Despite funding constraints, the University of the Philippines (UP), which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, has grown from a small institution on Manila’s Padre Faura street into a national university system of 12 campuses (including the cyber or virtual campus of its Open University) and seven constituent universities.

UP has the most extensive undergraduate and graduate degree programs of any university in the country, and the largest, most competent corps of faculty from creative writing to law, communication to nuclear physics.

Because a UP diploma is by general consent the key to successful careers, annually it attracts the brightest and best students from the country’s secondary schools, tens of thousands of whom take the dreaded UP College Admissions Tests (UPCAT).

UP programs are the benchmarks for other institutions — the private and (non-chartered) government colleges and universities under the supervision of the Commission on Higher Education. UP graduates are not only leaders in the professions, the arts, and the sciences in the Philippines. They have also excelled in foreign climes. And despite talk about its “decline,” it is still the only Philippine university that always makes it to any list of the world’s best.

It sounds like a success story, and in many ways it is. But neither growth nor reputation should be the measure of an institution of higher learning’s success, at least not in a country like the Philippines. Of even more crucial moment is whether the University of the Philippines can now truly be said to be a university for the Philippines and for Filipinos.

This is at the heart of a statement issued last Tuesday by the All- UP Workers Alliance, and the Congress of Teachers and Educators for National Democracy, an organization of UP faculty members across the entire UP System.

After describing what both organizations claim is a commercialization and privatization policy in place in UP today, the statement declares the urgency of transforming UP into an authentic “University of the People” able to address the basic problems of the Filipino nation it serves.

The complaint against commercialization refers to the policy various UP administrations have adopted, to a greater or lesser degree, of utilizing the university’s assets to augment its finances. It’s a response to dwindling budgetary support from every Philippine government that’s come to power in recent times, from that of Ferdinand Marcos to Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s.

A major expression of this policy were the increases in UP tuition and other fees, which many UP faculty and students fear will erode a major UP advantage as well as mandate: its capacity to attract and educate the most gifted students from all over the country.

The fear is not without basis. Several UP colleges have reported declining enrolments after fees were raised, as would-be UP students discovered that they would be paying almost as much for a UP education as they would in certain Catholic schools with better facilities, newer buildings and prettier campuses.

It’s futile to argue that the value of the education it offers can’t be measured in terms of how many computers a school has and how well maintained are its flower beds, and that the worth of an educational institution lies in its human resources. For years, however, high school graduates have flocked to UP despite its rundown facilities because at least the fees it used to charge seemed reasonable.

As shallow as that may seem, it worked out well in the end. UP had the pick of the best and deserving, and the latter received the education the best minds of the country could provide. The fee increases seem to be changing all that, and in this sense the future may yet prove the decision to raise fees misplaced, though prodded by the need to augment inadequate funds from the state.

Its doors’ being open to as many Filipinos as possible is a major factor in its lead as an educational institution. But there’s also the fact that as a state university, UP’s educating the poor would seem to be a considerable part of its mandate.

It’s in this sense that the demand that it be a university of the people is being made, and you can’t do that if your fees are beyond even middle-class reach. At another level, however, being a university of the people also means offering a kind of education that’s devoted to both nation and country rather than to self. It’s always been implicit in UP culture — the assumption that, having been educated by the people whose taxes support UP, graduates will give back something in terms of using their skills and knowledge to help the people realize their aspirations for a better, more just, more equitable society. It’s summed up in the admonition, known to every UP student, to “serve the people.”

In a university ironically established under colonial auspices, but now immersed among a people struggling still for the same goals — social justice, freedom, progress — that over a hundred years ago the first Republican revolution in Asia had raised, it’s a commitment that should occupy a special place in every UP student’s and alumnus’ heart.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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