[Trigger warning: suicide]
It is imperative for every state to promote and provide universal quality education to its citizens as, first and foremost, it is a human right and secondly, it is an active tool, both in terms of the economic and social aspect, in denying recurrent episodes of poverty and oppression.
In a country wherein state-run schools are annually subjected to defunding and neoliberalism sits at the core of the state’s education curriculum, more and more families are robbed of the chance of accessing quality and equitable education. The flawed system of the market-based approach in delivering instruction and building values has proven not only to be detrimental for the marginalized people’s struggle in ending the vicious cycle of oppression but is also counterintuitive towards the country’s policy for an egalitarian society free from imperialists’ influence in terms of culture and economy.
In the Philippines, these problems persist despite the glaring divide between the rich and the poor’s ability in accessing quality education. For the past few decades, public school systems around the country have constantly combatted the problems of overstretching of resources, cramped-up classrooms, and ill-equipped facilities, which has ultimately resulted in the fledgling of desired outcomes in the youth’s learning. Meanwhile, students in search of better education in private institutions have met annual increases in tuition and other miscellaneous fees. State subsidies and regulations have done little to none in order to address these issues as more and more students are either forced to completely abandon their studies due to high costs of education or eventually ending their pursuit to achieve their dreams due to lack of opportunities.
The case of Kristel Tejada, who chose to claim her life supposedly due to the unjust university policies of her time, is a testament to the hardships brought by the pervasive neoliberal thought in every aspect of society and economy. Yet eight years after her death, justice, and access to genuine free education remain elusive to most, if not all, of the Filipino youth. The recent suicides of two UPLB students during the remote learning setup should be enough to show that while policy adjustments were made, as long as the sector is neglected and the orientation of education remains the same, the state will continue to harm the students and ruin their dreams.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated, if not exposed, the vulnerability and weaknesses of the state’s policies towards education. With the current education minister–serving as a lapdog of the fascist dictator, President Duterte–the department’s response in maintaining the extension of education, amid the disruptions in class caused by the pandemic, did not serve the material conditions of its constituents. Distance learning has only worsened the already existing gap in attaining education for most students in the underprivileged sector of society. Students are forced to learn in unsafe locations, or worse in areas of rapid militarization–such is the case in Southern Tagalog, Mindanao, and areas covered by Memorandum Order No. 32 or Oplan Kapanatagan. Conduciveness of areas is not the only issue; learners should also make do with their meager resources, in terms of books, learning materials, and electronic devices in order to finish and submit school requirements. As a result, education-related deaths are a rising phenomenon especially in the countryside; almost a year into the community quarantine, the education department is yet to act and prompt investigation into these incidents.
And yet how do we not expect the students to articulate these issues and amplify their concerns for the safe and gradual reopening of schools based upon scientific measures in handling the pandemic?
The Duterte administration has responded to these problems through the way they only know: violence and impunity. Progressive organizations and individuals calling the government for a sound response towards the pandemic have not only met harassment and intimidation from the mouth of the president but also cowardly acts of unjustified arrests and vigilante-style killings perpetrated by the state’s security forces. This comes as a reflection of the reactionary nature of the government in its attempt to maintain the status quo and to adhere to the demands of the ruling class and imperialist forces. The government has no real plans in getting the students back in school since they are scared of the fact that they are a part of a social and moral force capable of toppling their incompetent regime.
The death of Tejada and countless other education-related suicides, and many other students who struggled for the realization of a genuine free education should not be treated as a thorn in the history of the people’s struggle but should serve as a thrust for students, parents, public officials, and other sectors of the society to continuously strive for a democratic, scientific, and mass-oriented education.
Not one more life should be wasted in this rotten system. Even now in mid-pandemic Philippines, we should vow that there is no room for a rotten education system that only kills promising lives. It is only possible through constant haggling and advocacy building among the public to pressure the state in pursuing universal quality education, not only aimed at strengthening and attaining the national interests of the country but also develop individuals who are empathetic to the cause of liberating the society from the rule of landlords, bourgeois compradors, and imperialists. [P]
Graphics by Anjela Canlas