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Outrage grows over student suicide

Reform of tuition regulations urged

Outrage grows over student suicide
A priest celebrates Mass at a wake for Kristel Tejada (photo by Vincent Go)
Joe Torres, Manila

March 18, 2013

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Outrage over the suicide of a college student who was forced to quit school for failing to pay her tuition grew on Monday as students, many wearing black, held protest rallies in Metro Manila.

The University of the Philippines, where suicide victim Kristel Tejada studied, declared a day of mourning and suspended classes on Monday. A group of students tied black ribbon around the campus. 

Tejada, the eldest of five children of a taxi driver and a jobless mother from the poor district of Tondo in Manila, took her life on Friday after she was forced by the university to take a leave of absence for failing to pay her US$245 tuition bill during the second semester of the school year.

Her death triggered outrage from various groups including students and activists. The presidential palace ordered an investigation, adding that it has discouraged the policy of schools forcing students to take leave for failure to pay tuition.

"It’s very depressing that an incident like this has to happen," said Representative Juan Edgardo Angara. "The government and state universities should show more compassion and leeway especially to students who come from poor families and are experiencing financial constraints."

Angara, who chairs the House committee on higher and technical education, was one of the authors of a bill establishing a student financial assistance system that would harmonize all government scholarship and grant-in-aid programs.

On Saturday, university president Alfredo Pascual revealed that a day before the suicide, he met with university officials and issued a directive that could have made Tejada change her mind about ending her life.

"To think that it happened a day after I instructed the chancellors at our council meeting held last Thursday that we should not deny access to qualified students who cannot enroll because of financial constraints," Pascual said. 

"It is unfortunate it takes time to implement change," he added. 

The leftist party Bayan Muna said the government should take responsibility for Tejada's death. "The death of the young, promising student is a result of the heartless, anti-poor policies of the government," the group said in a statement.

It said the government’s reduction of the budget for state universities and the lack of priority for education "is the ultimate culprit behind Tejada’s suicide."

"Her death is a commentary on the sad state of our education system and it compels us to review our policies and priorities," it added.

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. 

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