UP’s southern pivot

QWERTYMAN - Jose Dalisay - The Philippine Star

At his formal investiture as the University of the Philippines’ 22nd president last Sept. 14 in Davao, Atty. Angelo “Jijil” A. Jimenez made clear what his and UP’s priorities were going to be for the next six years of his administration: a renewed emphasis on service and equity, and more collaboration with other state universities and colleges (SUCs) and private higher education institutions (HEIs).

These priorities, he said, sprang naturally out of what he called the “three moral paradoxes” facing UP, the country’s “national university” mandated by RA 9500 to lead in Philippine higher education.

The first one he mentioned in his speech was the fact that, despite more than a century of UP producing national leaders, the country remains beset by mass poverty and economic and social inequality. “Beyond nurturing the Filipino mind and spirit, should UP have been more explicitly charged with raising our people’s material welfare? Are we doing enough at present to promote economic progress and social justice among our people?”

The second was his observation that UP, conceived as a “university for the Filipino people,” primarily serves the children of well-off, urban-based families, with 60 percent of its freshman population coming from private schools, “and our admissions policy unfortunately does not do enough to correct that bias.” Jimenez wants UP to help more underprivileged youth from the countryside prepare for, take and pass the UPCAT, aside from other measures that can be undertaken to democratize access to a UP education.

Third, UP accounts for a fifth of the national budget for higher education, with the balance to be shared by more than 110 other SUCs, but was UP doing enough to share its academic resources with other schools? “If not everyone can come to UP, then UP must go not only where it can help raise academic standards, but also where it can cooperate and collaborate as an equal partner, and learn from SUCs with advanced and specialized expertise in certain areas,” said Jimenez.

Following through on his commitment to place UP at the service of HEIs all over the country, Jimenez convened an “SUC Summit” on the day after his investiture, attended by about 80 SUC presidents and representatives, to map out areas of collaboration between them and UP. Earlier, UP had also inked an agreement with officials of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) to assist the latter in promoting access to quality education, improving health outcomes, strengthening the capabilities of SUCs and LGUs and rehabilitating conflict-affected communities.

UP’s southward pivot was no accident. A former student leader and labor lawyer by training – he served as labor attaché in war-torn Iraq – Jimenez was born in Butuan, of Manobo blood. “It was a long way from Butuan to Baghdad, but in many ways, it is even longer from Mindanao to Manila. We have been so accustomed to thinking of Manila as the capital and Mindanao as the periphery, forgetting that once upon a time, the reverse was true. That imbalance is now being redressed, with Mindanao shaping up as our gateway to ASEAN, as the political and economic force that it has always been… That it took the national university 115 years to have a president from Mindanao tells us something about we Mindanawons – and especially those of us who come from lumad origins – have had to contend with.”

So it was more than symbolic that Jimenez chose to hold his investiture not in Diliman, UP’s seat of administrative and academic power, but in UP Mindanao, one of the UP System’s eight “constituent universities” (and interestingly, the only one created by congressional fiat, after a push by Mindanawon lawmakers in the 1990s to have a UP of their own).

President Jimenez also emphasized that he was adding one important word to UP’s longstanding motto of “Honor and Excellence.” That word was “Service,” a reminder to every Isko and Iska, as UP’s students are called, that their education is a debt to be repaid to the Filipino people for the rest of their lives.

These are noble and praiseworthy ambitions – most significantly, Jimenez’s desire to open UP up to the children of the poor, to break the tightening lock of privileged students on admission to the country’s premier state university. Ironically, because of the politically expedient but economically questionable free tuition law, public funds are subsidizing the college education of many children whose parents could very well afford to pay full tuition, while leaving the truly needy even farther behind.

This wouldn’t be the first time that the “excellence vs. equity” issue came up for re-evaluation. UP oldtimers will recall when high school valedictorians and salutatorians from all over the country merited automatic entry into UP, ensuring broader geographical coverage. During the time of president Edgardo Angara, a system allowing disadvantaged students to come in via “presidential discretion” was put in place, but this was reportedly abused and later junked. (When I served as vice president, I – and other UP officials – would routinely get calls from politicians, friends and frantic parents hoping that we could work some magic to get their children in. I said I would rather resign than even try to compromise UP’s admissions system – it just doesn’t work that way in UP, even if it might elsewhere.)

Any strategy for producing an intellectual elite based on talent alone will favor those who come from strong elementary and high school backgrounds, most likely our top private and science high schools. On the other hand, especially given the sorry state of our public schools (this, even before budgetary diversions to “confidential funds”), you can’t just bring in students from all over just to make sure of equal representation; many of these poorly prepared students will suffer, as would the university itself.

It’s a complicated but vital question: What primary purpose should UP serve? With universities today encouraged to join the global rat race run by Quacquarelli Symonds, Times Higher Education, Shanghai Ranking Consultancy and other ratings bodies (businesses, that’s what they are), are we forgetting more basic needs by chasing after these costly metrics?

Jijil Jimenez’s heart seems to be in the right place in calling for UP to return to its roots – as he returned to his in Mindanao – as a university of the people, but working out the details will be a challenge. If he can rally the faculty behind him and get government support, then he can yet be one of UP’s most effective and even beloved presidents.

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Email me at [email protected] and visit my blog at www.penmanila.ph.

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