UP at 100

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms. This article was published in the Opinion Section, Yellow Pad Column of BusinessWorld, January 21,2008 edition, pages S1/4 and S1/5.

The day after the University of the Philippines or UP kicked off its celebration of its 100th year, we organized a get-together for a balikbayan pair—my cousin Lynn and her husband Greg. The guest list was made up mostly of UP alumni, young activists of more than a generation ago.  And so, I kind of expected that a conversation piece for the dinner would be about the UP of today and yesterday.

In that gathering was Soliman Santos, Jr., or Sol, someone who perhaps represents the UP ideal.

A text message that has been circulating among UP alumni says that UP makes the best students. On the contrary, the truth is that the students who enter UP are already the best and the brightest.  Take Sol who entered UP in 1970.  He comes from a family of geniuses, although his sister Rayla thinks that the middle child Ricky is the most brilliant among the three siblings who all went to UP.

Sol graduated from the academically elite Philippine Science School—but as an aside, this school likewise educated awful people like Sol’s classmate, Hermogenes Esperon.  Upon entering UP, Sol obtained the prestigious National Science Development Board (NSDB) scholarship and took up a tough course, electrical engineering.  Later, he deliberately dropped his NSDB scholarship not because his well-to-do parents could easily afford his UP education but because maintaining the much-coveted scholarship stood in the way of his desire to give more time and energy to student activism. He would thus shift to a “lightweight course” (Sol’s term, which could infuriate the history professors and majors).  Despite activism—propaganda work, in particular—being his priority, Sol still excelled in his academics.  He was a college or university scholar and he graduated cum laude.

But Sol’s life in UP was not limited to being an activist and scholar.  He was a romantic, falling in love with a bohemian, Doods, who would later become his wife.  And he was a non-barbarian, also known as a frat-man—being a dedicated member of the “great and glorious” Alpha Sigma.

I must confess that I’m paying tribute to Sol because I’d rather praise him now than follow his black-humor request that I give him a eulogy when that moment comes.

But really, without Sol inspiring me, I couldn’t have started writing this piece about UP. So here is Sol who personifies the best of UP—a bright and all-round person, not simply a scholar but truly a scholar of the people. And this guy loves UP; he cares for UP.

This long intro about Sol sets the stage for what he was to say on that occasion we had a get-together, the night after the formal opening of the UP centennial.  When Sol together with Doods arrived for the dinner—and their entrance caught my attention because they came late, I sensed that Sol was prepared for a surprise statement.  At first, I thought it was a fashion statement.  Sol wore a green De La Salle University T-shirt.

This is strange, we thought.  Sol is the type who buys souvenir items from the University of the Philippines.  So why not wear the UP shirt?  After all, 2008 is UP’s centennial.

Sol said he precisely wore the La Salle shirt as a statement of his protest against UP’s arrogance. He, like many of us, was revolted with UP’s slogan for its 100th anniversary: “UP, ang galing mo!”

Sol and Doods opined that the UP authorities had apparently forgotten to use the symbol of the UP Oblation for the centenary. The Oblation represents an offering, the University’s offering to the Filipino people.  Reaffirming the Oblation’s message is arguably the most fitting message for the UP centennial.

The slogan “UP, ang galing mo!” sounds arrogant. But there’s a bigger problem than that: proclaiming “UP, ang galing mo!” betrays the brittle confidence that we have about UP.

It remains indisputable that UP is the best university in the Philippines. But this has always been the case for many decades and generations.  Should UP compare itself to mediocre schools (relative to the rest of the world)?  Is UP content being the big fish in a small pond?  Or if UP were playing in a basketball or football tournament, would it prefer playing in the midget league, not in the first league, just so it would be ranked the best in that league?

Arrogance is acceptable if we were a Muhammad Ali or a Michael Jordan or a Bobby Fischer. In the same manner, the UP’s arrogance is tolerable if it could at least approximate the standards of the best in the world.

Which brings us to the THES-QS World university rankings 2007 (see www.topuniversities.com). The THES-QS ranking is measured in terms of five indicators with corresponding weights, namely peer review (40 percent), citations per faculty (20 percent), employer or recruiter review (20 percent), staff/student ratio (10 percent), international staff (5 percent), and international students (5 percent).

In 2007, UP was ranked number 398. As expected, the top 10 universities came from the United States and the United Kingdom—Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College, Princeton, Chicago, California Institute of Technology, University College, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among the top 50 in 2007 were Asian universities:  University of Tokyo (17) University of Hong Kong (18), Kyoto University (25), National University of Singapore (33) Peking University (36), The Chinese University of Hong Kong (38), and Tsinghua University (40).  Seoul National University missed the top 50 by a whisker.

The consolation is that UP is the only Philippine university ranked in the world’s top 400 universities.  The ranking for the next 401-500 universities is also available, with Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) ranked number 451.

To be nearly at the bottom of the heap is bad enough. It is more embarrassing that universities in India, Thailand, Malaysia and even Indonesia have outclassed UP, which was once upon a time one of the best universities in Asia.  Allow me to enumerate the universities in Asian developing countries that were ahead of UP in the 2007 THES-QS rankings: Chulalongkorn (223), Universiti Malaya (246), University of Delhi (254), Mahidol University (284), Universiti Sains Malaysia (307), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (307), Universitas Gadjah Mada (360), Universiti Putra Malaysia (364), Bandung Institute of Technology (369), and University of Indonesia (395).  This does not even include the higher ranking of the universities in Singapore, China, Taiwan (province of China), and South Korea.

The people from UP or the UP alumni make fun of the other universities in the Philippines. DLSU (De La Salle University), so goes a UP joke, stands for “Di Lumusot sa  UPCAT.” I do hope we UP alumni don’t get offended when a student from Yogjakarta’s Universitas Gadjah Mada—say, a dark-skinned Muslim whose English is unintelligible—makes a  joke that UP stands for “Underachieving People.”

That can be jolting.  But we do need a jolt.  And UP’s centenary is the auspicious moment not only to celebrate UP’s offering to the country and the people but to sound the wake up call for UP to reclaim its reputation as one of Asia’s leading universities.

The UP is fully aware of what has to be done.  It is, for example, necessary to legislate a new UP Charter that will make UP the national university.  The Charter should reinforce UP’s fiscal autonomy and augment its resources, insulate UP from political arbitrariness and patronage, safeguard academic freedom, strengthen academic excellence, and facilitate UP’s role in serving the people and fostering national development.

The UP constituency cannot afford to be divided on key reforms. The reforms have long been delayed, partly because of the lack of consensus within the UP community.  The administration must put in place an inclusive process that draws in the most vociferous voices in the University.  And the UP activists must recognize, given the existence of a failed state and the severe national budget constraint, that it is to the UP’s and nation’s interests to make UP less financially dependent on the national government.

UP’s internal reforms may not be enough though.  The problem of meeting excellent academic standards is not endemic to UP.  ADMU, DLSU, and the University of Sto. Tomas did not rank among the top 400 universities. So there lies a deeper problem for Philippine universities in general.

A cursory examination of the THES-QS World university rankings shows that the ranking is highly correlated with a country’s level of development and prosperity.

So what should we do?  We can learn from Sol, the epitome of what a UP alumnus should be. As a UP alumnus, he goes out of his way to support UP in whatever form.  He can even appeal to his fraternity brods in Malacañang or the Senate to secure the passage of the new UP Charter.  At the same time, as a true scholar of the people, he has consistently participated in the struggle to rebuild severely damaged Philippine institutions. Only when we make the institutions work can we see the country prosper, which in turn will enable the UP as well as the other schools to become world class and indisputably excellent.

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