Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

As a UP almuna, I feel mortified, and much embarrassed, about the dorm fiasco currently going on in UP Diliman, where about 300 students – many from far-off provinces – have been rendered homeless, or dorm-less, for several days now due to the delayed release of dorm acceptance announcements.  And I truly hope that the UP Diliman administration feels the same way, even if only privately, given their lackluster explanation to the media and their pooh-poohing of the protests.

Though it may appear to be the most immediate issue at the moment, it is clear that housing as such isn’t the only problem.  In media interviews with the affected students, all of them are so desperate to get accepted into one of the cheaper dorms (which cost less than P1,000 a month inclusive of utilities) than in the shiny, sparkling, newer – but pricier – dorms (which cost P1,500 to P3,000 a month exclusive of utilities) or in privately-run boarding houses because of the rising prices of everything else, such as food, school supplies, basic everyday needs, etc.  These are families for whom every peso counts, for whom these kinds of calculations are an everyday, if not every hour, occurrence.  And, ironically enough, these are the families for whom the UP is supposed to exist in the first place.

But what this ongoing episode more significantly tells us is that getting a quality education is not just a matter of getting accepted in state schools with lower rates of tuition, or receiving a scholarship for school fees alone, or being placed in the lowest bracket of socialized tuition schemes, and other such considerations.  Getting a quality education is inextricably bound up with all the other requirements of a dignified life:  adequate shelter, sufficient food and health care, and the psychological security and sense of wellbeing needed by a student to focus on his or her studies.

This huge lapse in the handling of dorm applications that have placed hundreds of students off to a bad start for the academic year (and indeed, the chronic inability of the UP to provide adequate and affordable housing to all deserving scholars who wish to avail of it through all these years) tells us that this thinking is, to say the least, yet to make headway in Philippine education.

What we have instead is the compartmentalization of these needs, as seen in the bureaucratic step-by-step that functions more as successive obstacles than mechanisms for orderliness.  Acceptance into UP is one thing (and that is if you graduate from high school in the first place), being placed in a lower tuition bracket is another, getting a slot in a low-cost dorm is another thing still, appeals processes in between, and so on and so forth.  This system in effect ups the level of uncertainty and insecurity for those who have no choice but to engage in it, and those who do are inevitably those who have considerably less access to resources, less power, less advantages, and less agency within society as a whole.

All these point to the undeniably systemic character of the problem, which is why two common practices in Philippine social and mainstream media that are related to this are especially bothersome:  rags-to-riches human interest reports, and the surprisingly virulent and unsympathetic reaction of some to the plight of the dorm-less UP students.

“Success stories” presented as human interest reports are extremely popular in mainstream media, such as former street children graduating from University, children of peasants winning awards and making it big, etc., but, truth be told, they leave me more perturbed than inspired.  This is not to say that theirs are empty achievements, of course.

But what disturbs me is the common framing of their stories as those solely of individual drive and accomplishment, and of being able to “beat all the odds”.  These kinds of stories do not examine at all what “the odds” are in the first place, where they came from, and who placed them there – just that they can be defeated through sheer determination and willpower (helped along with a chance encounter with, say, a kind stranger, a once-in-a-lifetime scholarship grant, or other some such lucky occurrence).  But the truth is, for the vast majority, it is these odds that win, in the way that only half of those who wish to stay at the low-cost dorms are accommodated, and in the way that for every street child that gets a scholarship, dozens, if not hundreds others, do not.

It is presumptuous to say that these many others were not as determined or brimming with willpower as the lone example that makes it as a feel-good story to be posted on Facebook, but since these are where success is attributed, what is cruelly unsaid here is that the fault lies with them, and not anywhere else. In this, the discussion urged by even non-radical economists like Anthony Atkinson (in his Inequality, What can be done?) and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz (in his The Price of Inequality) is significant, in that it should include not only the “inequality of opportunities” (like, “levelling playing field”), but more importantly, the “inequality of outcomes”, that is, the recognition that even with a level playing field to start with, inequality may still result due to factors beyond one’s control.

This overall atmosphere makes it easy for many detractors in social media to tell off the affected dorm-less students, and UP students in general.  Why are UP students demanding so much from the government such as affordable housing when they are already getting state subsidies for everything else?  You must also sacrifice, they urge;  just be thankful, some magnanimously advise.  And my favorite:  if you want something of quality, then you must be ready to pay for it.  Notice that all these fall back upon the virtues of the individual:  sacrifice, gratitude, un-laziness, reward yourself, but only if you can already afford it.  If one feels that there is injustice, then one must not look further than the mirror.

Academic policies and bureaucratic set-ups that separately treat the requirements of a dignified life hinder the realization of education as a basic human right.  Stories and reasoning that obfuscate the structural nature of the problems of Philippine education deprive us of the tools to properly address them.  What these betray and propagate is the thinking of the privileged, life histories that have never seen genuinely dire need and desperation, perspectives that are blind to seeing the system convoluted in such ways as to be rigged against the marginalized.

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