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11:20 PM August 10th, 2013

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August 10th, 2013 11:20 PM

The University of the Philippines was under fire. Kristel Tejada, a 16-year-old Behavioral Sciences major from UP Manila, had taken her own life shortly after filing a leave of absence because her family could not pay the tuition. Though it was not established that the direct cause of her suicide was the university’s policy of “no late payment,” UP and its STFAP (Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program) were pilloried. Critics called for the resignation of university officials, calling them “cold-hearted and ruthless.”

Various lawmakers called on UP to revisit the STFAP itself, saying the program no longer served its purpose. “We have to review our scholarship programs and even UP itself,” said Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III. Then Bayan Muna  Rep. Teddy Casiño challenged the Aquino administration to reinstate the P17 billion removed by the Department of Budget and Management from the proposed budget for state universities and colleges. “I never thought my beloved UP would become a University of the Privileged….” he said in a statement.

UP Manila denied the accusations, adding their own voices to those mourning Kristel’s death.

Adding a touch of irony to the tragedy, UP at the time was in the process of reforming its “no late payment” policy. The changes were geared toward simplifying the STFAP application process and increasing the financial aid for poor students. “I instructed the chancellors at our council meeting held last Thursday (a day before Kristel’s death) that we should not deny access to qualified students who cannot enroll because of financial constraints,” UP President Alfredo Pascual said.

“It is unfortunate it takes time to implement change,” Pascual rued. “We can easily be overtaken, as we have been, by a sudden turn of events. But I am confident we can turn the tragedy into a greater resolve to act and make UP accessible to the poor.”

The statement was made a day after Kristel’s death. The time to ask has come: Has anything changed?

The first, most immediate change was UP’s lifting of its draconian “no late payment” policy. UP Manila chancellor Manuel Agulto stated unequivocally, “Any student with financial constraints will no longer have any problems with regard to tuition-payment deadline.” The policy seems to have easily caught on with the Commission on Higher Education itself, which oversees higher education institutions (HEIs): “In no instance shall the HEI implement a ‘no permit, no examination’ policy in case of the financial incapacity of the students,” Chair Dr. Patricia Licuanan directed in a memorandum. Meaning, no enrolled college student may now be barred from taking a school test for failing to pay tuition.

Most recently and more noteworthy, an education loan fund has been put up apparently as a direct result of Kristel’s suicide. Bases Conversion and Development Authority president Arnel Paciano D. Casanova led the creation of the UP Educational Loan Project. A former working student, Casanova donated his own money to the program, saying, “there is a need to address the problem of students on access to financing. When they are in need, students are driven to despair [as they suffer] from the indignities caused by poverty.”

Casanova emphasized this is a loan program, not a charity. “We want to empower the students so they won’t think this is just charity. They will see this as investing in their own dreams. They have to work hard for it and, in a sense, it provides them a sense of dignity because they will not have to go begging.”

The Center for Agriculture and Rural Development Mutually Reinforcing Institutions will administer the loan fund. The Ramon Magsaysay award-winning microfinance institution is perfect for this job as it has a good track record as a lending entity (not a charity) that fights poverty.

Casanova notes this is just the beginning. “The greater vision is to replicate this project in the whole Philippines so it can have a greater impact,” he said.

We share in the vision and we do hope it will come true—soon, whether as a government program or a private initiative or a public-private partnership. For the longest time, students of poor families, not only those in UP but the far greater number enrolled in other HEIs all around the country, have had to contend with all sorts of bureaucratic ordeals to acquire the wherewithal to stay in school.

It’s too bad that a tragedy had to occur before the fund could be set up. The success of this fund may yet be the true legacy of Kristel Tejada.

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