Several incidents recently drew me into the core of my University’s business: students. One was a failed suicide attempt. Last semester, we had one who was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. Less tragic were two students known to me who have similarly dropped out of school: one who was a recipient of a food subsidy program I had been supporting and another a Political Science junior whose health could no longer cope with the travel from her remote mountain village to our campus in Miagao. Being chair of a Division that runs two undergraduate programs with 420 odd students, having 4 students fall into the cracks as it were may be statistically insignificant. But being a teacher, any addition to the score of (near) dropouts is heartbreaking.
Our University runs a socialized tuition fee scheme (STFAP) that provides 100% tuition subsidy and a modest living allowance to qualified students. The living allowance (paid in monthly cash installments) is all too often insufficient to get a young man/woman 3 healthy meals a day and a shared room (bedspace) for living quarters. Putting together the application for this scholarship is no easy feat; as is “staying” on it. One grade of 4.0 (conditional failure) or a 5.0 (failure) merits disqualification. Our campus is home to numerous “bracket E2”- bright students plucked from the obscurity of their remote national high schools and grim $2.5 dollar/day earning households. Alas, to many of these STFAP grantees, the compounded effect of poor quality prior education and poor nutrition makes for a far more difficult climb. Their communication and mathematical skills are often too handicapped. Where they are mixed in with age cohorts from better income backgrounds, often only those more socially adept and resourceful (“ma-diskarte”) survive four years of college life.
True injustice lies in a student failing his/her class because of not having enough food to eat, missing a bedspace rent payment or not having enough money to pay for a jeepney fare to go to classes. To me, a University which misses out on these bare facts and instead focuses on the realm of research outputs and ISI publication is like Socrates in Aristophanes’ The Clouds. Setting grade standards to retain the scholarship is fine; but FOCUS on those getting in/out of bracket E2s is as serious a business. Worry we must to those whose only chance at a college diploma hangs by a thread.
My friend whose work involves conducting background investigation of these STFAP recipients attest to the remarkable hope and doggedness of spirit that pushes them from their miserable origins. She works with another colleague who independently runs a food subsidy program that targets those who get disqualified from STFAP. They are joined by a small band of colleagues who put together thesis monetary support and donate to a pool of short-term student non-tuition loans. Collectively, they fight the vestiges of poverty that debilitates an institution of learning. Because in this setting, students should and will always come first.
Rosalie Arcala Hall is a Professor at the University of the Philippines Visayas and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.