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Critics blame girl's death on university costs

Philippine student's suicide highlights challenges

Critics blame girl's death on university costs
Kristel Tejada
Joe Torres, Manila

March 15, 2013

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Kristel Tejada, a 16-year-old first year student at the University of the Philippines, supposedly the country's premier educational institution, committed suicide early morning on Friday.

"Financial constraints" may have triggered the suicide of the young Behavioral Science student, who early reports say may have ingested poison.

Tejada, the eldest of five children of a taxi driver and a jobless mother, was forced to file for leave of absence last Wednesday after she failed to pay her school fees. 

"She was forced to take a leave of absence as her family cannot cope with the necessary finances to support her education," said Professor Andrea Bautista Martinez of the university's Department of Behavioral Sciences.

The young student was said to frequent the Office of Student Services for counselling regarding her situation, reports The Collegian, the university student paper. 

"The leave of absence affected [Tejada's] family. She did not go to school since February. She sent messages to me saying she could not handle her problems," Martinez said.

The Collegian report said Tejada was one of the many students who applied for student loans but whose petition was denied by the university. Her parents’ efforts to extend the deadline of payment of her tuition also proved futile.

"We are more than grief-stricken, we are enraged. This was a death that could have been avoided," said youth group Anakbayan.

"This is not a suicide, this is murder," the group added in a statement issued on Friday afternoon. It blames the government for Tejada's death "as if [it] were the one who forced the poison down her throat." 

Terry Ridon, head of youth party Kabataan, decribed Tejada's death as a "grave tragedy."

"The bright future of Kristel had already been jeopardized before today due to policies like soaring tuition and other fees, commercialization of education and the overall bankruptcy of the government’s economic policies," Ridon said.

"These policies are realities, now more than ever we must recognize them. The lives of the youth are too precious to be endangered by ensuring payments, deadlines and their consequences," Ridon added as he led hundreds of students in a protest action inside the university campus.

Tejada was a bracket B student under the "Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program" of the university, which means her tuition would have been lower than other students at the university.

She was supposed to pay US$25 per unit for her tuition, quite high in a city where the daily wage is about $10, and clearly difficult for a family of seven.

Ridon, however, said that despite the supposed leniency of the university the socialized tuition program that categorizes students into different paying brackets "is fundamentally flawed." 

He noted that the scheme even justifies high tuition rates for the majority of students "when many of us are all too familiar with the plight of ordinary Filipino families."

Higher education in the country is not cheap, especially for most impoverished Filipinos.  

The government’s Commission on Higher Education estimates that tuition for a complete four-year course in a government-run institution like the University of the Philippines costs about $6,000. Tuition at a top-tier private university costs as much as $10,000.

Aside from tuition, students also have to pay for board, lodging, transportation and other expenses.  

Meanwhile, the average annual income of a Filipino family is about $6,000, while 30 percent of the population only earns about $1,700, according to the government's Family Income and Expenditure Survey. 

Mariz Zubiri, head of the UP Manila University Student Council, said Filipino students and youth like Tejada do not deserve the "violent cycle of a vicious educational system."

"[Tejada] is just one of the hundreds and thousands of Filipino students who are pushed against the wall by the high cost of education and the government’s abandonment of Philippine education," Zubiri said as she lit a candle outside the gate of the university in honor of Tejada.

The National Union of Students of the Philippines said Tejada's death is "among the many real-life situations that blatantly tell our government and our schools how inept they have been in running this country."

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