide of a 16-year old freshman student of the University of the Philippines Manila is one such event, jolting the otherwise complacent into the realization that not only has someone who could have contributed much to this country and its people if given the chance been lost. Many more like her are also, at this very moment, experiencing the same despair and helplessness in a society that claims to value knowledge but skimps in investing in it.

At some two percent of Gross Domestic Product in 2012, State spending on education is a measly one-third of the UN standard of six percent of GDP. Compare this to the amounts wasted on the intelligence and other funds that bloat the police and military budgets, or the amounts automatically allocated for debt servicing.

Although the 2010 cuts in the University of the Philippines budget have been restored, and the UP budget for 2013 increased, the almost yearly cuts in its budget before 2011 have exacted a heavy toll on UP capacity to open its doors to poor and promising students.

In reaction to those sustained, and, it might be argued, malicious cuts, UP put its Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program in place in 1989. Driven by the need to resolve the contradiction between its mandate as a State university to provide education to the most promising young men and women of a society in the throes of economic, social and national stagnation, and the diminishing State allocations for it, STFAP was thought to be an ideal solution. It would charge the highest fees to those who could most afford them, while reducing and even waiving tuition fees and providing allowances for those who could not.

But not only has STFAP been a lightning rod of criticism since. It has proven to be less of a solution than a problem. It did not address such other concerns as deteriorating facilities, for example, the budget for maintenance and operations being the first victim in the short-sighted and basically stupid focus of Congress on cutting UP funding.

Among the consequences of the UP budget shortfall were administrators’, such as deans and directors’, being forced to look for non-State funding, at times to the detriment of their academic responsibilities. But worse is the development among some of the faculty and top administrators of a neo-liberal, corporate perspective: i.e., that UP must maximize its earnings at all costs so it can address such problems as the maintenance and enhancement of its facilities.

And yet UP was not founded for that purpose, but to equalize opportunities for tertiary education by correcting the injustice that prevents those qualified but unable to pay access to it. The perspective that in practice repudiates that mandate is currently manifest in the Darwinian claim that students and parents must be strong, determined and resourceful, if they are to survive the struggle for education, which has also been called a privilege by many observers unable to appreciate the truth that education is a human right.

In time, those armed with the perspective that forgets, ignores, or dismisses as passé in the age of globalization and privatization the reasons why UP was founded became dominant in a succession of UP administrations.

It was inevitable, and they made no secret of it, that they would raise tuition, laboratory and other student fees, despite the protests of students, and their already tax-paying parents, to the current levels of P1,500 per unit in UP Diliman, Los Banos and Manila, for students in STFAP Bracket A. The increases in base tuition of course also raised the tuition fees charged those students in Brackets B (P1000 per unit), C (P600) and D (P300), who have to pay the entire base tuition fee, 60 percent of it, and 30 percent , respectively.

There are no discounts for the “Miscellaneous” fees that range from P2,000 in UP Diliman and Los Banos to P1,640 in Mindanao, and the laboratory fees the student must pay, the amount of which varies from college to college. Added to tuition costs even if discounted, the total amounts even middle class students have to pay can be too hefty despite STFAP.

And yet, in one more indication of how much some administrators have internalized the ideology of you-get-only- what- you- pay- for, whether it’s a sandwich or a law degree, I have heard some UP deans say with a straight face that those students who want quality education must pay for it, despite the fact that they already pay for it with their tuition, and with their parents’ taxes that help support UP.

Many blame the administrators responsible for raising tuition and other fees as well as such rules as no late fee payments. They do share the blame for their lack of understanding of what a State university should be, and for their uncritical acceptance of the neo-liberal dictum that society should be an arena of a relentless struggle for survival and dominance where the State should not intervene. Some also blame the student herself and her parents, for the former’s supposed weakness and the latter’s inability to raise the money needed for her education.

The former critics are at least partly right: the administrators responsible should have had more imagination than door knobs and more humanity than cash registers. As for the latter, they forget that a State institution’s reason for being is precisely to protect the weak, and to help those who cannot help themselves in a society where job opportunities, for example, are practically non-existent and unemployment even rising.

At the same time, however, what’s happening in UP and in Philippine education as a whole–its being underfunded, the shortfall in teachers as well as facilities, and its resulting decline–can be laid at the door of the State and its ideological bias against, ironically, supporting crucial institutions like State universities. If UP has become part of the problem, the State, by cutting subsidies to State institutions and skimping on education as a whole, must take primary responsibility for it.

(BusinessWorld)

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