Activism, to me, has always been about daring to ask the more difficult questions. And wanting to do – and actually doing – something about it.
Anyone who thinks Kristel is being used for the cause of free education was obviously blind and deaf to the years of protests against tuition fee increases and the repercussions of the slow process of the State ceasing to subsidize state colleges and universities. So no, Kristel is not some mascot being used for this cause; Kristel is but proof that this cause is a valid one to take on, to engage in. Kristel proves that the current system kills, the spirit and otherwise.
The question really for everybody else so critical of activism is this: why are you not with us in this cause?
Maybe you need to do your research – that is something I learned both from activism and the academe, writing and blogging. Shooting from the hip is called such because you will most probably mess up your shot, or miss the bull’s eye altogether. Such is the case for many on the suicide-is-more-complex bus, or just those on the angry-at-activism-and-missing-the-point rampage.
Research would prove for example how the Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program (STFAP) of the University of the Philippines has always been flawed, and revised vis a vis the 300% increase in tuition in 2006, could only get worse. Defense for that new alphabetical bracketing system (ABS) was to the effect that it would now be able to take into account all the students from wealthier families, and make them pay a larger amount than the rest of us in the middle and lower classes.
Except that you don’t enter the State U on that middle-income bracket. Every student that passes the UPCAT and decides to go to UP begins from the highest Bracket A, and will then have to prove herself someone who is not a millionaire.
In what world does that make sense?
Certainly the goal of getting the rich to pay a bigger amount for their children’s UP education is a worthy one. But to continue using the STFAP to do this, when it was already a failure before the tuition fee increase, can only be UP’s undoing. There is also the question: if, as the STFAP says, these are students whose parents are millionaires, why would the State U charge them so little for quality education? P45,000 pesos a year, at P22,500 per semester, is a fraction of a million, isn’t it?
Where is the justice in charging the real millionaires this little, when the poor student who lives in Tondo, with three other siblings, and a part-time taxi driver for a father, is still charged a cool P10,000 pesos in a lower bracket? Where is the justice in having these millionaire students pay this little for a State U education, when their parents wouldn’t think twice about putting them in Ateneo, where one semester costs more than a year in UP?
The discrepancy is so in our faces, and it is one that the STFAP rationalizes.
It rationalizes the fact of presuming everyone a millionaire unless they prove otherwise on the premise that the application process is easy – that it can be made easier – and should be no trouble at all for anyone proving her poverty. And yet, looking at the list that students have to tick off, looking at the documents they have to put together and submit, one realizes that when the STFAP imagines poverty it cannot even imagine the lack of money for going through this application process. In a country where government papers cost money, what of those who don’t have anything to spare?
But the STFAP in its current existence doesn’t seem to acknowledge the possibility of someone this poor, and that is what makes it most unkind. It is also symptomatic of what it uses to assess who is deserving of lower brackets: the Family Income and Expenditures Survey and Labor Force Survey from the National Statistic Office (NSO). This is the same office that under this government says that a family only needs P172 pesos a day, that’s P5332 pesos a month, in order for a family of five to eat decently.
That’s P172 pesos a day in 2012, from P230 pesos in 2011.
This is also a country with a government that lowered the poverty threshold in 2011, and asserted that a Filipino can live on P46 pesos a day, inclusive of all her needs.
That is not living. That is surviving. That is being hungry while you work. That is not being able to provide your children with the proper education. That is not being able to assure food on the table.
To base the STFAP bracketing on NSO surveys that are premised on this assessment of poverty is already problematic. To insist that this poor, who are presumed to live decently as a family of five on P172 pesos a day, be the ones to prove they are earning only exactly that, is its crisis. To demand of these students that they don’t only apply once but apply every year, as if the lot in life of the poor changes in that way at all, is just cruel.
In fact the State U could’ve worked on a better bracketing system before the tuition fee increase. Say, already place students who pass the UPCAT in their bracket, as per preliminary assessment based on their application to the State U. Already ask students questions that point to their economic status: where did they go for elementary and high school? what are their parents’ jobs? do they have a family business? where do they live? did they have a scholarship for high school or elementary?
Once these students pass the UPCAT, they will be placed in a bracket already, and any member of the middle class who is put in Bracket A will have to prove she is otherwise, and you call on the wealthier parents to declare that they can actually afford to have their kids in Bracket A. But those who are scholars, those who come from public schools, were scholars in high school, have parents who only work within the underground economy, and live in a small rented house in Tondo with three other siblings, those students don’t just get to pay as little as possible, they are also cared for.
This is not to say that they must be treated differently, as it is to say that there needs to be an office in place that students can run to, but also one that keeps track of them. How are their studies, what kinds of grades do they have, how might they be assisted in getting the help they need – whatever those needs are. Conversations with students and their parents, not application forms and documents, prove poverty and social class.
The moment the STFAP thought it could easily put students in brackets, as if numbers and lists and owning a cellphone or a-toilet-with-a-flush means anything larger than what it is, that moment was when it messed up. The moment the State U agreed to the 300% tuition fee increase that was when this crisis began.
Because it was at that moment that it allowed government to think that self-sufficiency is possible, that making money out of education is what UP can be about. It was at this moment that the State U lost itself to the narrative of development and computerization, more classrooms and better services, forgetting the fact of its Iskolar ng Bayan. After all, it has the STFAP, and it will make sure that deserving but less privileged students will still be scholars of nation.
The STFAP as such rationalizes this P1500 per unit tuition fee. This STFAP thinks itself the core of UP’s existence, which is already its unraveling: how can a bracketing system that tells the rich to pay so little for education, and demand that the poor pay too much, be at the center of the State University’s existence?
How could UP come to this? How could that tuition fee increase have happened?
The activists were there, as they are every June of every year, talking about the rise in tuition fees, and fighting for the right to education of every Filipino, especially the majority who are poor. Certainly there were conversations had, too, calm and quiet conversations between the two sides of this tuition fee increase. That obviously didn’t yield a just result either. We lost the fight to keep UP a State U because too little of us cared about that increase. Too little cared about the STFAP. Too little cared about its repercussions.
I don’t know if it’s clear, but you don’t need to be an activist to care. And no, you don’t have more compassion just because you are insisting that a suicide is “more complex.” Poverty and hunger and need are not complex things. These are products of a systemic dysfunction that keeps the poor where they are, if not growing poorer by the day, no matter the higher economic numbers that the government likes to celebrate. Yes, the state of UP education was but the trigger. But that is to say it practically shot that gun.
Suicides might be complex for the rich and famous, who have the world at their feet, but apparently find reason to end their lives. But for the poor? They have nothing at their feet, in their pockets, in their stomachs. The need is clear, and only the apathetic or in denial – only those who think like this government do – would imagine that this need is irrelevant.
To assert that this stand makes weaklings out of the poor is the work of a mind that to begin with looks down on people who commit suicide. I haven’t heard that from activists, and neither from the more intelligent minds among us. I have only heard it from those judging activists, judging the poor, judging the Tejadas’ parenting, judging the suicide to be a sin. Yes, even the discourse on suicide has been wanting.
After all, we don’t have a Tagalog equivalent for the word depression. And certainly no word for therapist either, or psychiatrist.
But we do have many words for poor: mahirap, dukha, pobre. And no, activism doesn’t teach you these words. Living in this country should.
*this was previously published in the RadikalChick column at The Manila Times, March 28 2013.