A kinder State University

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I spent five years teaching in the Ateneo de Manila University’s English Department. And while the stint ended on a sad note, there were many lessons learned under then Chairperson Dr. Marlu Vilches (now Dean of the School of Humanities).

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More than the pedagogy, Dr. Vilches taught me kindness. English Core Courses were taken by all freshmen of Ateneo, and we were a welcoming committee so to speak. We needed to start with compassion. Dr. Vilches called it Cura Personalis—care for the entire person—or just personal care, which is fundamental to Ignatian Spirituality.

To me this meant seeing individual students and not just a whole class; it forced me to acknowledge that student needs are diverse, because their circumstances are just as varied. It taught me that while it is easy to believe that the students in Ateneo are of one social class, there are many others who are there on scholarships and whose needs might be different, if not necessarily difficult.

Without knowing it, Cura Personalis had put into question what I knew of teaching, much of which I was taking from surviving as a student of the State University in the late 90’s. It continues to be a reminder that while we might have learned much as students from the State U, there are pitfalls to the idea that students only have the choice to either sink or swim.

The tuition fee question
The story of the four students of the University of the Philippines Manila, and their request that they be allowed to pay for their tuition fees at the end of their last semester in the State U, is one that’s easy to understand. You can imagine how difficult it must be for impoverished families to keep their kids in school, even when they are studying in the State University.

And yes there is the Student Loan Board (SLB), but it is demanding that students put out 20% of their tuition fees in order to avail themselves of the 80% loan, which they need to pay at the end of the semester in order to avail of the loan for the next semester. The cycle is vicious. It is also unjust.

Because at any given point between semesters, a student is expected to pay full tuition anyway: 80% from the last semester, 20% for the new one. What is the point of promising that this loan will be given to all those who apply for it, when payment options are restrictive?

One also wonders why these students are not full scholars who should not have to worry about tuition fees at all. I’ve read the stories of these students and it’s clear to me that they deserve to pay nothing for State U education. They passed the UPCAT, and survived every semester despite financial challenges; the Political Science Program professors support the four students, a measure as well of their value as students.

Yet one only needs to take a look at the Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program (STFAP), which has now evolved into the Socialized Tuitions System (STS), to understand why these kids are not full scholars. Here is one flawed bracketing system. I talked about it in this same space a year ago, after Kristel Tejada’s death.

“What is wrong with the STFAP has always been that it will presume you can afford full tuition fees unless you prove otherwise. That is, it puts every student under Bracket A, and presumes that every enrollee has P22,500 pesos each semester, that’s at least P45,000 pesos a year, to pay up. <…> Which is to say that every enrollee of the University of the Philippines, every student of the State University, is presumed a millionaire until they prove otherwise.”

The new STS now has Bracket A pegged at above P1.3M. That is, students who enter the University are presumed to be part of wealthy families with annual earnings of more than P1.3M pesos. Some are put under Bracket B (P650,001 to P1.3 annual earnings) based on what students wrote under their Gross Family Income. The majority of students are burdened with having to prove that they are no millionaires. They then need to prove that they are not part of Bracket B, or Bracket C (P325,001 to P650,000), or Bracket D (P135,001 to P325,000). This is the only way they might actually prove that they deserve a full scholarship, where they need not pay tuition and miscellaneous and laboratory fees as part of Bracket E1; E2 is all of E1 plus a stipend from the University.

If it looks like a daunting task, that’s because it is. That in the end one’s bracket will be determined not by what you prove about your family, but by a committee’s reading of the information you provide makes the process and its results even more painful. It’s also an injustice.

Compassion and gentleness
This task of proving that one needs financial aid is in fact only expected in private universities like Ateneo, where it is valid to imagine that a majority of students come from a wealthier class that can afford to pay full tuition. And what we might learn from Ateneo is the kind of care and compassion it extends to its scholars, where rules operate on kindness, and the goal is to make sure students concern themselves with their studies and most nothing else.

I asked an ex-student, now younger sister Keisha, about her years as scholar in Ateneo (she graduated in 2010). Freshmen students are offered scholarships based on their grade in the entrance exam; everybody else can apply for 50% financial aid in their sophomore year with their parents’ or guardians’ income tax returns.

The rest of the 50% can be paid in tranches or in one go at the end of the semester. If/when this is not possible, the Office of Admission and Aid (OSA) assists the student and parents in finding a solution to the problem. Regardless, the anonymous benefactors of these scholars are paying the first 50% of next semester’s tuition, and as such the scholar’s participation in one semester is not determined by her inability to pay her tuition the previous semester.

Scholars become part of OSA and are cared for and monitored through that office. At least for my literature majors, they didn’t need to worry about maintaining a certain grade; they needed only to make sure they would have no Ds or Fs (passing and failing marks) every semester. They needed to submit their parents’ ITR every year, more as a formality and not as something that made them feel like they would be stripped of their scholarship for unexplained or arbitrary reasons. They are required to put in 10 hours of community service every semester; Keisha volunteered in the English Department.

Scholars are not made to feel like Ateneo’s concern is the money that they need to pay for tuition. Neither are scholars made to feel like they are being judged based on their family’s financial capabilities.

One would think the State University can extend this kindness, this gentleness, for the iskolars ng bayan. Because Ateneo proves that even with a majority of students who might be able to afford to pay full tuition, there is time and space for compassion. More importantly, Ateneo is a mirror that reveals how there is something fundamentally wrong with a State University’s Socialized Tuition System that has the same premise as a private university.

All students are rich unless they prove otherwise.

Prove your poverty, get a scholarship.

That is the death of the State University, ladies and gentlemen.

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2 Comments

  1. victor m. hernandez on

    UP socialized tuition fee system is too rigid. a UP graduate caeasily get work during or after graduation. giving reprieve so they can graduate is not a big burden on UP finances. A promissory note, an employment service, an alumni referral service, alumni scholarship fund will enable iskolar ng bayan to move on to the employment world. Why put up blockades for iskolars to move on? Ibagsak ang mga barikada patungo sa pag-unlad!

  2. Good morning Ms. Katrina Stuart Santiago, I just hope that with this column that you wrote, will awaken the kind souls of our society who can afford to at least contribute a certain amount of money and set up a foundation to help support the needy students of the State University (the likes of Kristel Tejada). Or better yet, if the gov’t can set-up an office that can lend money for tuition and other school expenses of any student who wants to borrow and pay later when they start working. Similar to what they have in the U.S.A. May, the following government offices can handle this; GSIS, SSS, Pag-ibig or even Pagcor. Ms. Katrina thank you for writing this column, it awakens one’s sensitivities, especially now that school calendar 2014-2016 will begin. I am pretty sure that the parents of a lot of student are so stressed out on thinking where to get the money for the tuition fees of their kids. It makes me feel very sad.