Commentary

Education is a right, not a privilege

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“Our Constitution guarantees the right of every Filipino youth to quality and affordable education,” lamented Rep. Sonny Angara, a University of the Philippines alumnus. This invocation of right is exactly the rhetoric of grieving and angry Facebook posts from UP students. This was the exact rhetoric of 16-year-old Kristel Tejada. Her bereaved mother said on dzMM: “Parang isa pong malaking dagok sa pagkatao niya (It was a strong blow to her humanity).”

Kristel, a UP Manila freshman and eldest of a Tondo taxi driver’s five children, tragically committed suicide after being unable to settle her tuition. The country is recoiling from the waste of a promising young life over a pittance of P6,337—in a country where families value education above all, where diplomas hang proudly beside the altar in even the humblest homes.

The tragedy is deeper for UP alumni. UP is supposed to be the great equalizer, where a deserving student may receive the best education in the country regardless of her background. A UP alumnus would think that UP is the last school in the country where a student would be driven to suicide over inability to pay tuition. An article of faith has been shattered.

My father entered UP Law as a poor boy from Negros who learned how to fry eggs with an iron and boil eggplants in laundry basins when the allowance was running out. I am the only one of my siblings who remembers the humble apartment we lived in when he was beginning his career. I would nap on our sofa and wake up surrounded by floodwater; fortunately, the sofa was raised on milk cans ahead of the rainy season. My mother is proud to have married a self-made man (but she claims that had she known how much his law firm paid in the 1970s, she would never have married him). Every UP alumnus is intimately familiar with far more extreme tales of overcoming adversity, whether his own or his classmates’.

UP student leaders again underscore that education is a constitutional right, not a privilege. They stake a claim based on justice, not merely compassion. Their basis is so strong that our Constitution even calls us to “assign the highest budgetary priority to education.”

“What ‘right’ to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific?” reads a passage in “Starship Troopers,” the classic novel featuring Filipino Lt. Johnny Rico. “The ocean will not hearken to his cries.” Placing a right to education on even our most sacred piece of paper does not magically create the resources to make it effective. South Africa enacted one of the world’s most progressive constitutions when it emerged from apartheid, yet even it holds that aspirational constitutional rights may only be claimed to a degree of reasonableness. Its constitutional right to healthcare, for example, cannot be used to compel free treatment of the terminally ill when the resources used may treat many other sick persons.

Our students will again clamor for higher state subsidies for education despite impending final exams. UP president Alfredo Pascual has proposed changes to the university’s tuition subsidy policy. The time has come, however, to go beyond the constitutional claim to government resources.

First, more straightforward measures to connect needy students and donors may be introduced. According to one report, an P8,000 grant was available for Kristel but she somehow failed to submit certain requirements. According to another, alumni have begun to donate for a trust fund to support students unable to meet even subsidized tuition rates, and many are willing to but no structure was in place. At my graduation from a US law school, Bill Gates spoke about using his experience as a software developer to make it easy for people to channel resources to causes. He summed up: “I love getting people excited about software—but why can’t we generate even more excitement for saving lives?”

Second, our economy has surely advanced to the point that the private sector should be able to lend resources to needy students. When I met my classmates’ parents at my US graduation, I realized that many of those I respected the most came from middle-class minority families. They readily dreamed their dreams because student loans were available—seven years of Ivy League debt in many cases. Complementing the commercial loans was debt forgiveness for those who joined government and other public-interest roles. Similarly, with proper incentives and safeguards, an innovative bank may bet on our students. Even if such programs are piloted only to UP students, surely a large percentage of our premier university’s products can be expected to be productive citizens. Relatives and even benevolent strangers may cosign loans, and lessons from microfinance may further mitigate risk to lenders.

Third, we sorely need more innovative laws to benefit students, and Angara is a rare legislator who has made education his banner issue. His proposed “Bill of Rights for New Graduates” is a step in the right direction, for example. The bill proposes simple but high-impact steps such as giving fresh graduates free government documents for job applications, such as birth certificates and National Bureau of Investigation clearances. Innovation from Congress will go a long way to enhancing private-sector solutions such as donations and student loans.

Kristel’s tragic death will hopefully galvanize us into ensuring that it is the last, and making the constitutional right to education and innovative laws real.

Oscar Franklin Tan (www.facebook.com/OscdarFranklinTan, Twitter @oscarfbtan) teaches constitutional law at the University of the East. He is a former chair of UP’s Philippine Law Journal.

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