Education is a right and it is one of society’s most critical responsibility to uphold. Educational institutions, such as state universities and colleges, whether public or private, impart knowledge to us by laying the foundations for our development and keeping our physical well-being “intact” as we become productive members of the society. It is heartbreaking when someone you know, perhaps a family member, a friend, or a colleague decides that by being deprived of education—in so many ways that it happened and continues to happen today—life has become too painful to bear.

Anyone’s death is agonizing for those left behind; when you thought that life could take you anywhere and you can be anything you want to be, suicide ends all possibilities. It has a chilling effect to students knowing that it could happen to anyone.

For the glaring case of our country’s education system, it’s not just suicide, it is murder to take away someone’s dream by not letting them pursue their education.

Six years after

A week ago, we commemorated Kristel Tejada’s death.

Six years ago, Kristel, a freshman of the University of the Philippines (UP) Manila, took her life and bid us goodbye forever. Most students in UP Manila today were not those who walked the halls of the campus the same time as she did.

Kristel’s tuition woes started in her first day in the university. The 16-year old Behavioral Science student asked for a tuition loan and offered a promissory note to the university. However, at the second time of asking and unable to pay the previous loan, it was denied. In 2013, UP Manila administration barred students who failed to pay their tuition on time from attending classes. Students paid as much as P33,000 to P50,000 per semester in the premier state university until 2017—an amount that is as much as the tuition in many private schools in the country, or even more expensive than many.

She was in bracket D in the socialized tuition scheme of the university, much to the family’s dismay. They believed Kristel should be in bracket E2, where Kristel would be tuition-free and would even receive a stipend of P2,400 per month or P12,000 per semester.

Under the Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program (STFAP), those who fall under Bracket A pay P1,500 per unit; Bracket B students pay P1,000; Bracket C, P600, and Bracket D, P300. Students under Bracket E are exempted from tuition.

Not capable of paying for the P10,000 worth of tuition, Kristel was forced to take a leave of absence. She was not even allowed to sit in classes as she wanted to do just for the purpose of learning and not getting marks to complete a degree.

This is the irony of being in state university, which supposedly caters to the government’s responsibility to provide education to the youth, but charges students with high tuition fees.

After a dialogue with UP officials and a month after Kristel died, the university lifted the “no late payment” policy. The Commission on Higher Education (CHED) also issued a memorandum at the same time urging flexibility on payment of fees and scrapping any “no permit, no exam” policies that then exist in higher education institutions (HEIs) in the country.

Rising cost of education in UP pre-free tuition era

The socialized tuition schemes in UP Diliman resulted in the rising tuition rates in the country’s premier state university. At P1,500 per unit today, the rate rivals the tuition in many expensive private colleges and universities.

From zero tuition to P40, the tuition jumped to P300 per unit in UP Diliman, UP Manila and UP Los Baños (P200 per unit in other UP units) after the introduction of the STFAP in 1989. In instituting the STFAP, UP’s highest policy-making body the Board of Regents (BOR) said it was “part of UP’s effort to democratize access and admission to its academic programs and promote fairness and social justice in the University.”

But according to Philippine Collegian then, only one in every five undergraduate students in UP Diliman benefited from free tuition under the program in 1991. By 2010, only one in every one hundred students is granted free tuition. In 2012, only 74 students of the 3,823 STFAP applicants in UP Diliman whose parents earn way below the minimum wage in the National Capital Region (NCR) enjoyed free tuition with stipend.

In 2006, UP increased its tuition rates by 300% from P300 per unit to P1,000 per unit. The STFAP was restructured in 2007, the main reason given was to adjust to inflation rates. The state university’s tuition increased to P1,000 in UP Diliman, UP Manila and Los Baños (P600 per unit in other UP units), a rate that surpasses the average tuition of P863.71 in NCR (according to CHED data) at the time.

The school year the new rates were implemented, there were reports that many did not enroll despite passing the UP College Admission Test. In 2011, reports said around 1,300 of the 3,826 UP College Admission Test (UPCAT) qualifiers in UP Diliman (UPD) did not enroll, mainly due to high tuition rates. Years after, many public high school students do not even consider applying in UP for college because even if they pass, they are certain they will be unable to pay the tuition.

Following the outrage in the wake of Kristel’s death, and all the painful and real ironies that the unfortunate incident exposed, the BOR launched the Socialized Tuition System or STS on December 2013. According to the new program, it will provide tuition discount at rates that are based on the assessment of the paying capacity of the household to which a student belongs.

They said the program aimed to democratize UP admission since not all students can afford to pay the full tuition. However, it also gave a de facto tuition increase of P1,500 pesos per unit from the default P1,000 pesos per unit. Youth groups claimed that it is another income generating project of the UP system, alongside the leasing of its academic lands amid lowering government appropriations vis-à-vis increasing needs. The STS, like the STFAP before it, was seen as a smokescreen for tuition increase.

Under the socialized tuition schemes, students will have to apply and prove their poverty to get a tuition discount.

Even with the free tuition policy since 2017, where all tuition is subsidized at only state universities and a few local colleges, the socialized tuition scheme continues to categorize students into brackets to see who is deserving to get the financial assistance and stipend from the university. UP students who are not covered by the free tuition policy will also have to apply for socialized tuition scheme to get a tuition discount.

Several cases of education and tuition-related suicides from other schools were also documented from the Aquino administration up to present. These lives lost are more than enough to realize that the current educational system is neither democratizing access nor educating the Filipino youth. It tells us the narrative of a price-tag education at the expense of our constitutional right to education.

Free tuition policy

On August 3, 2017, the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act or RA 10931 was signed into law by President Rodrigo Duterte. It institutionalized free tuition and exemption from other school fees in state universities and colleges (SUCs), and some local universities and colleges (LUCs) in the country.

The free tuition law was lauded as pro-poor policy, a recognition of a decades-long battle cry of youth activists and also an admission that government can indeed fully fund our education.

But a lot is still needed to improve the policy. While 112 SUCs, 78 LUCs, and technical vocational programs benefited from the said law, majority of students cannot access tertiary education.

Under K-12 education, students are discouraged to take tertiary education and proceed with technical vocational tracks to supplement as cheap labor force outside the country. With the full rollout of the K-12 program deliberately marketed by the Department of Education (DepEd) for employability at the cost of employment and preparedness, the K-12 program is a desperate and haphazard attempt to be globally competitive. However, according to a Jobstreet report in 2018, only 24% of employers are willing to hire k-to-12 graduates. Recently, a Senate hearing on K-12 review showed that the K-12 curriculum is not being taught well—the culprit for lower National Achievement test scores since the program was implemented. Also according to government data, 400,000 students were unable to continue with school when K-12 was implemented.

Medicine and Law students were also exempted from the free tuition policy since 2018 and would have to apply for subsidies and scholarships with the available CHED programs.

The Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of RA 10931 drafted by CHED headed by its Commissioner Prospero De Vera in February 2018 also put in place a “civic obligation” or “return service system” (RSS) for those who will avail of free tuition. Main stakeholders—the students—were not consulted with the IRR and we remember that March 2018 episode in the House of Representatives when the students who came to listen to the IRR hearing were held in a separate room and were ushered to the hearing and given time to speak only as the hearing was ending. It ended with the students shouting out their calls, and Congress security pushing and shoving them out.

National democratic mass organizations, especially those from UP Manila, were quick to address and criticize the CHED’s inclusion of return service that the National Union of Students of the Philippines Metro Manila found out in June last year to be forms of “required voluntary service” in UP Manila, and unpaid labor and mandatory ROTC in other SUCs in NCR. But only the UP system was ready with its program for RSS. The BOR deferred the RSS for one semester with the intervention of then-Student Regent Shari Oliquino. At the time, it actually meant that UP student would be required to complete two semesters of return service (40 hours per month becomes 80 hours) in the second semester of the school year 2018-2019. CHED held a hearing with student groups and deferred the program for one school year. Come CHED budget deliberations in September 2018, with the intervention of ACT Teachers Partylist Representatives Antonio Tinio, Commissioner De Vera promised to take out RSS from the IRR. Tinio argued that the RSS does not have a basis in the law. In that hearing, Tinio also quipped a most commonsensical truth that proponents of RSS have missed all those months: kung libre, bakit may kapalit?

De Vera would go on to say after a few days of that hearing that what he said was his word alone but he cannot speak or decide for the Unified Student Financial Assistance System for Tertiary Education or UNIFAST board who decides on matters like this. Until now, there is none of that written document that removes the RSS that De Vera promised to execute. We will see in the coming school year if the SUCs will implement the RSS.

The problem with the RSS in the free tuition policy is not that students and youth do not want to render service. It’s that it’s repressive and coercive and exacerbates the problems of the youth with the inaccessibility of education—when they may be able to overcome tuition woes to enter school, it is even harder to keep oneself in school with all the expenses it entails. The forms of RSS that are in the character of unpaid labor are also blatantly exploitative. Ultimately, the RSS tries to drill into the consciousness of the public that if the youth do not want to render return service, they do not deserve free education. It is a poisoned chalice that sets us way back the time before these socialized tuition schemes made tuition and tuition increases acceptable. It obfuscates the principle of the youth’s right to education and covers up the government’s inutility in its responsibility to provide education to the youth.

The free tuition policy also provided limited slots throughout the country. With inadequate budget and cuts from the government, state universities, local universities and colleges can only admit so many students that students are forced to enroll in private HEIs to get tertiary education and get a degree. In this case, the grim situation of having to pay high-priced education remains a living nightmare for most of the students. With the threat of tuition of tuition fee increase annually, the burden of education is at the meager income of parents and perhaps to some, shouldered by the savings a working student—or ultimately a farewell to that one dream of graduation.

While there is free tuition for SUCs and some LUCs, private and business education reign supreme, as there is one (1) public tertiary education institution for every 10 private colleges. Majority of college students are paying high tuition fees, while government data also tells us there are 3.8 million out-of-school youth today. There is a free tuition policy, yet there is still no free education and access to education remains elusive for most Filipino youth.

Justice remains elusive

To this day, justice for Kristel’s tragic death remains elusive. It will be for as long as the state of commercialized, colonial and repressive education remains. Kristel is one among the hundreds and thousands of Filipino students who are pushed against the wall by the commercialized character of education in the country. But not only Kristel, but all of us remains a victim of the state abandonment of education.

UP Manila implements its own Return Service Agreement or RSA in the ‘white colleges’ or heath sciences colleges since 2010. The program started in 2009 with requiring graduates of Medicine to serve in underserved communities, but went on to implement a payback scheme in 2013 in the amount of “twice the cost of education plus interests and donations”, today amounting to around P1.2 million, for those who would leave the country before the two to three-year ban of leaving the country. The RSA also now allows service in any sector or company in the country–be it foreign, transnational, private practice, military, etc.–as long as the graduate stays two to three years (depending on the length of the degree program) in the country after graduation. So whether this is true “return service” in the country or for the people is highly contestible. In the first semester of school year 2018-2019, the university also cascaded amendments it pushed for in the RSA workshops in May 2018, despite not being tackled or approved in the BOR according to the Office of the Student Regent, such as the amendment that disallows first degree graduates to proceed directly to Medicine and the removal of payback exemptions “for any reasons” (when before it allowed exemptions due to temporary or permanent physical or mental disability). We were also surprised in the first semester of this school year that the payback is now being charged to students who cannot complete their first degree program upon admission to the university or those who opt to shift out of their courses to courses that do not implement RSA. The payback is implemented even if it was only in 2017 that students in UP Manila were given free tuition and before that they pay P33,000 to P50,000 per semester. Since November last year, Anakbayan UP Manila tallied various cases where students in the first or second year of their degree program who are planning to shift are advised to underload so they will not reach the 60 enrolled units that would make their RSA contracts binding, students who cannot shift out of their courses unless they pay P1.2 million and students who were unable to study and re-enrol.

How much have we really learned after Kristel’s death? How far have we come? Not much. Not far.

Our fight is not yet over and so we say with hope that Kristel’s fight is not over and it lives with all of students and youth today yearning for our right to education be fulfilled.

With the budget cuts on basic social services, with tuition and other school fees increases in private universities, we play a vital role on voicing our concerns and fighting for our right to education. We need to forge unities and defend our right for education. We give justice to Kristel and to all the victims of this commercialized education system by putting an end to it. We will continue the fight for access to quality and free education for all.

Justice for Kristel Tejada!

Free Education Now!

No to Tuition Increase!

No to Budget Cuts!

Fight for a nationalist, scientific, and mass-oriented education!

Habagat Farrales is a student of UP Manila and the coordinator of Kabataan Partylist UP Manila.

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