Officials of the University of the Philippines on Monday claimed the death of a student linked to strict tuition payment rules is an "isolated case," prodding student groups to respond that "one death is one too many."
The famed oblation statue outside the premier state university's Quezon Hall was draped with a black cloth as UP President Alfredo Pascual and UP Manila Chancellor Manuel Agulto spoke to media and some student representatives inside.
"This is a very isolated and unfortunate case," an emotional Agulto said, lamenting how UP officials have been portrayed as "cold-hearted and ruthless."
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He was referring to the reported death of Kristel Tejada who took her own life Mar. 15, two days after filing for leave of absence due to her inability to pay her tuition.
Agulto noted that most students with cases similar to Tejada's are given assistance through UP Manila's student and academic affairs offices.
Agulto said that in fact, 79 appeals for late payment have been granted in the second semester.
That number, however, did not include that of Tejada's whose parents Agulto said filed an appeal only on Jan. 23, "well beyond the last day for payment."
Tejada filed for leave of absence on Mar. 13, and took her own life two days later.
Emotions flared in the room usually used for meetings of the UP Board of Regents, as students slammed policies which they said "deprive young Filipinos of quality education."
UP student and Anakbayan national vice-chairperson Anton Dulce in the press conference announced a call for a student strike across all UP campuses on Wednesday.
The strike, Dulce said, will continue until UP holds accountable officials involved in Tejada's case and implements an across-the-board tuition rollback.
Student representatives also asked Agulto, as well as Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Marie Josephine De Luna, several times during the press conference if the case will prod their resignations.
Tejada's suicide, though isolated, warrants a rethink of the "no late payment" policy, as well as mechanisms to assist poor students in paying for a UP education, UP Manila Student Council Councilor Adrian Sampang said.
He added: "One death is one too many. Dahil po ba iisa lang siya hindi na natin bibigyang pansin (Shall we discount the gravity of the case due to its singularity)?"
Tejada had been in bracket D of UP's Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program, which adjusts tuition according to students' capacity to pay.
This means that Tejada has to pay P300 per unit, less than half of the base rate of P1000 a unit.
Related story: UP Manila urged to change tuition policies after student's suicide
She had filed an appeal for reconsideration into bracket E last September, which would have entitled her to free tuition and a monthly stipend.
Tejada "unfortunately was not able to submit the supporting documents," Agulto said, even as he admitted that the STFAP system tends to be long and complicated.
This sentiment was echoed by students who urged UP to scrap the STFAP system, which they said "shows a skewed bias toward the capacity of high-income families."
"Tuition should be low enough, if not free, to enable students from low0income families to study in UP," a statement by various groups from UP Manila said.
"The high tuition in UP runs counter to its nature as a public national university," they said further.
The groups also reiterated calls to rescind the "forced leave of absence policy (LOA)" in UP Manila.
"We hold the UP administration accountable for the implementation of these policies despite numerous objections that we lodged against them," they said.
Agulto, however, clarified that there is no "forced LOA" rule and that the filing of LOA is in fact a mechanism which will ease the return of students who were unable to enroll.
The top UP official also urged caution in citing UP Manila's tuition policy as "the single direct cause in this particular case."
"Suicide is a complex phenomenon which may be brought about by a confluence of factors," Agulto said.
He noted however that UP does not "wish to probe nor prod her case out of respect for her dignity, her pride and her family."
Tejada's remains will be brought for public viewing at the UP PGH Chapel and the UP Manila Chaplaincy.
Protest actions have meanwhile been slated for students in UP Manila to force officials into dialogue.
"They should answer to UP Manila," Sampang said, hitting UP's decision to hold the first press conference on the issue in Quezon City instead of Manila, where Tejada had been enrolled.
Sampang also revealed that student representatives were originally barred from entering the press conference, a move which he called an attempt to "suppress the voice of the students."
Agulto, for his part, urged all parties to "give space and respect where it is due," as he extended the administration's condolences to the Tejada family.
"UP has and will always be a government institution that values quality education for deserving bright students of the country especially those who are underprivileged," Agulto said.
Student groups meanwhile said the problem is not exclusive to UP but is felt in all state colleges and universities.
They thus urged the administration of President Benigno Aquino III to "reverse its policies of commercialization and privatization" and provide sufficient budget for state schools and institutions of social service.
"The problem is systemic in nature, brought about by the policies of the national government and the conditionalities it imposes through the annual budgets universities receive," the groups said.
Related slideshow: Students mourn for Kristel