The U.P. that I don't know

By Carlo Osi

Posted at Mar 22 2013 11:32 AM | Updated as of Mar 22 2013 07:32 PM

WASHINGTON DC, United States – When I first heard about the suicide of U.P. Manila freshman Kristel Pilar Mariz Tejada on account of her inability to pay tuition and the harshly imposed forced Leave of Absence, my heart sunk. For this to happen at the supposed University of the People is heart-breaking and unconscionable.

For U.P. to abandon one of its own students is unthinkable. Unfortunately, the abandonment was quite real and callous. As a U.P. graduate, this incident is very concerning.

People eager to defend the University of the Philippines would easily point to the theory that the suicide was probably caused more by her family’s poverty than anything else. That there could have been other extraneous, unseen factors that led her to take her own life.

I agree that U.P. Manila’s highly unreasonable forced Leave of Absence for failing to pay tuition on time is not the only reason for Kristel Tejada’s suicide. The problem is, this forced Leave of Absence was what ultimately drove the freshman to take her own life.

Without a doubt, this U.P. imposition was strongly contributory to her death. It caused her depression, among others. Between poverty and the U.P. forced Leave of Absence, the latter is more contributory. It punished her for her poverty and humiliatingly emphasized her dire financial circumstances. It seemed to be the last straw that broke her humble back.

U.P. Cannot Totally Absolve Itself

You can’t blame U.P. 100% – yes, I agree to this. But to blame someone or something else while totally absolving the university is another matter. U.P.’s fault is too obvious to just bury it in the ground. It’s ridiculous.

You’ve heard these rationalizations from the U.P. administration: (a) that U.P. cannot give exemptions to one student that isn’t enjoyed by others; (b) that the requirements for extensions for tuition fee payments came in late; (c) her request for a second semester student loan came in late in the semester; (d) that Kristel Tejada had family problems and they were “galit-galit”; and (e) that her STFAP re-bracketing would have been granted but the requirements were late.

That the administration feels saddened with the loss but rules still need to be followed.

It’s like saying: the U.P. administration sympathizes and is saddened by the loss, but it was still her fault for not having the money to pay tuition at the time it was needed. Alternatively, her suicide is mournful but the needed requirements were still late.

Just a Day Late?

When I first read U.P. President Alfredo Pascual’s short explanation to the U.P. community about the Kristel Tejada tragedy, I felt it sounded defensive. Too defensive. It was unbefitting a suicide tragedy. It actually sounded very exculpatory, almost like washing its hands.

It was saying that, U.P. mourns the loss; but, too bad, the suicide came just a day after he told his administration officials (i.e. Chancellors) not to deny enrollment to students who fail to pay tuition on time. How convenient, President Pascual.

So, President Pascual, it was more or less just a problem of timing? Had your directive reached the various registrar offices first before Kristel Tejada thought of taking her own life, she would have desisted and everything would be okay?

It was not just an issue of timing. It is an issue of wrong policy and the treatment of U.P. scholars like ordinary private university students.

Of course there is a clear relationship between the suicide and her tuition fee problems. That stern forced Leave of Absence should not have been issued by U.P. Manila in the first place and should not have been countenanced by the U.P. System. That is the main problem.

STFAP is the Problem

Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program (STFAP) is a big problem. STFAP has long been the source of ambiguity and discrimination. Other than the lofty idealism of socialization where the rich students pay more and poorer students pay less or none at all, STFAP has had implementation problems from the get-go. It may have helped some students but it has forced other students to shoulder more than their fair share.

STFAP has served as a cushion, if not a crutch, for past and present U.P. administrations in that they did not need to pressure Congress harder to allocate more funds for the state university because the Bracket Niners (now the Bracker A’ers) will foot what Congress won’t.

Without saying so, STFAP welcomes richer, Bracket 9 or A students to come and enroll. STFAP is actually dependent on these higher income students to fund the school, fund the stipends of needy students, and augment the government’s U.P. budget. To be healthy and useful, STFAP needs more and more higher income / higher bracket students because they will pay tuition.

Assume that for one school year, the freshman class is composed of more poor students who will get stipends than wealthier ones who will pay tuition. This is reversing the trend for the last few decades where moneyed, elitist and car-driving high school students end up as the bulk of freshman classes.

In this hypothetical (but ideal) situation, the U.P. administration and its STFAP have three options: (1) ask for higher allocation from Congress; (2) another round of tuition fee hike; or (3) make sure that there will be a whole lot more tuition-paying students for the following year’s freshman class to supplement the prior year and guarantee sufficient U.P. funding.

STFAP perpetuates the domination of tuition-paying students from higher income families. The more Bracket 9 or A students, the better for STFAP. This program goes hand-in-hand with the national government’s failure to provide enough education subsidy and budget misallocation.

The U.P. administration’s reaction to the suicide should have stopped at saying three things: that it is a rather unfortunate and mournful incident, that STFAP is a long-entrenched funding program that needs a meaningful overhaul, and that it is investigating the suicide as it is apparent that it is connected to the student’s financial woes.

To go further and say that perhaps her internal family problems contributed to her woes, depression and ultimately her suicide is uncalled for. To claim that U.P. accommodated her several times but she was late in submitting her documents (thus pointing the finger at her and/or her father) is unwarranted and insensitive.

Alternatives for Kristel Tejada?

While browsing my news feed recently, I stumbled upon an exhaustive Facebook posting from an older U.P. alumnus (not my FB friend) saying that it is not totally U.P.’s fault. As mentioned above, I agree with this. The operational word is “totally”.

But the other aspects of that Facebook posting are out of line. The U.P. alumnus mentioned that the university overly accommodated Kristel already, that this will definitely hit U.P.’s operating expenses, that emotions are used instead of so-called critical thinking, and that going on forced leave is not really so bad.

The Facebook posting goes on to say that a student put on forced leave can always go back when he or she already has the money to pay U.P. It also questioned whether the parents counseled their daughter correctly. Not surprisingly, this U.P. alumnus also said that Kristel could have found a job at Jollibee or McDonald’s while on forced leave, save some money in the interim, and use this to pay U.P.’s tuition.

Reading this was a disturbing ordeal. Accommodating Iskolars ng Bayan in their financial woes is a function of the state university. Save for truly abusive students, the university should extend whatever assistance and accommodation to the scholars. Hindi utang na loob ng estudyante na pinagbigyan siya ng unibersidad na makapag-enroll dahil kulang ang pera niya para sa tuition.

Part of the social humiliation that Kristel Tejada had to endure since February was not being able to go to class, be with her classmates and learn in the classroom. Being on forced Leave of Absence is something very bad and mortifying specifically because the cause of the leave was lack of money. Some people do not understand that. That U.P. alumnus obviously doesn’t.

There is also the uncertainty of when a U.P. student on forced leave will come up with the money needed for enrollment. It could be the following semester, it could be two or more years after. By then, many things could have changed.

Time away from school and other factors may impact a scholar’s drive to study, learn and graduate. Surely, one can be a working student (my own experience in several universities in Asia and the U.S.) but that is something that cannot be imposed.

Alternatives for Kristel? According to this Facebook posting, she should have worked at Jollibee or McDonald’s, earned enough cash and gone back to U.P. to enroll (instead of committing suicide). You don’t say that when someone is already dead and the community is in mourning.

Other Kristel Tejadas

If you think that Kristel Tejada’s circumstances are rare, think again. There is a sizeable number of U.P. students from its various campuses who are in the same financial crunch.

Not many of them would have thought of, much less attempted to commit, suicide. The Filipino people has always prided itself as a happy, smiling, non-suicidal people even in the face of hunger, poverty, lack of livelihood, lack of opportunities, and lack of resources.

What about these students in the same boat? Would Kristel Tejada’s death hasten U.P.’s re-acceptance of these forced LOA’ers without being able to pay their entire tuition obligations?

Kristel Tejada’s untimely death should at least serve to help other U.P. students in the same situation and open the U.P. administration’s eyes as to how egregious their policies are.

Any socialized tuition fee program should be tempered with compassion, understanding and reasonableness. They are for the Iskolars ng Bayan anyway.

That Damn Forced Leave of Absence

If the U.P. administration feels it is justified in banning students, albeit temporarily, from the classrooms because they can’t pay tuition, then they may be running a private, tuition-dependent university and not the state-subsidized premier university.

If the U.P. administration thinks that a forced Leave of Absence is just one of those little things because the student can re-enroll in a succeeding semester anyway (when he or she already has the money), it is gravely mistaken. It is nothing light.

A forced LOA is a brutal stigma on any student. It marks and identifies you as poor or financially distressed, it makes you miss important subjects and lectures, it forces you to float without direction for a while. It screws up academic timetables by prolonging your school years and extending your graduation.

It makes you think if going to class is even worth it, if the university is looking out for you, or if the world is conspiring against you and your financial problems. It depresses and mocks.

There have been U.P. graduates who were put on forced leave but survived it. They did not end their lives but managed to re-enroll eventually and graduate. Good for them. But what about those students, particularly freshmen, who are more vulnerable?

When I was a student at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, there was an unforgettable semester when my family and I encountered steep financial issues. It was long brewing but it was that specific semester when it really hit. And it hit hard. I had to borrow the money for tuition and everything came in late. When I was about to pay, I was told that it was late and I had to talk to some U.P. official to get clearance.

I went inside a room somewhere near or at the old U.P. Diliman Registrar. Apparently, I was not the first student to talk to the lady official as she already appeared uneasy. She was stiff and unfriendly, as if she already knew why I was there for. I told her that family issues and financial problems crept up which is why I was not able to pay on time. She stiffly said my payment was late so I had to go on leave or that the university will put me on leave.

Leave of absence, what the … I thought to myself. My tuition was late but here it is now. I am ready and very much willing to go to class and learn, and suddenly I’ll be placed on forced leave because the money did not arrive on time? How callous. Is this even U.P.? I thought I was an Iskolar ng Bayan yet the university is telling me I have to be put on leave.

So … I had to plead. I told that lady official whose face and name I have purposely forgotten why my payment was late, that I had to borrow and that it won’t happen again. I pleaded for my continued stay at the university. It seemed then that I was pleading for my life.

With an unkind look, she again browsed at my documents and with a swift glance at me she half-nodded. She approved of my enrollment and was not put on forced Leave of Absence. I cannot recall if she signed something or just instructed her subordinates not to put me on leave.

Despite feeling no compassion, I said my thank you’s. I left that building accomplishing what I wanted but had a very heavy heart. I did not like how I was treated, I felt the university was singling me out for my financial issues at that time, and felt devastated. I was not put on leave but I felt very bad nonetheless. I could’ve readily been depressed if I were put on forced leave.

Had I been put on forced leave, I would have immediately appealed. But appealing and fighting it (like litigating) would have caused more pain, depression and isolation. I’d be fighting this while my fellow classmates were going to class, exchanging ideas, digesting thought leaders’ views, and preparing for examinations. That would’ve been tragic.

No, I would not have even thought of attempting anything out of the ordinary, but being on forced leave would have been extremely awful and painful.

I can just imagine (but not thoroughly know) what Kristel Tejada had to go through. One thing for certain is that forcing students to go on leave for non- or late payment is not a new policy. Rehashed or new, it has the potential of causing a disastrous effect.

The University That I Don’t Know

I’ve spent much time at the University of the Philippines for undergrad and law school that I thought I knew it in and out. Well, that doesn’t hold true.

As a student leader and activist back in the day, I’ve always seen the university as an imperfect institution. Strong in academics, student composition and faculty quality, but still imperfect.

I’ve always known it to be leaning towards commercialization but this heartless treatment and abandonment of Kristel Tejada and perhaps others sharing the same financial circumstances revealed a side I never thought existed. It was more extreme than I thought. What a shame.

It has become the U.P. that I don’t know.

This column’s author, Carlo Osi, is a lawyer & writer based in Washington, D.C. He was educated by the Georgetown University Law Center, the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the Wharton School of Business, Kyushu University, and U.P. Diliman.

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