Sorely lacking

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Is it fair to blame the administration of the University of the Philippines Manila for the tragic death of 16-year-old behavioral science student Kristel Tejada?

Many quarters have been quick to do so, bitterly pointing at the UP officials’ supposed callousness and insensitivity for repeatedly turning down Tejada’s pleas to be allowed into school despite her unsettled tuition as the main trigger that led to the student’s decision to take her own life (though, curiously, she made no mention of such financial difficulties in her suicide letter).

The records presented by the UP officials to explain their side, however, make their supposed culpability less than clear-cut.

UP Manila Chancellor Manuel Agulto, denying that they were “cold-hearted and ruthless” in dealing with Tejada’s case, presented records and documents showing that the university did not ignore or dismiss Tejada’s pleas for a reprieve on her accountabilities. Her family’s requests to extend the payment deadline for her tuition were accommodated three times. She was also offered a slot as a student assistant pending her submission of enrollment papers for the second semester, and her classification in the university’s Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program (STFAP) was to be upgraded to a bracket that would have given her free tuition and stipend benefits, but only upon her submission of the required documents proving that her family’s income qualified her for that bracket.

Agulto also pointed out that Tejada was not singled out either way; the Office of Student Affairs in Manila granted all 79 requests for extension of student loans from November to December last year. “As administrators, we are not enemies [of the students],” he said, choking back tears in a televised press conference.

And yet, despite all these efforts, Tejada apparently felt helpless and overwhelmed in the end, bereft of hope that her dream of a UP education to help lift her family out of its sudden dire straits (her father recently lost his job in a company and was now working as a part-time taxi driver) was still possible.

Could the school have done more for her?

This is where the widespread denunciations against the system and its implementers may hold greater validity and traction. For, while it is true that UP officials did try to accommodate the likes of Tejada, the university’s inept, convoluted and laggard bureaucracy that these administrators run on a day-to-day basis is also, more often than not, the inescapable aggravating factor that makes a student’s stay in the Philippines’ premier state university more difficult, worrisome and stressful than need be.

The complaints alone on the STFAP are legion. For example, not only are many poor students excluded from the program on the basis of a cell phone they are seen to carry around—allegedly already a mark of considerable family income, never mind that such a gadget is the minimum one can have to move around with the most basic efficiency these days—but the lucky few who do get into the more generous brackets must contend with appalling red tape.

According to a study on the STFAP submitted last January by UP assistant professor Richard Philip Gonzalo, “the application and verification processes… are expected to take one month to finish… However, the process is completed in [the] middle of the 2nd semester of the same academic year due to the large volume of applications, the length of time to actually verify submitted information, the processing time to obtain bracket assignments, and the difficulty of obtaining supporting documents.”

On top of bureaucratic chaos, of course, is the larger question: Is the money for state education provided for in the first place? (And has the private sector been sufficiently tapped for the education of the young?)

The government raised the budget for state universities this year to P37.1 billion, up by P11.3 billion, or 44 percent, from the 2013 budget. Of that, UP received P10 billion, or a P3.9-billion increase. Still, Education Secretary Armin Luistro himself admitted last year that, overall, state spending on education remains way below what the United Nations recommends—that governments spend at least six percent of their GDP on education. (The 2011 education budget was a mere 2.3 percent of Philippine GDP.)

In other words, the money allocated is still sorely lacking to give every deserving Filipino—but especially those from poor families, who need it the most—a chance at a decent education. Compound that with chronically flawed implementation and, sooner or later, things can indeed only go from bad to worse—as it has, tragically, in this case.

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