SKETCHES By Ana Marie Pamintuan
The Philippine STAR
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Many moons ago when I received my letter of acceptance to the University of the Philippines, my long, jubilant laughter must have been heard for two city blocks. Our family’s dachshund barked and leaped around madly, infected by my wild rejoicing.
It was a typical reaction to news that one had hurdled the toughest entrance exam to the country’s most prestigious university.
UP Diliman, with its vast open spaces, its acacia trees with spreading branches reaching out to each other across the main road, provided the ideal environment for learning and the free exchange of ideas.
It was not exactly quiet; college life is rarely peaceful. There were regular student protests against the Marcos regime. There were the fraternity wars; several punks once entered our classroom and smashed a bottle of Coke on the head of one of my classmates. Classes at the College of Arts and Sciences were often interrupted by yells of obscenities from a fraternity hangout. Left-leaning activists dragged students from toilets, forcing them to join protest marches.
Quality education does not fall into your lap; it needs both good educators and students who work hard to learn. That means piles of homework and endless hours at the library. In news writing class, the late Louie Beltran made us write lead paragraphs on the board so he could insult us in front of everyone and advise us to go back to high school English. We quickly got used to the terrorist tack and it toughened us up somewhat, though nothing ever prepared us for the challenges of actual news coverage.
But there were enough gentle educators, among them Raul Ingles, my professor in newspaper editing, and Che-che Lazaro, who shepherded me through radio broadcasting. Alex Magno, who taught Social and Political Thought, asked us to grade ourselves. If all professors were like him I would have graduated summa cum laude and qualified for full state subsidy. Still, even regular tuition at UP was so much lower than prevailing rates in reputable private colleges and universities.
Unlike in the exclusive private schools, only a few of our subjects were taught in air-conditioned rooms. Our toilets had no running water until Ed Angara became UP president. You could develop skin disease from swimming in the pool whose water was changed perhaps once a year, so I didn’t take swimming for physical education. And good food does not come in subsidized rates, so our cafeterias had nothing to brag about. There was a notable dessert that I learned to enjoy: a pineapple ring encased in a square of cheap green gelatin, with a few raisins at the center and topped with sweet mayonnaise. Bizarre combination, but I liked it. For P15 you could have lunch at the cafeteria with that dessert.
But even if it wasn’t the lap of luxury, teaching standards were maintained, and we knew we were getting quality education – our steppingstone to a better life.
My two brothers are also products of the state university. Today their children are also enrolled in UP, and we hope they will get the same quality of education that we received.
It is a quality that has disappeared from much of the public school system.
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UP was set up a hundred years ago today by virtue of Act 1870 of the First Philippine Legislature. The UP Charter aimed to “provide advanced education in literature, philosophy, the sciences and the arts, and to give professional and technical training to every qualified student irrespective of age, sex, nationality, religious belief or political affiliation.”
The university has been true to its mandate: it has produced leaders in all fields of national life, and representing all colors of the political and ideological spectrum, from dictator Ferdinand Marcos to Communist Party founder Jose Ma. Sison and Moro National Liberation Front founding chairman Nur Misuari.
What has changed in the university is the income level of the typical student. “Socialized” tuition now averages P25,000 per semester, but the amount is not the only thing that is keeping away students from low-income families. Quality education simply has become a luxury as a succession of national administrations allowed the public school system to deteriorate.
With the exception of students in the Philippine Science High School and the UP primary school system, today’s children who are educated in public schools typically cannot compete with their more fortunate counterparts in exclusive private schools.
When vying for slots in UP, products of these exclusive schools generally have a wide edge.
Today there is an inordinate number of students from affluent families in UP. Their educational achievements make them deserving, but it would be a great day – for both UP and the country – when we see more graduates of public high schools from lower income families entering what is now classified by law as the national university.
Not too long ago the public school system provided the highest quality of education at all levels. The Philippines was seen as an Asian center of higher learning.
Today the Philippines is lagging behind its neighbors in the quality of public education, and the results are starting to show in the quality of our human resources.
Families that can afford it prefer to send their children to Ivy League schools. Think of how much national progress can be possible if the majority of Filipinos can get that type of world-class education starting from primary school in their own country.
Universal quality education levels the playing field for rich and poor. It helps create a merit-based society. It saves people from a life of dependence on state subsidies and dole-outs. It allows people like Manny Villar, a UP alumnus, to rise from poverty and realize their full potential.
It’s not yet too late to reverse the trend. Real national progress is achieved when UP won’t have much to brag about, because its quality of education would have become the norm in all public learning institutions.