UP and Kristel

Because UP Manila freshman Kristel Tejada took her own life shortly after she went on a “forced leave of absence” for being unable to pay tuition, it is easy to conclude that this was the cause of her suicide. This is perhaps the only way we can rationalize a tragedy that, on its face, is simply senseless. Often we need to do this because, whether we are aware of it or not, the death of any promising young person by her own hand assails our collective conscience.  Searching for someone to blame diminishes our own share of the guilt.

Yet, nothing is more inaccessible than suicide. Psychologists usually account for it as an outcome of chronic depression. Sociologists prefer to look at it in terms of what is happening to society as a whole—its level of integration and its capacity to offer a sense of belonging to its members. The sociological perspective is particularly apt in this case because the factors surrounding Kristel’s suicide seem to point—beyond the callousness of bureaucracies—to the effects of poverty and inequality in our society.

In our highly stratified society, education alone offers to the ordinary individual a path to social mobility. But access to this path is very much determined by a family’s level of income.  The smallest differences in the economic capacity of students often spell the greatest differences in opportunity later in life.

I believe it is one of the most vital functions of the state to neutralize the effects of such income differences on access to education. The earlier in life this is done for every member of society, the greater the chance that education may contribute to the reduction of social inequality. This is the reason I have always argued that the highest budgetary priority should be given to education, starting with the basic years.

When the poor’s access to good education is blocked by their lack of capacity to pay, education becomes yet another contributing factor in the reproduction of inequality. This is what has happened in the Philippines.  By transferring to the private sector the main responsibility for providing quality education at all levels, the government in effect reinforces the inequality that is found everywhere in our society. The resulting lack of educational qualification of the poor then becomes the warrant for their further exclusion and marginalization.  Education has to be harnessed as a means to interrupt this intergenerational transfer of inequality.

When a young economically disadvantaged person like Kristel competes on equal terms with other high school graduates and succeeds in getting admitted into UP, that is truly an outstanding feat. It is something that I have always rejoiced about in all the years I have taught in UP. The university has the duty to do everything it can to ensure that a student like her completes her course. This means intervening affirmatively on her behalf in matters of an academic, financial, or sociopsychological nature.

The reason for this is simple: If a student is good enough to hurdle UP’s tough entrance exam, then she should be good enough to be able to graduate. Admission carries with it a tacit obligation to see that student through until she finishes. A student’s inability to complete her studies—either because she voluntarily drops out of school or flunks her courses—must be interpreted as much a failure of the institution itself as it is of the student’s.

Of the many day-to-day problems that a university student may face at school, I think that the sociopsychological ones are the hardest to address. That is why the availability of professional counseling services is important. But, quite often, a member of the faculty may find himself having to go out of his way to lend an ear to a student who might be in trouble. He should not shirk the task.  That is part of the job, particularly when one is teaching young undergraduate students.

Poor academic performance is perhaps easier to address. In the more than 40 years I have taught at UP, I could count with the fingers of only one hand the number of students I ever flunked. I always felt bad when I had to. To help a student improve a failing grade, I gave out additional assignments, or asked the student to retake an exam. In the worst of cases, I advised students whose poor performance was beyond redemption to drop the course without incurring a grade, and to reenroll in my course the following semester.

Financial problems are fairly common among students in a public university like UP. I am therefore distressed that a student is barred from enrolling for failure to raise money for tuition. That is not an acceptable reason to keep her out of school. Having served a number of times as guarantor for student loans, I know that UP students will never run out of professors to run to for help. If the faculty cannot draw from their own meager pockets, they will usually find a way to tap other sources.

With its long list of prominent alumni who have gained much from a UP education, the university should not have any difficulty building a special fund dedicated to giving emergency assistance to students in dire financial straits. I would like to help start such a fund. But, equally important is the need to institute a more personalized mentoring system. In addition to the program adviser, an undergraduate student will benefit immensely from being assigned a senior student or alumnus to whom she can turn for advice.

These are essential tools of solidarity that go beyond state subsidy for education, and which cost so little to maintain. UP has always had a special heart for the poor; it is a shame that it could not do enough for Kristel.