This article is written by Isaiah Emmanuel Suguitan as part of EngageMedia’s Youth Advocacy and Communications for Internet Freedom project, which aims to expand awareness and engagement with digital rights issues among youth advocates in the Asia-Pacific.
Isaiah Emmanuel Suguitan is a BSc Community Nutrition student from the University of the Philippines Diliman. He is a human rights advocate passionate about digital rights and accessibility, health and nutrition, and press freedom. Currently, he is affiliated with Amnesty International Philippines and is a Nutrition and Dietetics Affiliate at Veterans Memorial Medical Center. Last October 2023, Isaiah was invited to speak as a Youth Delegate on Amnesty International’s behalf during the UN Rights of Child Resolution held in New York City.
The Philippines is home to around 2,300 higher education institutions with about 70% of it being private. More Filipinos have also attained some form of education compared to previous years, with 13% having finished their college education in 2020, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). The agency has also reported an improvement in the overall literacy rate of Filipinos with over 97% being able to read and write. By the end of academic year 2021-2022, the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) reported that over four million students were enrolled at higher education institutions (HEIs) across the country.
Despite these figures, however, challenges to access to education persist – from socioeconomic barriers to lack of resources and the digital divide. The COVID-19 pandemic further worsened these difficulties when everything was forcibly transitioned online. While the struggle of getting to college was already an uphill battle for many students, maintaining it until graduation was a day-to-day struggle. I personally know this because I am among the many young people who had to juggle work and school to make ends meet.
College students have now resumed face-to-face classes as mandated by CHED in a blended learning modality (at least 50% of classes are held face-to-face). This has caused many students to reconsider their return to campus because of the high costs that come with it such as transportation, accommodation, food, and the like – as well as access to digital technologies which remain essential for learning in the “new normal”.
Higher education during the pandemic
In 2020, CHED issued Memorandum Order 4 which enjoins HEIs to transition to flexible learning.
“Flexible learning is a pedagogical approach allowing flexibility of time, place, and audience including, but not solely focused on the use of technology. Although it commonly uses the delivery methods of distance education and facilities of education technology, this may vary depending on the levels of technology, availability of devices, internet connectivity, level of digital literacy, and approaches”, the commission said.
CHED’s definition of flexible learning recognises that learning in the online setup will greatly vary depending on the means that a student has. And this has implications for students who have limited access to digital resources during a global health crisis—promulgating a digital divide.
The struggles of students in the flexible learning environment extend well beyond accessibility. In a study done by Rotas & Cahapay in 2020, they found 12 themes that contributed to the difficulties experienced by college students under the remote learning setup. These included “unstable internet connectivity, inadequate learning resources, electric power interruptions, vague learning content, overloaded lesson activities, limited teacher scaffolds, poor peer communication, conflict with home responsibilities, poor learning environment, financial-related problems, physical health compromises, and mental health struggles”. In hindsight, this has posed a “survival of the fittest” model among college students in which those with the means were able to keep pace with the shift to online modes. Meanwhile, those with limited resources and who struggled with economic, psychological, and academic issues were left out.
Being left out under the flexible learning environment was very apparent, especially during the earlier days of the pandemic. The Philippine Association of State Universities and Colleges had estimated that around 50,000 students would not be able to enrol during the pandemic, 81% of whom were at the undergraduate level.
At the University of the Philippines (UP), around 5,600 students were at risk of being unable to continue schooling, with 1,600 of them having no resources for the online setup. This resulted in many students applying for financial aid, such as applying for the Student Learning Assistance System (SLAS) which served as the lifeline for many students to have a chance to continue their education amid the pandemic. The SLAS, however, posed difficulties for prospective recipients due to numerous delays. Students reported receiving aid late, leaving them uncertain as to when they would receive such assistance from the university.
Being a UP student myself, I remember applying for the SLAS but being rejected numerous times despite showing an immense need for assistance. I would often open my phone, continuously refreshing my emails first thing in the morning, hoping to receive approval for my appeal. For every rejection email I received, I felt that dropping out to enter the workforce early was my only option to survive. It was already an emotional experience to prove to the university that I was unable to continue going to school during a global pandemic and thus needed aid; receiving a rejection made me feel like going to school was only for the rich.
My parents have often instilled within me and my brothers that education is an equalizer in society. However, for every rejection I received, I felt less of a human just because I was not born with the means to sustain my learning. I felt violated every time.
Higher education in the “new normal”
Since last year, students all over the Philippines have started to go back to campus following CHED’s order. However, many remained incapacitated to return to face-to-face classes due to the high costs that come with it.
In UP, the resumption of face-to-face classes has been permitted since the second semester of academic year 2022-2023. However, students clamoured for policies to be synchronous with their demands given the difficulty that comes with such readjustments.
The UP Diliman University Student Council (UPD USC) and Rise for Education – UP Diliman (R4E-UPD) published a position paper on the return to face-to-face classes, which was based on 3,708 responses from students, 90% of whom were undergraduates. The position paper noted that a significant number of students were working students (10.2%) and shared both internet connection and gadgets with family members at home (13.2%). As such, UPD USC and R4E-UPD recommended the adoption of blended learning in laboratory classes via broadcasting or recording to assist those with difficulties in returning physically to campus.
Personally, I remember relating to this issue since my program in the health sciences did require going back to campus, as certain skills can only be acquired on a face-to-face level. However, I was concerned about returning to campus not only due to financial constraints but also because of the limited digital resources I share with my siblings.
Should I return to school and bring with me my laptop, how would my brothers do their school work?
Digital inaccessibility as a digital rights issue
Having access to digital technology is a digital rights issue most rampant in Global South countries like the Philippines — where access to WiFi or even a smartphone remains a privilege. We normally talk about human rights violations in the digital space relating to gender-based violence and free speech. Yet, the inaccessibility to the medium for many Filipinos is the main digital rights issue confronting them.
Studies show that the Philippines has the lowest internet access rate in schools within Southeast Asia. Only a limited number of Filipinos are digitally literate, placing them at the lower end of the digital divide. People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds need to work twice as hard just to have access to technology, and work extra to maintain it.
In school, we are taught to think like 21st-century learners, yet the means to do so remain lacking for us. My story is not new to many young Filipinos. Working harder to keep up with the pace despite the odds of inaccessibility and the social divide has been the same-old story among Filipino students.
I long for a future where stories of Filipino college students working to buy a laptop for school will no longer be noteworthy – because everyone now has access to technology. But for now, when accessing and using laptops and computers are still not within reach of each college student, all I can do is hope and persist.