Bringing UP to the people

QWERTYMAN - Jose Dalisay - The Philippine Star

Since it was established in 1908 as a “university for Filipinos,” the University of the Philippines has grown into a system of eight “constituent universities,” each with a certain degree of autonomy but all of them unified by a common vision, shared practices and high academic standards. UP began in Manila, followed by Los Baños and then Diliman, which became UP’s flagship campus after the war.

Of course, as the country’s premier public university and with its relatively hefty budget, there was pressure on UP to go out even farther, especially beyond Luzon, to become truly more representative of the Filipino people. In the past, that form of democratization was achieved to some extent by UP’s old policy of accepting valedictorians and salutatorians from high schools all over the country; once in UP, these provincianos did well, and many went on to positions of national leadership.

But the general decline in public education and UP’s more stringent admissions policy have changed all that, so that the majority of successful UPCAT applicants now come from private high schools in the big cities. As nearly everyone agrees, that’s not what a presumably “national” university is supposed to do – meaning, giving quality education to the children of the affluent at the expense of ordinary taxpayers (I say “nearly,” because there are a few on the “excellence” side of this “excellence vs. equity” argument who also argue that the State’s best strategy going forward is simply to fund and support the country’s best minds, no matter where they come from – kind of Singapore-style, but then we’re no Singapore).

Also, a UP education doesn’t happen just with a student’s admission. Even now that the law has made public university education free (ironically, again, subsidizing rich metro kids), many UPCAT passers from the regions never show up, or drop out early on, because of the prohibitive costs of living and studying in Manila, especially. They could have gone to UP if it were closer to where they were, pointing to the continuing need for more UP units to be opened in our far-flung regions. (To this day, for example, no UP has been established in Bicol, although to be fair, that region is already being served by many excellent universities.)

The traditional reluctance by the UP Board of Regents to open UPs here and there has been based on sound academic reasoning: building and opening a physical school is easy, but establishing academic programs with qualified faculty is much harder, especially in so-called “hardship” posts, to which presumably Manila-based faculty will have to be enticed to relocate until enough local capability is built up. A UP education should come with a guarantee that a degree earned, say, in Baguio or Iloilo is equivalent in quality and efficacy to one earned in Diliman or Manila.

There were early attempts to “democratize” UP by setting up teaching outposts as far north as Vigan, where a UP Northern Luzon Junior College was opened in 1930, complementing a similar Junior College in Cebu. (That college in Cebu, interestingly enough, was almost shut down shortly after it opened for lack of funding. Then UP president Jorge Bocobo was too proud and proper to accept a P5,000 donation from Cebuano UP alumni, because it had been raised from sweepstakes. Politicians jumped into the fray, with some arguing that Cebu needed support as a “moral alternative” to Manila, only to be reminded that Cebu was no prelapsarian paradise, with at least “three cabarets and five movie houses,” according to an unofficial history of UP. The day was saved only when Gov. Mariano Cuenco threw P8,000 into the pot.)

In the late 1950s, president Vicente Sinco set up a Department of Extramural Studies to undertake extension classes in Iloilo, Davao, Zamboanga, San Pablo, Subic and Clark Airforce Base.

Thus were the seeds sown for today’s full-blown UP System, which has Diliman, Los Baños, Manila, Visayas, Mindanao, Cebu, Baguio and the Open University among its constituents.

Each of these CUs has its own specific strengths, history and traditions – Manila is also UP’s and the country’s health sciences center, with the Philippine General Hospital as its crown jewel; Los Baños celebrates Loyalty Day, which began in honor of faculty and students who took part in World War I (yes, I). UPOU is a regional leader in distance learning, providing a UP education even to OFWs abroad.

A particularly bright spot in this stellar array is UP Mindanao, which is marking its 29th anniversary later this month. When it was established by RA 7889 on Feb. 20, 1995 under president Fidel V. Ramos, it was met with much skepticism even from within UP, and there were dire predictions that it would fail within a few years. The indifference was caused by the fact that UPMin was the first CU to come into being through legislative fiat, rather than the usual process of study and approval by the Board of Regents. What had happened was that UP alumni from Mindanao had banded together to demand a UP on their island, given its economic and political importance. Mindanao’s political leaders led by Reps. Prospero Nograles and Elias B. Lopez rallied to their cause, and UPMin was born.

Almost three decades later, it’s clear that that decision was the right one to make. Despite many teething problems – the path to UPMin’s hilly campus in Mintal was so rough that people took to calling it “Abortion Road” – UP Min has gone on to become an educational powerhouse in the region, particularly in such specializations as Agribusiness Economics. On the cultural front, UPMin leads in such studies as “Mindanao epics as pre-colonial roots of Philippine nationalism” and “Planning and architecture from the vernacular dwellings of Mindanao.” Its writers – such as poet and former Chancellor Ricardo M. de Ungria and fictionist and Dean Jhoanna Lynn Cruz – are nationally renowned.

It was no accident that, when he was choosing a site for his investiture last September as UP’s 22nd president, Atty. Angelo A. Jimenez – UP’s first Mindanawon and Lumad president, having been born a Manobo in Butuan City – chose UP Mindanao. Keenly conscious of his opportunity to make historic changes, Jimenez has pledged to improve access to a UP education even further, especially for the poor and the underrepresented.

We look forward to a time when the children of farmers, fisherfolk and factory workers can walk UP’s hallways again with their heads held high – if not in Diliman, then in a capital city closer to home. It will go a long way toward making UP a truly “national university,” and help build a stronger and more cohesive nation.

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

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