In death, Kristel Pilar Mariz Tejada has definitely grabbed her school’s attention.
A day after the student’s suicide put the University of the Philippines and its student support system under scrutiny, UP president Alfredo Pascual on Saturday said the state-run institution “can turn the tragedy into a greater resolve to act and make UP accessible to the poor.”
In a statement addressed to the UP community and alumni, Pascual said he was deeply saddened by the death of the 16-year-old Behavioral Sciences freshman from UP Manila, who took her own life on Friday reportedly after being forced to put her studies on hold for lack of tuition money.
It was also revealed that a day before the suicide, Pascual met with the various UP chancellors and issued a directive that could have made Tejada change her mind about ending her life.
“To think that it happened a day after I instructed the chancellors at our council meeting held last Thursday that we should not deny access to qualified students who cannot enroll because of financial constraints,” he said.
“To think also that the reforms I am pushing to simplify the Socialized Tuition Assistance Program application process and increase the financial aid for poor students are already planned for the Board of Regents’ action next month.”
“It is unfortunate it takes time to implement change,” Pascual said. “We can easily be overtaken, as we have been, by a sudden turn of events. But I am confident we can turn the tragedy into a greater resolve to act and make UP accessible to the poor.”
Since 1989, the country’s premier state university has been implementing a socialized tuition scheme wherein well-to-do students pay higher tuition while those from low-income families pay minimal or no tuition.
Students are categorized according to their capacity to pay under five brackets, with Bracket A paying P1,500 per unit and Bracket E paying no tuition. Tejada, daughter of a taxi driver and the eldest of five children, was categorized under Bracket D wherein she had to pay P300 per unit.
A report by the UP Manila student publication, Manila Collegian, said the student was forced Wednesday last week to file a leave of absence from her studies following appeals for an extension of the payment period for her tuition loan.
A day after her leave was granted, she committed suicide by drinking a silver cleaning solution at her Tayuman, Manila, residence.
News of her death drew strong reactions in the social media, largely from UP alumni who called for a review of the tuition assistance program. On Saturday, UP graduates among the senatorial candidates in the May elections also weighed in.
“We have to review our scholarship programs and even UP itself. Although they have a socialized scholarship program, it looks like they have to temper this with more humanity,” said reelectionist Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III.
“It’s very depressing that an incident like this has to happen, more so that it happened in UP. The government and state universities should show more compassion and leeway especially to students who come from poor families and are experiencing financial constraints,” added Aurora Rep. Juan Edgardo Angara.
Pimentel and Angara are both products of the UP College of Law and are now running under the administration’s senatorial ticket.
Angara, who chairs the House committee on higher and technical education, was one of the authors of a bill establishing a student financial assistance system that would harmonize all government scholarship and grant-in-aid programs.
Makabayan Coalition senatorial candidate Teddy Casiño said Tejada’s suicide was a wake-up call for the government to increase support for state colleges and universities (SUCs) “instead of passing the burden to students and their families.”
“It is really sad that this happened in UP and to an ‘Iskolar ng Bayan’ (people’s scholar). Our students should not suffer like this,” said Casiño, a sociology graduate at UP Los Baños.
Casiño said UP professors who had talked to the student’s family told him that she had taken a student loan in the first semester of the current academic year but was not able to pay and was thus denied another loan for the second semester.
“The parents had tried to reason with the administration but were not accommodated. Because of this, the student was not able to enroll and was forced to file a leave of absence,” Casiño said.
Casiño noted that some organizations at UP Manila had already been opposing the “no late payment” policy that was implemented this school year.
A memorandum released by the university stated that “students who do not pay on the deadline for registration will, by default, not be allowed to enter their classes despite having already acquired subjects.” With reports from Norman Bordadora and DJ Yap