Monday, September 26, 2011

No to budget cuts for state schools

This post is antedated. I am trying to recover the online version of my columns before the Manila Standard Today deletes the archives for 2011. I made the mistake of assuming the archive will be online for five years. Sigh.

Thanks to this administration’s incomprehensible decision to cut subsidy for state colleges and universities, we’re seeing a resurgence of student activism. Thousands of students from all over the country walked out of their classes last week. In Manila, they converged at Mendiola, reminiscent of the heady days when the student protest movement was a major force to reckon with in this country.

And as if to spite the lawmaker who filed what is probably the most badly written and most reactionary bill in the history of Philippine legislation, thousands of students across the country prostrated themselves on streets and on various strange surfaces, all in the spirit of planking.

What made last week’s protest actions even more remarkable was that these were sanctioned by their teachers and school administrators. Teachers dismissed classes so that students could join the demonstrations. School administrators provided various kinds of support—logistics, talking points, physical presence.

If plans push through, or until some sense gets into the head of our leaders, we’ll be seeing more student demonstrations in the next few weeks.

As can be expected, MalacaƱang’s talking head, Abigail Valte, tried to play down the issue with something that sounded like misplaced, if not insincere, parental advice: She said students should be spending more time studying than joining demonstrations. Of course, she also parroted the same yarn that Budget Secretary Florencio Abad has been unsuccessfully trying to sell since the issue of budget cuts for education cropped up—that the budget allocation for SUCs for 2012 is higher than last year’s. Newly installed University of the Philippines President Alfredo Pascual and a number of academicians have already debunked Abad’s claims with figures and facts, many of which were taken directly from the Budget Department itself.

I don’t think anyone is supposed to take seriously whatever Valte says. We’ve noted that when there is something really important that needs to be announced, one of the three secretaries for communications usually takes over the job. In short, she takes over the microphone only when the issue is deemed inconsequential or when any of the three is unavailable.

But as a teacher, I feel I need to remind Valte three things.

First, the Palace should not take student protests lightly—aside from the fact that Benigno Simeon Aquino III (and the late Corazon Aquino, for that matter) owe the presidency to the student protest movement, history has shown that the collapse of many governments can be traced to sustained student protests.

Second, Valte probably needs someone to explain to her that the students are protesting something that affects them directly. In fact, if students take matters sitting down, they may not have the opportunity to do exactly what Valte tells them they should be doing; they may not be able to go to school anymore.

And third, I don’t know if Valte joined protests when she was a student (if she did, she probably didn’t learn anything from them), but there are a lot of things students can learn from joining rallies and demonstrations. I am not embarrassed to admit that I attribute many of my competencies (dealing with all kinds of people, public speaking, writing manifestos in ten minutes or less, even assertiveness, among others) from having joined and led student demonstrations when I was in college.

Truth be told, there are days when I feel school administrators must make joining protests obligatory for students because those of us in human resource management have been noting that fresh graduates today just seem to lack the kind of assertiveness, initiative, and sense of purpose that come from a heightened sense of citizenship. It seems that many of our fresh graduates just don’t care enough—for country, for fellow Filipinos, for issues, for anything other than themselves.

So yes, there’s a part of me that’s glad that our students are marching on the streets again. I wish though that they were protesting about something else; or that this administration didn’t have to force backs against the wall on something that is so basic and commonsensical to begin with.

Education is the most important investment any nation can make. This is not debatable. This is not subject to conditions. There are no ifs and buts about it. We just have to put more money into educating Filipinos. We cannot expect to become more competitive if we don’t invest in training our teachers, building more classrooms and laboratories, if we don’t give research grants to our colleges and universities. It is futile to aspire for greatness if we cannot even guarantee adequate funding for state colleges and universities.

If this means we have to forget about building a skyway over Edsa, then so be it. All our other projects can wait. We can afford to scrimp on other things. What we cannot afford is to have a generation of Filipinos who are totally unprepared to take over the reins of this country simply because a budget secretary or a whole administration had a paradigm that said spending less is better than opening up possibilities for corruption to thrive. Someone told me this is exactly the rationale for the budget cuts—the belief that SUCs can subsist on a lower budget if they cut corruption in their ranks.

I don’t know if corruption truly exists among SUCs although I would not be surprised if it does—corruption is a systemic problem in this country. But we must learn to cut the fat without hurting the meat; we must learn to pull weeds without killing the rice stalks. Unfortunately, this has become the default thinking of this administration and it is evident in the actuations of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office and other agencies—the belief that most everyone is corrupt until proven otherwise.

But really, let’s not scrimp on education. This should really be commonsensical. Doesn’t any parent practice the same tenet in their households? Next to food on the table and perhaps medication, money for education is top priority for any household; anything else can wait. It takes precedence over renovations and beautification. It certainly takes precedence over donations for the church.

The proposed cuts on subsidy for SUCs come at the worst possible time.

Not a single Philippine college or university made it to the top 300 in the latest world university ranking of the London-based Quacquarelli Symonds. Only four Philippine universities (University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila, De La Salle University, and the University of Santo Tomas) made it to the top 600 list; and all four slipped in the rankings compared to last year.

We also know that enrollment in SUCs have increased in the last few years on account of rising tuition fees in private universities. Obviously keeping the budget at the same level, or even granting a token 10 percent increase will not do the trick. In fact, even the Commission on Higher Education has come out in support of the call for higher budgets for SUCs, calling the proposed budget for 2012 “survival budget.” How can we thrive under a budget that is just enough for our schools to survive?

Who would have thought that such a scenario would come to pass under an administration who has always claimed to have nothing but an abundance of good intentions for Filipinos?

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