Keeping the door open
For most Filipinos, a college education represents the door to a better life. So valued is a college degree especially among poor households that a framed diploma or a picture of the toga-clad graduate takes pride of place in the home. No sacrifice seems too big for some children hoping to reach college, as they literally walk a tightrope when they cross makeshift bridges to get to grade school.
Which makes the plight of some 1,000 graduates of the Northern Iloilo Polytechnic State College (NIPSC) particularly poignant. The graduates—beneficiaries of the “Iskolar sang Quinto” (ISQ) program of then Iloilo Rep. Niel Tupas Jr.—can’t get their school records because of unpaid fees, including tuition, that total P74.7 million. Without their transcript of records and school clearance, the graduates can’t take the board exam or apply for jobs.
Funds for the ISQ program had come from Tupas’ Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) aka pork barrel. Some P63 million in PDAF was funneled to the program during school years 2007-2015, according to data released by NIPSC officials.
But the payments stopped after Nov. 19, 2013, when the Supreme Court pronounced the PDAF unconstitutional. The ruling also disallowed lawmakers from using their lump-sum allocations to fund their pet projects. To be sure, the high court was cracking down on possible sources of corruption when it ruled against the pork barrel, but the casualties included such worthy programs as the ISQ. It is true that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.
Nevertheless, the scholars were allowed to enroll when Tupas assured the NIPSC officials and students that he would seek funds from other sources to finance the program. But time and circumstance threw a spanner into the works: His third and last term ended in June 2016 and his wife, who had run in his place in the May elections, lost to his younger brother, Raul Tupas. The ISQ program was left with no fund and no government office to support it.
On April 8, the Iloilo Regional Trial Court in Barotac Viejo issued two separate 20-day rulings against the NIPSC, restraining it from requiring incoming senior students who are ISQ scholars from first paying their debts before enrolling, and from withholding school records and documents from graduates with unpaid tuition and other fees.
Even if the court manages to enforce the restraining orders, the school can just wait out the 20 days—with the graduates back in the same lurch as before. In effect, the door to a better life was slammed on the graduates just when it was within their reach.
Surely there must be a way out of this conundrum. Can the Commission on Higher Education step in with a study now, pay later scheme for the graduates, guaranteeing their unpaid fees so that the school records can be released? It can then work out a way to later garnish part of the graduates’ salaries to enable them to pay their debts. Or perhaps Rep. Raul Tupas can see his way clear to taking over his brother’s search for funds, enlisting the help of local government units and scrutinizing their budget and possible sources of contingency funds.
Perhaps the local government of Iloilo can take a leaf from the LGUs’ initiative in Metro Manila, which have created a special education fund (SEF) tax by levying an extra 1 percent on the assessed value of real properties. The SEF tax, which can be imposed by provinces, cities and municipalities within Metro Manila, applies to all forms of real property such as land, building, improvements, and machinery. In return, the graduates can be required to render service or work in the LGUs for a certain number of years.
As well, the Catholic Church in Iloilo can seek support from the parishes—either through donations or parishioners making representations with their legislators—to get the graduates out of this tight squeeze.
But the bottom line is that the incumbent representative should exert all efforts to help solve this problem that directly affects his constituents. He must try to keep the door open for them who, in the near future, armed with college degrees and dreams of better times ahead, are bound to take his district along for the exhilarating ride.
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