Investing in a public university

This coming Thursday, March 2, 2000, Dr. Francisco Nemenzo Jr. will be formally installed as the 18th president of the University of the Philippines.  The investiture ceremony, by which heads of universities are given the traditional insignia of their office, is feudal and ecclesiastical in origin.  Dodong Nemenzo, the Marxist scholar and activist, is right to resist this obsolete ritual.

However, the investiture of the new UP President is also an opportunity to re-introduce the State University to the nation, as well as to debate the meaning and relevance of a public university in an era of privatization.   Nemenzo is an advocate of the idea that a university like UP must be an agent of personal and social transformation, rather than a validator of inherited status and wealth or the perpetuator of outmoded social hierarchies and practices.  As head of UP, he has a chance to imagine how this role can best be realized in a world in which increasingly the competition of nations is decided by the inventiveness of their educational institutions.

When UP was established during the first decade of American rule, the clear intent was to train a core of Filipino professionals for the colonial bureaucracy.  The expenditure of public funds to produce a small cadre of university graduates was taken for granted as essential to the emergence of a self-governing nation.  It did not take long, however, for that assumption to be called into question as public service became less and less the favored professional destination of UP graduates.

In the postwar period, it became easier to justify state support for UP by promoting it as a university of the people, a mechanism for broadening the class system of Philippine society,  rather than as an exclusive school for mandarins.  Later, in the years of student activism, this democratizing role blended well with a call to serve the people, not necessarily as civil servants, but as catalysts of a social revolution.  Wherever he might end up working, whether as a graduate or as a dropout, a UP alumnus was expected to play the critical leavening role.  Accordingly, the university felt compelled to make pronouncements on national issues and justified to call itself the conscience of the nation.

Unlike the North American universities, UP was seldom asked to explain its existence in terms of its contribution to the fund of technically-usable knowledge or to economic growth.  No one inquired into the class origins of its students or their career destinations.  UP’s crucial role as the initiator of the nation’s political discourse preempted any questioning of its social utility as an institution.

With the relative stabilization of the country’s political life, however, UP today is less able to rationalize its role in such political terms. Politicians like Senator John Osmena, who exacted a P155 million-cut in the UP’s 2000 budget on the ground that the school has become a playground for the rich, tend to view UP solely in terms of its role as a provider of highly-subsidized quality education.  They want the subsidy to be cut, while insisting that a UP education be more equitably distributed.  It is a concern that voters can easily understand.

Unfortunately, Sen. Osmena is grossly misinformed.  Even in the era of a worthless peso, entering UP freshmen from families earning more than one million pesos per year constitute only 3.1 percent of total new admissions.  Like the rest of the 70% of UP students, they pay full tuition.  Of course, full tuition at UP is way below what, for example, Ateneo and De la Salle students have to pay.  To raise tuition to the level charged by these private schools would be to exclude a large number of deserving students from poor families from the benefits of a relatively inexpensive college education.  But, Osmena’s budget cut is essentially an order to increase tuition.

The Cebuano senator protests that Visayan high school graduates are under-represented in UP’s annual intake of freshmen compared to graduates from the National Capital Region.  He is right.  But while UP does make allowances for under-represented regions and ethnic minorities, it does not treat admission into UP as a matter of regional representation.  Admission is primarily a function of test scores and high school grades.

Admissions tests, of course, are not a perfect measure of merit.  Like education itself, they can never probe the full range of human worth. As Nicholas Lemann, who studied the role of intelligence tests in American university admissions, argued: “They don’t find wisdom, or originality, or humor, or toughness, or empathy, or common sense, or independence, or determination – let alone moral worth.”  An admissions policy that will take these qualities into account must go beyond testing.

But to distribute university places as if they were internal revenue allotments does nothing to improve the system.  It only ensures the admission of the children of the local elite.  A good place in which to begin the democratization of educational opportunity is to improve the quality of basic and secondary education in the country’s public schools, especially those in the remotest areas.  If UP can find a way of hastening and sustaining this effort, then it will have earned every centavo of public money invested in it.

A nation can never overspend on the basic education of its children. Having a first class university in a nation where the majority are functionally illiterate is akin to running a five-star hotel in a sea of slum-dwellers.  It is a scandal.


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