UP, UPCAT and life

Dr. Butch Dalisay, member of the distinguished faculty of the Department of English and Comparative Literature of UP's College of Arts and Letters, writes this interesting piece about UPCAT, his pride in having passed it eons ago, and his thoughts on the current circumstances in the University.

Excellence and equity, revisited
PENMAN By Butch Dalisay
The Philippine STAR 08/29/2005

My recent piece on my mom remin-ded me that it was she – a 1956 BSE graduate – who brainwashed me very early on about the absolute necessity of getting into UP if I was to be worth anything in my adulthood. She managed this by the simple expedient of playing a 78 rpm record of Push On, UP! – flipsided by UP Beloved – on our phonograph for what seemed to me like morning, noon, and night, even before I was old enough to tie my shoelaces. Soon I was playing the record myself, oblivious to its lyrics but happily agitated by the perkiness of the fight song. And there were, of course, the 1948 UP Highlights Yearbook and the 1956 Philippinensian that survived the 15 house moves we made in 30 years.

These memories crossed my mind several weekends ago, when the UPCAT (UP College Admission Test) was administered to about 70,000 hopefuls around the country. Droves of high-school seniors descended on Diliman and UP’s other campuses, torn between the anxiety brought on by the exam and by the thrill of reconnoitering corridors they might soon inhabit. It didn’t seem that long ago when I, too, sat in one of those halls – the auditorium in Benitez Hall, the College of Education – with pen in hand, writing my future in an answer sheet.

It’s that very same auditorium where the policy-making University Council meets. There’s a move among some well-meaning members of that council to give underpaid and overworked UP professors a little boost by according plus points (what we call a palugit, which comes into play at certain stages of the selection process to account for such affirmative-action beneficiaries as students from the poorest regions and members of cultural minorities) to the children of UP teachers in the UPCAT.

Some of my colleagues might strangle me for saying this, but I think it’s a terrible idea. Except for clearly marginalized and disadvantaged sectors – whose presence on campus helps make UP a truly national university – no one, not even and not especially our children – should gain special entry into UP. We can grant similar privileges for admission into UP’s elementary and high schools – which after all were conceived to be, and remain, pilot schools, teaching laboratories for our College of Education. We can vote ourselves pay raises (if and when we find the money for them, and if Congress musters enough sense and focus to let us do it). But we shouldn’t privilege ourselves to the detriment of others when it comes to college admissions, or we might lose the very moral authority we fall back on when it comes to criticizing corruption in other branches of government.

One of the things I felt proudest of when I was serving UP as Vice President for Public Affairs not too long ago was to be able to say "Sorry, but no…" to the entreaties of high government officials seeking special favors for their wards, especially post-UPCAT. No one gets into UP for being the son, daughter, relative, or protégé of a senator or congressman, no matter how highly placed, and no matter if they control UP’s budget, which we need to defend annually in Congress.

That was matched only by the pride I felt, many years earlier, of having my daughter Demi pass the UPCAT purely on her own account. UP parents – whether faculty members or not – ought to be able to savor that pride without feeling that their kid got in with a little help from a system meant to serve not insiders, but the people at large. I hope the new UP administration finds the wisdom and the will to nip this misguided initiative in the bud.
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Speaking of the UPCAT (and following through on a piece I wrote about it in May last year), other steps are underway to review how well it has worked, and to determine if it remains relevant to our needs and realities. Such periodic reviews are fine – indeed, essential in a world, society, and educational landscape that have changed much over the past 30 years.

Students are going to college more poorly prepared than ever, in terms of basic skills (science, math, and language) and of "cultural literacy" – an awareness of (leading to an engagement in) the backgrounds, issues, and elements of our nationhood. When critics (and even professors) bemoan what they see as a deterioration in the quality of our college students and fresh graduates, they often forget to note that these problems began much earlier – in ill-equipped elementary schools, poorly-trained and underpaid teachers, and yes, parents who expect teachers to shoulder the task of education 100 percent, to whom glancing at their kids’ report cards and dispensing their baon is duty enough.

And when we range our graduates’ performance against those of other universities in the region and the world, we also con-veniently forget that we "cheat," in effect, by requiring only 10 years of elementary and high school education before shoving our kids into college. (Compare that, for example, to 12 years in the US and India and 13 years in Norway. Of course we’ll argue that we Pinoys can’t afford to pay for the extra years, and besides, we’ve all managed to get by – which is exactly where we are, just getting by while our neighbors have been moving on.)

That said, what’s the nation’s leading public university to do?

As in the past, much of the debate that will inevitably attend the review will have to do with the competing claims of "excellence" and "equity" – code words both for sharply defined and emotionally charged positions. "Excellence" would mean the survival and progression of the intellectually fittest – the university would take in and educate only the very cream of the high school crop, with no considerations given to such factors or qualifiers as economic status and geographic origin. "Equity" on the other hand would give some importance to those very factors, applying weights and counterweights to ensure a more democratic mix and achieve socially desirable objectives. It’s easy to see how both positions can be defended – and overplayed.

"Excellence" recognizes the fact that however you look at it, a university is an intellectual enterprise, whose business is the production of an intellectual elite. That elite can then – if it so wishes – help uplift the lot of others. Excellence is efficient and cost-effective. You’ll expend less time, effort, and money educating someone who’s already smarter than most to begin with. With just so much to spend on public higher education, the government could gamble its stash on those students most likely to succeed – and on the university most likely to help them succeed. For professors, it’ll be a pleasure dealing with students who can absorb anything you say in an instant.

"Equity" would be the battle cry of those who believe that, as a publicly funded institution, a state university has an inalienable responsibility not just to the pursuit of knowledge but also to the promotion and practice of democratic ideals. That includes a conscious effort toward some degree of fair representation – if necessary, through affirmative action–for the country’s regions and ethno-linguistic groups as well as economic classes, with an emphasis on helping those already minoritized and disadvantaged for having been born poor and far away from the best elementary and high schools. It will take more work and resources to bring these students up to par with their thoroughbred peers – but if we don’t go the extra mile for them, they (and the majority of our people that they represent) will only be left farther behind.

Speaking as a UP alumnus and professor, I’m convinced that a combination of both factors – not necessarily a 50-50 proposition – should serve the university and our people best. A compromise might be achieved, for example, and as had been earlier proposed by some quarters, by applying purely "excellence" factors – UPCAT scores – to the first 1,000 or 2,000 (out of 6,000) passers, and additional "equity" factors to sort out the rest.

While I have to admit to a personal bias for equity considerations, I seriously doubt that democratic representation alone will achieve anything substantial (and our Congress is the best proof of that). There are state colleges and universities in practically all our provinces – way too many of them, in fact – that can meet the needs of most of our students where they are, as they are. Can the nation – and even the poor – best be served by holding back the academic potentials of its leading university in the name of pluralism?

On the other hand, "excellence" can very quickly become a euphemism for more than an intellectual form of elitism, for turning UP into a haven for the sons and daughters of the rich, who would have had the best preparation for the UPCAT in high schools blessed with all computers and library books anyone could wish for. If no equity factors were to be considered, UP would be filled in no time with Metro Manila-based PSHS, Ateneo, and La Salle graduates – the parents of many of whom, ironically, could very well afford to send them on to top-flight private universities for ten times the tuition they would pay in UP. You’d have to wonder if this is what the government allots UP P4.5 billion a year for (less about P1 billion for the Philippine General Hospital) – money contributed by ordinary taxpayers all over the country.

We’re not quite there yet, thanks to the UPCAT’s present observance of equity considerations. As far as I know, we’ve been able to maintain a rough 50-50 ratio between public and private schools among UPCAT passers. When last we looked, based on self-reported family income (and dispelling the notion propounded by some politicians that UP has already become a school for the rich), less than 4 percent of UP students come from families with incomes of more than P1 million – not a lot these days.

That could change if we pull out all the stops altogether, and I for one hope that doesn’t happen. Sure, it takes more effort and it’s often plain frustrating to teach the poorly prepared – but that’s the mission I feel I signed up for, in the hope that these people will make more of a difference to their families and communities than another well-scrubbed boy from Greenhills. The day UP truly becomes a rich kids’ school is the day I leave it – for Ateneo or La Salle, to at least be commercially recompensed for what I’m doing (although I doubt there’ll be a place in either school for this stubborn agnostic).

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