Are Public School Students Too Dumb (Or Scared) to Pass UPCAT?


“Kung gusto, palaging may paraan.”

If there is a will, there is always a way.”

When people say such things, they most of the time mean that if one really wants to achieve something, nothing should stand on their way. I believe this. Yet, taking into consideration that in the most recent UP College Admission Test results, only 12% or 467 out of the 3,913 who passed are public school students, and according to the Philippine Collegian, while 50% of UPCAT passers came from private schools, and 20% are from public science high schools, only about 30% from public general and barangay schools, does this mean that the poor don’t want UP education as badly as we expect them to?

That must be some kind of fallacy. In fact, according to a group study done by members of the UP faculty, this low representation of public school students among those who pass the UPCAT may be attributed to “discrimination” in the formula applied by the UPCAT in determining which students must be allowed to enroll.

Other groups speculate, however, that it is not the UPCAT’s fault that the poor aren’t getting in. In fact, the UPCAT shouldn’t adjust to the alleged shortcomings of basic and secondary public education, which cause its students to not be as competitive as their counterparts in private schools.

A classroom of 70 students is, as far as I'm concerned, not a big problem. I love these guys.

A classroom of 70 students is, as far as I’m concerned, not a big problem. I love these guys.

This position, of course, must be further validated by statistics. Yet, considering the problems encountered by the public education sector: from the lack of teachers, classrooms, to increasing drop-out rates and allegedly worsening budget policy on education, it is easy to see why such explanations for the decreasing number of public school students entering the national university arise. However, when we accept such explanations without putting much consideration on how we perceive students, higher education, and education in general, we become prone to forming dangerous conclusions.

One of these dangerous conclusions is that at their present state, the poor are not competent enough to get in UP without some form of affirmative action.

It should be noted that insufficient data has been produced for us to logically conclude this (not that all acceptable arguments depend on data and statistics, of course). While we have seen data regarding how many public school students pass the exams and consequently, given a clear picture of how many of them do not, we have yet to see how many, of all the general public school students in the Philippines actually take the exam. Focusing on the results and the decisions made by the students after the results are made public leaves us blind to decisions made before even taking the exams.

For example, it may be that while those from general and national high schools, or more specifically, the poor students from such schools, are competent enough to pass, most of them are filtered out from even taking the UPCAT due to the fear of not being able to cope with it, anyway. Even before the gods of the socialized tuition schemes, be it STFAP or STS, decide which bracket a student gets into, there is already a bracketing system in place: it is called “ang mahirap, mas mahihirapan” (the hard-up have it harder). Considerations like this are not brought into the picture after UPCAT, but pre-UPCAT. And such considerations have nothing to do with the intelligence of public school students: it only has to do with their financial capability.

"Papasa kaya ako sa UPCAT?"

“Papasa kaya ako sa UPCAT?”

Lack of Initiative from the Poor?

To this, some may respond: But should poverty be a barrier for someone who sincerely and wholeheartedly wants something? Perhaps the poor don’t really want to go to UP. Or at least, they do not want it as badly as those richer than them.

People who share this position would back their argument by saying that there are in fact, ways to secure a UP education even while being poor. One can be a working student, for example. Or one can look for scholarships that would cover for his or her financial needs. Failure to exhaust all means before being discouraged may signify a lack of initiative, or will, to do something. This implies that it is not one’s economic condition which is the ultimate determinant of one’s success in life, but strength of character and determination.

I am not one to argue against the importance of courage and spirit in achieving success, but I am one to argue against our tendency to let the ideals we subscribe to keep us from relating with the conditions of others. It is true that a strong will is needed for one to have a just existence in the individual level, but how can the heart be strengthened when the mind is restless with matters of the stomach?  “If because of hunger, of misery, you have no stuff in your body,” says Feuerbach. “You likewise have no stuff for morality in your head, in your mind, or heart.” It is not that there is no will to study in UP, it is just that there are more pressing, immediate concerns which those who are poor would need to forego attending to in order to pursue such an education.

First, it must be said that those students who work to sustain themselves and those who struggle to acquire and maintain scholarship aids are admirable, but let us not be deceived by the assumption that everyone can acquire jobs and scholarships. If you aspire for a degree in the liberal arts, for example, you do not have as many scholarship opportunities available, unlike those who aim for hard sciences.  For the poor student aspiring to be a Political Scientist or a Linguist, it would be either a compromise in his or her part to get a course he or she does not want (which, let us take note, one has lower chances of passing due to the number of students vying for them), or not go to UP at all.

Let us now consider if a student from a poor family is fortunate enough to find work. Even so, it would still be a heavy choice to make to use his or her salary to fund his education in UP, as it is still costly. Why not just work and not study? Why not just study in a more affordable school? If one considers working now and studying later, would it not be economically wiser for somebody poor to just focus on working and save for more immediate necessities, like food and shelter? The choice to go to UP indeed becomes available for a student who can work, but it is still a difficult choice to make if education there remains financially unreachable.

Again, we admire impoverished people who find the drive to find other means to cover the cost of their tertiary education. But let us keep in mind why they are commendable: because in spite of all the structural impositions and the easier choices they could have made, they still chose to study. This act is supererogatory, meaning it is exceptional when we consider the norm. But why should the poor have a higher standard to beat? The rich do not even have to consider these things; they just have to pass.

Wills and Ways

While it would be difficult for us who have enough to live and study in UP to identify with these conditions, we should take into consideration that most of the time, in the present form of society, to have a choice in things is considered to be a privilege. The choice to study in UP, without the burden of not having to help your family in your expenses, and not having to pursue your dreams without people you love making sufficient sacrifices for your sake, cannot be afforded by the poor.

This is why we want changes, not just in the mindset of UP regarding the poor, but also in the institutions which keep them out of UP and prevent them to have the will to even want to enter the University. We want UP education to be a choice for the impoverished. One they could reject not because they have to, but because they choose to.

It is here true, that If we really want something, we will find a way. Kung gusto talaga natin, may paraan. If we really want the University to be a place wherein excellence will be rewarded regardless of class or financial capacity, we will remove policies which hinder deserving students of the education they are qualified for. For in lieu of discriminatory, profit-oriented pseudo-socialized tuition schemes, they are denied UP education, even before they have the chance to prove themselves “competent”.

If we really want the poor to be willful enough to pursue higher education in the University, we will help in changing the excluding, discriminating image of the University which equates poverty with incompetence by making it more accessible to those impoverished. If we really want a UP for the masses, for the People, for Goodness, Truth and Excellence, we will contribute to developing a greater, more holistic and just understanding of the human condition through our academic contributions: for by this, we shall make progress just and justice, real. And ultimately, if we really want to help the poor, we will contribute in the struggle to remove the conditions which keep them from rising from their oppressing conditions.

But at this point, I am inclined to think that we really don’t want to do those things. I am inclined to think that we don’t really want to change things: otherwise, why hasn’t anything changed yet?


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