Tragic is the only thing that accurately describes the way student Kristel Tejada ended her life at 16 over an inability to pay tuition fees due to the University of the Philippines (UP) where she was enrolled in a Behavioural Science course. As to the conclusions that were drawn from all that, debatable is the only word that comes to mind.
* * *
What are the odds?
How many UP students have committed suicide in the last 20 years? Perhaps before we go into hysterics about how bad the UP is, somebody should check first how the suicide rate among UP students compares to the national average. According to the National Statistics Office, the rate of death by suicide in the Philippines has gone up over the last two decades. According to the numbers, Kristel Tejada’s being a 16-year-old and already a college student (by itself a fact that should be raising eyebrows as well) puts her squarely within the highest-risk demographic (boldface added by author for emphasis)…
While the figures might seem insignificant compared with those from neighboring countries that recorded the highest suicide rates, the numbers have gone up from 1984 to 2005, especially among the Filipino youth, said Dr. Dinah Nadera, a psychiatrist and an associate professor of the University of the Philippinesâ€™ Open University who has been working on a suicide prevention strategy.
â€œThis simply means that there is an increasing trend of suicide [especially] among the youth, particularly in the age group 5 to 14 and 15 to 24,â€ Nadera said at last weekâ€™s media consultation on suicide prevention conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Manila.
Did the UP administration “kill” Tejada? Perhaps there was some much-needed room for compromise and a bit of effort to to consider appeals on a case-to-case basis. But we need to be careful in what we choose to think with regard to this issue. This is an election year, and politicians and attention brokers are always sniffing around for things to turn into the latest outrage fad around which “campaign platforms” can be spun.
“Right to education” depends
Why is a college education important in the Philippines? Because a high school education alone gets you nowhere. At least that is the thinking that prevails in Philippine society. To many Filipino parents, kids who do not acquire a college education are failures. Filipino kids are therefore under intense pressure to secure that university degree at all costs. Failure to do so is tantamount to a death sentence in Philippine society.
Perhaps this was what was in Tejada’s mind in the final moments of her life.
Was it the UP that put that extremist notion in Tejada’s head? Think again. As the old saying goes, point your finger at someone, and you will find the other three pointing back at you.
Law of supply-and-demand
Employers of clerical labour can demand university degrees from their applicants because they can. If even people with college degrees are making beelines to submit their CVs to employers offering clerical positions — bank tellers, filing clerks, customer service representatives, etc. — it means employers can choose applicants who offer them the best value. It’s called a buyer’s market. Employers (buyers of labour) are in that rather peachy position of being able to buy the labour market’s equivalent of Mercedes Benzs for a pittance.
Trying to control that deluge of credentialled talent into automatonesque jobs is like trying to prevent flash floods from ravaging Marikina by building a dike around the city. The only real sustainable solution to flash flooding is to plant forests big enough to absorb all the water being dumped by the hammering monsoon rains that hit the Philippines every year. As much as it is essential to life, water in excessive doses is toxic. Same principle applies to a talented labour force available in value-crushing abundance. You need to grow the forest of opportunity that will absorb this deluge of warm able bodies so that their value appreciates and is appreciated.
Leave-of-absence is not permanent and certainly not the end of the road.
Many students (including some friends of mine when I was a student) take leave-of-absence from UP when they fall into personal cirumstances that render them unable to meet the demands of the UP system. Such circumstances include health issues, family issues, and, yes, financial issues. One friend of mine took a year off to help set up the family business. That put him behind by 21 units to our batch but nevertheless came back, picked up from where he left off, met his future wife in his new batch, and graduated with honours.
Think then whether a policy requiring students who are unable to pay their tuition to take a leave-of-absence is really that unreasonable. Should this policy be repealed in the aftermath of Tejada’s suicide? In this case, the answer to that question may not be as obvious as some people make it out to be.
* * *
It’s really an exercise of telling people to suck eggs when we emphasize how complex an issue suicide is. And so being complex we shouldn’t really be quick to jump into one conclusion bandwagon or another in our desperation to make sense of the senseles.