FORGED UNITIES: Assessing the performance of the UPD USC 2016-2017
■ Aldrin Villegas
Last year, the university and the country elected its new set of leaders—the University Student Council (USC) and administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, envisioning a narrative of change for UP and the nation confronted by dismal conditions.
UP may be the national university, but it does not distinguish itself when it comes to accessibility. The current full tuition rate is now at P1,500 per unit, and only 10 percent of UP students receive free tuition. Four years has passed since UP Manila student Kristel Tejada took her life, forced to file a leave of absence after failing to pay tuition and being denied of student loan.
The violation of basic rights is even more pronounced for the marginalized. In an all-out-war against the masses, the state blatantly disregards their right to life—from political violence through human rights violations (HRVs), counterinsurgency, and police brutality, to economic violence against farmers, contractual workers, and the national minorities.
It is essential for our leaders to stand their ground to protect their constituents’ interests. But when the government does otherwise, it is imperative for the USC to draw a decisive line and uphold its mandate to “defend and promote the rights and general welfare of [UP students] and the Filipino people.”
This year’s USC brought back the militancy and firm stand of a student council (SC) on local and national issues, said incumbent USC Chairperson Bryle Leano. As the Student Alliance for the Advancement of Democratic Rights in UP (STAND UP) overwhelmingly won in the previous election, the STAND UP-led USC was able to use this support to forward crucial agendas within and outside UP.
Since the beginning of their term, the USC campaigned against the Socialized Tuition System (STS) and other school fees (OSFs) culminating with the call for free education. This demand was upheld systemwide, as 33 out of 35 SCs forwarded the resolution on free education in the recent General Assembly of Student Councils.
The pronouncement is crucial amid unprecedented increase in base tuition rates. In the past decade, the nationwide average tuition fees increased by 108 percent and by 143 percent in the National Capital Region, according to the Rise for Education (R4E) alliance, the broadest nationwide alliance of SCs and organizations for free education.
R4E and its campaigns were strengthened as a direct response, engaging 11 chapters and enjoining more SCs especially in Diliman. “Since R4E is a national alliance, nadadala yung local concerns sa labas ng UP to forge more unities across universities,” said incumbent USC Vice Chairperson Beata Carolino.
The USC consistently brought the discourse even in its events, such as the UP Fair. Its second night, Haraya, had a theme of free education, while other nights include the call for agrarian reform and freedom of information, among others.
The USC also became the main organizer of the Lakbayan ng Pambansang Minorya where 3,500 national minorities marched to assert their right for self-determination. However, the Lakbayanis were met with police brutality when they protested in front of US Embassy.
The state then allowed a hero’s burial for the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. As a crucial institution that mobilized students during Martial Law, the USC did not waiver on its role by leading the mobilization condemning his burial along with other universities.
However, the USC was still criticized for basic organizational work.
It was promised that a monthly financial statement will be released, but the council is yet to furnish one. Although work within the council was well-distributed, some committees were only felt by second semester, Carolino said.
“If the [USC members] felt that they weren’t given the chance to do something, I think it speaks about their character more than the dominant parties” she added.
Beyond committee work, the USC drew the biggest flak on the issue of the UPD Students’ Magna Carta (MC). The council was silent for a time, until they were cornered by the growing pressure from the students to support the document despite oppositions within the USC. But as elected leaders, the USC should have led the discourse on the codification of students’ rights and expose its possible harm.
Coming from the BOR himself, Student Regent Raoul Manuel said there is sufficient basis to criticize the MC given the repressive nature of UP education. “Nandyan ang mga laws like the UP Charter and the Code of Student Conduct that seek to deprive the students of our basic rights. And for the MC to be enforceable, it must fit into that puzzle piece,” Manuel said.
The main criticism on MC is that its final interpreter is the BOR, which historically enacted anti-student policies. This cynicism against the BOR was raised by the USC in mobilizations and campaigns, but they failed to do the same in a crucial document that purportedly surrenders students’ rights to the BOR.
This does not mean, however, that the USC cannot forge unities with the administration. Aside from close coordination with Manuel, the USC engaged with Chancellor Michael Tan from national to university campaigns such as removing the no late payment policy.
If only the USC worked this closely on the MC, it would have made a decisive stand from the very beginning to ensure students’ rights beyond codification. The popular support for MC, beyond its implications on merits, speaks more of the dangers of indecisiveness for an institution like the USC.
Prospects and challenges
Moving forward, the USC should perform its dual role to serve the students and the people. Beyond humility to accept mistakes, the USC thrives on genuine passion and love for the university and the country in realizing UP’s mandate as the national university.
We need an uncompromising USC in times when our unity is being challenged, Manuel said. The USC forged unities across various sectors of society, which the next leadership must uphold to be a strong front against the state’s attacks.
“Mas nararamdaman ngayon ng mga mamamayan kung gaano kapasista ang administrasyon… The challenge for the next USC is to take advantage of that, dahil yung mga estudyante, gusto talaga nilang lumaban,” Carolino said.
Indeed, the USC’s historical role as the representative of the student body goes beyond projects for the university—it is imperative for the institution to extend its service to the larger community. For the All-UP Academic Employees Union, this sets apart the incumbent USC from the previous terms, President Perlita Rana said.
“Itong USC na ito, mas naging kasama namin sa mga pagkilos. Mas nauunawaan nila na magkaka-ugnay ang issue ng mga empleyado ng UP, estudyante, guro, mga kawani, at kontraktwal,” Rana added. She expects no less from the next USC, with the need for student leaders who are consistently united with their cause.
This year has been marred with issues compelling the leadership to remain resolute in an institution’s great tradition. Amid the narrative of change the government has violently imposed, UP must thrive in persistence in its role of shaping the nation.
This is not the time for the USC to falter, but the time to forge more unities for our common cause—building on the foundation of the same struggle that unite the students and the people to fight. ■
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