Bright Lights Dimmed

June 21, 2014This is an article I contributed to our fraternity‘s magazine regarding the issue of socialized tuition in the University of the Philippines.

Socialized tuition is far from socializing access to UP education. It has instead made access to the national university largely inaccessible to a wide number of the brightest college-age youth of the country. The present socialized tuition scheme is nothing more than a mechanism for systematic state neglect of higher education. It has always been part and parcel of any attempt to increase matriculation in UP, so a discussion of socialized tuition cannot be had without discussing the context of state neglect of the national university and other institutions of social and public service. One cannot be divorced from the other, and any attempt to do so, is merely parroting national government scapegoats.

Socialized tuition was introduced in 1988 and was used to justify the increase in tuition the year after. The 300% increase in tuition in 2006 also came with a ‘restructuring’ of the socialized tuition scheme. More recently, another ‘restructuring’ of the socialized tuition scheme required prospective and present students to answer an absurd set of questions pertaining to their family’s lifestyle and submit sets of documents to prove they deserve to be in a tuition bracket aside from Bracket A – which means that the University assumes that a scholar is capable of paying P1,500 per unit until proven otherwise.

The result is very telling. From 20% of students who were afforded free tuition (full subsidy) in 1991, it has significantly dropped to a mere 3% in 2014. For 2014, 54% of students are, correctly or not, made to pay P1,500 unit. This lends truth to an observation by many that the University has been overrun by ‘rich students’ who are, correctly or not, assumed to be financially capable to pay full tuition.

One of the basic premise of those who defend the socialized tuition scheme is that the Philippine government’s resources are not enough to fully subsidize its national university. The argument goes that since government resources are scant, UP should earn its income through other means, particularly through increased tuition and other fees, and by selling or leasing out its assets to private corporations. This argument goes further to say that UP should tighten its belt because resources are better directed at other state universities. When cornered with the fact that there is no direct correlation between state subsidy for UP and other state universities, those who use the argument will go further by saying that state universities in general should tighten their belts in favor of basic education. This is, again, wrong for basic reason that there is no direct correlation between subsidy for basic education and subsidy for state universities like UP. This is a classic tactic of pitting victims against each other so the culprit can go scot-free.

Consider these. The Philippine government spends almost P800 billion a year in interest and principal payments to services its perpetually increasing debt, much of which has not benefitted the people (which makes it possible and justifiable for the national government to negotiate them down). Current events have likewise reinforced the fact that billions of pesos of the people’s money are being siphoned off into the pockets of our politicians. Resources are not scant. The people’s money is not only misdirected, it is also plundered dry by our bureaucrats. Studies show that it only takes just an additional P 11.34 billion in state subsidy for all state universities, not just for UP, to make higher education tuition-free for all the nation’s state scholars. This is a drop in the bucket considering the hundreds of billions of pesos wasted on corruption-ridden projects of the government. This is subsidy that the government refuses to give, not because it can’t, but because it is not priority.

It is also important to note that state neglect of higher education is not a mere function of scant resources, but a systematic policy direction following neoliberal economic dogma, where austerity is imposed as a matter of national policy and where private corporations are allowed to penetrate into social service functions of the state for profit. This has been true for many of our public utilities and increasingly true for our social services such as health and education. For higher education, this is outlined in the higher education programs of national government administrations from past till present. From Ferdinand Marcos’ Education Act, to Fidel Ramos’ Higher Education Modernization Act, to Gloria Arroyo’s Higher Education Development Plan, to Benigno Aquino III’s Roadmap to Higher Education Reform. All of them harp on the same thing, decreasing state support for higher education.

We have to go back to the basic function of a state university. A state subsidizes the higher education of its brightest youth so they can contribute their talents in the development of the country. Neoliberal economic dogma, however, insists that higher education is a mere private good, which trivializes education into a mere private commodity for individual development. It purposely refuses to admit, to a large extent, that higher education is not only beneficial but necessary to any society. This is particularly very important for a country like the Philippines that has yet to achieve the national development it aspires for, which it can’t without producing the professionals and the technology it needs.

This addresses one of the main arguments of the other side. Is it reasonable to subsidize bright young men and women from rich families? Yes! Why not? We have established that resources are not scant, and that the basis of higher education subsidy is the development and training of young Filipinos so that they are able to contribute to national development. Such does not rely on whether one comes from a rich family or not. Class background is not a factor in the potential of a young Filipino to contribute to national development. Such potential is measured through the UPCAT, which should ideally be the primary, if not one of the only basis for admission to the national university.

Socialized tuition thus puts many iskolars ng bayan in an awkward position as they are being labeled as state scholars with moral responsibility to give back to the people what they received in scholarship once they become professionals, when after all is considered, today’s iskolars ng bayan are barely scholars with the amount of tuition they already pay themselves. What moral ascendancy does the government have then to implore us to serve the people?

My last point is this. Data from the past years have shown that 30-40 percent of those who pass the UPCAT, presumably the best and the brightest of Filipino college-age youth, do not show up to enroll at the University. We used to have a University where the only consideration for admission is academic competence. For decades, the best high school students from across the archipelago attended the University. A survey of the composition of our senior batches prove this—they come from all across the Philippines and come from a wide spectrum of background.

As Upsilonians, this should be a great cause for concern, and it is one of the tragedies that we particularly bear because of this socialized tuition scheme. Our wellspring of purposeful young men to recruit has not only shallowed but narrowed in terms of origin and background. That many of the best and the brightest of the Filipino youth from many parts of the archipelago do not enter UP means we are not able to have the opportunity to gather into our fold the brightest lights to scatter—light that our country most definitely need today more than ever.

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