When I entered the State University as a freshman in 1995, I was part of an English block that was diverse by virtue of class. It didn’t take long to find that while some of us were from well-off families (I had a Romualdez in my class for example, and there were children of lawyers), and there were some of us who were versions of middle class; many of my blockmates came from poorer families, many from the provinces. Many of them, I later found, were dependent on scholarships, mostly from elsewhere other than the State U.
I only knew one blockmate who was dependent on the socialized pricing scheme that was the STFAP then. She later dropped out.
I had another classmate who was pretending to be poor, and using the STFAP to pay a smidgen of the P5000-peso per sem we all needed to pay. She spoke about it with pride in our third year, when I chanced upon her during enrollment. There were rumors then of UP finding out about someone who had succeeded at duping the University for four years, submitting papers that apparently proved he deserved to be a full scholar, only for the University to find after an inspection that he was actually a rich kid, with a provincial address yes, but of a hacienda. He went through college as a full scholar, haciendero as he was.
From junior year onwards, I had a boyfriend who was by all counts poor. But only once, if I remember correctly, did he get an STFAP bracket lower than mine. Even then I had wondered about why it was so difficult to prove his impoverished state; neither could I understand why he was required to apply again and again, every school year, as if his lot in life was going to change from one year to the next. I thought it absurd too, that even then, he would be asked to prove the state of his family’s income by submitting papers that they just didn’t have, i.e., income tax returns and land titles, and notarized checklists and papers proving their “assets” that included everything and their kitchen sink.
As it was, money needed to be put out to prove one’s poverty. What of those who enter that STFAP office with nothing in their pockets?
Sixteen years later, and the STFAP is no better. Revised in 2006 alongside the 300% tuition fee increase that brought the basic full tuition fee to P1,500 / unit (from P300) or P22,500 pesos per semester (from P4,500), the current alphabetical bracketing system bears little difference to the old STFAP. A look at the process outlined online, including the long list of requirements and papers to be fulfilled – that now asks if an applicant has a toilet at home, and if it is equipped with a flush? – reminds not so much of easier times, but really of how much worse things have become.
And while the UP Administration and the Commission on Higher Education seem to think that all it takes is revision upon revision of the STFAP, while it is easy to think that all it takes is to streamline this process and make sure that deserving students are given an easier time, what was always fundamentally wrong about the STFAP is not being addressed here.
Because what is fundamentally wrong about the STFAP is what it presumes about every student who enters the State University. 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.
Imagine how daunting that amount is. And then imagine how urgent and critical it becomes that students apply for the STFAP and get to a bracket lower than the letter A. Imagine how much pressure a poor student suffers through, seeing an amount that they cannot even imagine in their hands, an amount they know their parents cannot earn. Imagine what it is like to find that the burden of proving poverty is yours, when you know it is precisely the fact that you have nothing that is proof of your poverty?
What is wrong with the STFAP has always been that it will presume you can afford full tuition fees unless you prove otherwise. Pre-2006, this wasn’t so bad – P5300 or so is not an amount that’s daunting, and is undoubtedly easier to raise than P10k, or P15k, or just P24,000 pesos. The last is nowhere near easy to raise.
In fact, the STFAP bracketing scheme proves it, too: this amount is for students with annual family incomes of P1M pesos or more.
One million pesos or more.
Which is to say that every enrollee to the University of the Philippines, every student of the State University, is presumed a millionaire until they prove otherwise.
It then becomes clear how, while the STFAP process is a long one and it will cost a student to actually apply for brackets lower than that one for millionaires, the STFAP is in fact an institution riddled with problems that no amount of revisions will change.
Say, its premise that the burden of proof lies in the student, who thinks twice about using her last P10 pesos on the STFAP application forms, but then finds that she has no choice. Who sits and ticks off a long long list that asks about her family’s living conditions (what kind of cooking range do you have? how many computers do you have? do you have an electric heater?), her current lot in life. Who wonders about being asked of her parents’ educational attainment, which to her doesn’t mean much because they are both working odd jobs, their college degrees in the maritime institute practically useless. Who thinks, where do I get a camera to take photos of my home, to prove how small it is for a family of six, my parents and I, and my three other siblings. Who thinks, how will they assess my poverty based on my father’s earnings as taxi driver, when that is unstable at best?
Say, the insecurity that the STFAP creates in poorer students of the State University, who are faced with a disparity in social classes unlike any they’ve had to live with before. Yes, they know of the rich, but to be within the same space as them? To be on a list that stratifies the studentry from the millionaires down? And to find that one is at that lowest bracket, and even then have such difficulty paying?
What the UP Administration and the governments who have supported that 300% tuition fee increase have created here are the conditions for the poor’s discomfort and embarrassment, in a space that should be the bastion of equality and sameness.
In the 90’s, paying at most a P5,400 tuition fee, one of us was not better than another, and in fact, discomfiture was for the rich who were even there at all. In the 90’s, the best and the brightest from the public schools and provinces outdid all of us middle class and rich in the classroom: they were in the State U for reasons that had everything to do with their skills and intelligence. The rest of us were statistics, the smaller number of students who paid full tuition, because we could.
In 2013, you can only imagine the kind of stigma attached to a student being told by a teacher that she has to step out of the classroom because she has yet to pay her tuition fees or student loans. Imagine what goes through a student’s head, faced with the fact of unpaid fees, but wanting to learn and thinking the world still of education, and of the State University in particular. Imagine what it is like to go to school for five months, with only the desire to learn fueling you, the empty stomach and pocket things you can ignore.
Imagine a context within which you are the strange one having a difficult time, if not the one who has nowhere to run. Imagine a University whose bureaucracy is most unkind, and which instead of being source of comfort and identity, becomes stark reminder of how hopeless one’s poverty is.
This is the systemic dysfunction that is in the STFAP, that is in the State University’s P1,500 per unit tuition fee, that is in this task of creating the conditions for making sure that all State colleges and universities become self-sufficient. This is what the poorer students among us suffer through, because government decides that it will cease to provide education, that it is not the priority here.
This is what killed Kristel Tejada. This is what pushed her against a wall, and made her believe there was no other way to ease her emotional pains and face her family’s financial woes.
This is why UP has blood on its hands.
Next week: how an amount of creativity and imagination might be in order towards a just socialized tuition scheme for the State University. And how government should not be allowed to cede responsibility of SUCs.
*published in the RadikalChick column at The Manila Times, March 21 2013.