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Pass the Unifaste bill

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While the ultimate reasons behind Kristel Tejada’s taking her own life have yet to be ascertained, we may yet derive valuable lessons from the sorry incident. The first is a lesson for families and the home. It is time to recognize and accept that not everything can or should be delegated to the state, the schools, or other social institutions. Given its naturally ordained function, the family remains everyone’s best bet for well-being, welfare, protection and enjoyment of care and essential services. As the nearest to the children, the parents are in the best position to detect their children’s struggles and mental and psychosocial status and needs.

Parents should be able to proactively address such problems and needs before they make life worse for their children. But real love and caring for the children’s long-term welfare and stability do not mean pampering and giving them everything that they may demand anytime. At the same time, parents should beware of the ill-effects of overindulging, overprotecting and shielding children from every small adverse condition of life.

Children should not be deprived of the informal yet powerful honing for valuable social skills and the chances of developing some coping mechanisms in confronting life’s realities so that they may grow up with higher thresholds for pain and frustration. To me, this is the measure of most successful parenting, and the best legacy parents can leave behind. Given the first lesson, children and today’s students should develop courage and fortitude. I know that this is still much of a function of their upbringing in the home, but when they reach the age of discernment (for many, this comes earlier than the others) it will be to their best interest if they accept that life indeed is not a bed of roses. Early discernment (best if aided by parents) enables them to be prepared for life’s worst.

With this, they may initiate self-help and self-development that will prod them not to overburden their parents. In many other countries, some affluent families allow or encourage children to work to earn their keep. In the Philippines, it is not uncommon for socially mature children to even volunteer to drop out of school to give way to their siblings to complete schooling. If necessary, they search for work and save or look for loans so they can continue their own studies, and pay the loan after finding work.

The third productive lesson is for higher education institutions (HEIs). With the growing phenomenon of “youth in stress” in our time, responsive HEIs need to put in place proactive and creative psychosocial programs for all students. But more special attention must be directed to the most vulnerable—the freshmen and sophomores. Take note that the “guidance” program need not be solely reliant or anchored on guidance counselors. HEIs have very few of them, and few students come to them anyway. All capable faculty members may be given, and systematically trained for, guidance counseling tasks.

The example of my own European alma mater is quite instructive. In that university, each student is assigned a tutor (aka adviser) who is tasked to supervise and guide almost all aspects of student life. Aside from compliance with academic requirements, such guidance typically covers all sorts of psychosocial (and even financial) problems that may hinder the student’s college work.

Lastly, here I think is a “must do” for politicians who make national and local policies. It is time to rationalize and harmonize all forms of student financial assistance programs (e.g., scholarships, study grants in aid, and student loans).

By rationalization, social justice dictates that those who have the potential to benefit from higher education but absolutely have the least in life should be given highest priority in availing themselves of a “means-tested” student financial assistance program.

This means that those who can afford to should pay for their higher education. The call for scrapping the socialized tuition program may be politically popular and indeed populist enough, but its absence may be economically unsustainable. Hence, it should be expanded and institutionalized in all publicly funded HEIs.

In order to optimize and avoid wastefulness of the scarce resource the government can muster for student financial assistance programs from taxation and other sources, every existing or future scheme under any government instrumentality/agency—including the pork barrel—should be orchestrated under one policy, subject to common standards and objective procedures.

Albay Gov. Joey Salceda attempted to do just that by putting up a practical kitty for deserving students. There is a pending bill in Congress that contemplates such a rationalization and harmonization strategy. It is called the Unified Student Financial Assistance for Tertiary Education

(Unifaste). Let the sacrifice of Kristel be a rallying cry for the people and politicians alike to work fast to pass this most responsive piece of social legislation.

Napoleon Imperial (nbimperial@bayanmail.net.ph) is an education-reform advocate and a higher-education executive. The views and opinions expressed above are solely his.


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