Is UP at fault over suicide? Education debate rages on

Amid a growing public uproar over a state university's strict tuition payment rules linked to a student's reported suicide, Malacanang responded only by washing its hands clean.

President Benigno Aquino III himself passed on the chance to comment on the issue during the Philippine Military Academy graduation Sunday, where he chose instead to talk about his deepening eye bags and thinning hair.

It was deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte who passed the buck to school officials in a radio interview Saturday, saying that the Palace is not directly involved in setting tuition policies.

Asked if Malacanang can look into the University of the Philippines Manila's alleged "no late payment" scheme, Valte said: "We would have to defer to UP since they set the policy."

Related story: UP Manila urged to change tuition policies

Valte's apparent admission of helplessness is a far cry from the President's strong policy pronouncement about state universities and colleges (SUCs) not a year after his election.

In his 2010 budget message to Congress, Aquino said: "We are gradually reducing the subsidy to SUCs to push them toward becoming self-sufficient and financially independent, given their ability to raise their income and to utilize it for their programs and projects."

He cited as an example UP which, under the leadership of then UP President Emerlinda Roman, had embarked on income generating measures.

UP around year 2006 began to lease out a huge part of its land for a development now known as the UP-Ayala TechnoHub, a compound along Commonwealth Avenue occupied mostly by call centers.

Budget department data show that SUCs have to raise an average of P9.3 billion a year to augment government funding.

Such financial gap was also the rationale behind a 233 percent tuition hike in UP, from P250-300 to P1000 per unit in 2006.

Students and their families, in effect, take on the burden of higher education, a situation critics refer to as "state abandonment."

Measures to help students pay for skyrocketing fees, particularly the Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program (STFAP), have also been slammed.

The STFAP calculates school fees based on students' family income, in a bid to minimize state support for those capable of paying full tuition and divert funds to the financially needy.

Former UP Student Regent Krissy Conti, however, said: "In reality, qualifying for those brackets with perks is a tedious, miserable process."

"The lines are long, the requirements are substantial, and all too often, the system too convoluted to understand in one go," Conti said in a Facebook post Sunday.

Among those who felt the burden of the inflated school fees was Kristel Tejada, 16, a freshman behavioral science student in UP Manila.

Tejada, the eldest of five children of a taxi driver and a housewife, had to take out a student loan to pay for her first semester in UP.

Her family had not been able to pay for the loan until the second semester, however, barring her from applying for another loan to pay for the second semester.

UP Manila officials also disclosed that Tejada's father had appealed that his daughter be allowed to enroll and avail of a second loan.

"Since it was already mid-semester, the request for enrollment was not granted," the school said.

Related story: UP Manila student takes own life 

Following a memorandum issued by UP Manila's Office of the Vice Chancellor, Tejada filed for a leave of absence (LOA) Mar. 13.

She took her own life on Mar. 15.

Reports of Tejada's death spread like wildfire while rekindling anger over what student activists refer to as "commercialization of education."

"Ano na ang nangyari sa UP (What has become of UP)?" UP Manila Student Council Vice Chairperson Adrian Sampang said via Facebook Mar. 16.

The student leader noted that "money shouldn't have been an issue especially in a state university like UP."

"Sa private schools nga binibigyan ng chance till end of the semester ang estudyante para makapagbayad (Even private schools give students a chance to pay until the end of the semester)," Sampang posted on Facebook Saturday.

An online petition posted via Change.org meanwhile urged UP Manila to scrap its "no late payment" and "forced LOA" policies, whixh they said are "anathema to the UP system's nature as a 'university of the people.'"

The petition is referring to UP's mandate as a state university--the national state university--as laid out by Republic Act 9500 or the UP Charter enacted in 2008.

Section 9 of the said law says: "No student shall be denied admission to the national university by reason solely of age, gender, nationality, religious belief, economic status, ethnicity, physical disability, or political opinion or affiliation."

Commenting on Tejada's death, UP President Alfredo Pascual Saturday lamented how the incident happened a day after he instructed chancellors to "not deny access to qualified students who cannot enroll because of financial constraints."

This, as he vowed to "take the necessary steps to address the policy and administrative issues that are related to this unfortunate tragedy."

Reforms aimed at simplifying the STFAP application process and increasing financial aid to poor students, Pascual said, are set for action next month by the Board of Regents, UP's highest policy-making body.

The top UP official nonetheless noted it takes time to implement change. "We can easily be overtaken, as we have been, by a sudden turn of events," he said.

Pascual added, however, that he is confident UP "can turn the tragedy into a greater resolve to act and make UP accessible to the poor."

UP Manila has declared Monday a "day of mourning" for Tejada. Classes have been cancelled, while groups have urged students to wear white and attend prayer rallies.

Student organizations are also set to mount a series of activities to force UP Manila officials to agree to a dialogue.

Tejada's remains will be brought for public viewing at the UP Philippine General Hospital Chapel and the school chaplaincy Thursday.

It will mark the late student's first entry into the UP Manila campus after her student identification card, according to statements by her professor Andrea Martinez, had been revoked.

Posting in a UP online community page Sunday, Martinez recalled how Tejada had asked to sit in during her classes after realizing that she would have to file for LOA.

Assured by Martinez that she was welcome in her class and the was still considered a student, Tejada reportedly said: "Nakakahiya po kasi hindi naman ako enrolled (I'm ashamed since I'm not enrolled.").

Martinez recalled herself saying: "UP ang dapat mahiya sa yo na di ka pinayagang mag-enrol (UP should be ashamed for not letting you enroll)."

Related slideshow: Black ribbons for Kristel

Students tie black ribbons in front of University of the Philippines campus in Manila on 18 March 2013. The students demand justice for the death of Kristel Tejada, a freshman student at UP Manila, ... more 
Students tie black ribbons in front of University of the Philippines campus in Manila on 18 March 2013. The students demand justice for the death of Kristel Tejada, a freshman student at UP Manila, who committed suicide for after reportedly being forced to go on leave because her family could not afford to pay tuition. (Czeasar Dancel/NPPA Images) less 
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