Text by Luisa Sandoval
What you need to know:
- Science scholars decried a DOST-SEI memorandum slashing their stipend as it was only meant to cover the compressed four-month semester.
- The memorandum resulted in a P7,000 cut for undergraduate scholars and a P25,000 cut for graduate scholars.
- DOST-SEI Director Josette Biyo said DOST-SEI is now reassessing its policies on its Science and Technology Scholarship programs.
Computer Science major Justin Ruaya spent the rest of his P20,000 allowance from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) to buy a computer for his new remote learning setup. This left him with barely enough money for the rest of the semester and for internet connection. To adapt, his family had to cut costs in their household.
Mathematics major Russel Floresca also had to scrape the bottom of the barrel just to afford his remote learning necessities. After he missed the payment for his internet connection twice, his family had to loan money just to cover the monthly bills of about P1,650.
Both Ruaya and Floresca’s financial problems present just a few of the varying struggles experienced by thousands of DOST scholars from UP Diliman. Scholars heavily rely on the stipend for financial assistance, but for some, it can spell their survival amid the pandemic.
Compared to previous years, this semester was different. Undergraduate scholars received a P7,000 cut in their stipends, while graduate scholars received a P25,000 cut.
Under Republic Act 7687 or the Science and Technology Scholarship Act of 1994, the state is mandated to provide “scholarships, grants-in-aid or other forms of incentives to deserving science students” to allow them to pursue higher education in science and technology.
A DOST-administered Science and Technology Scholarship Fund was then created under this law.
Stipend cut short due to compressed semester
On Nov. 10, the DOST-Science Education Institute (DOST-SEI) announced in a memorandum that they will only be providing enough stipends to cover the months of the first semester of this academic year.
Since universities like UP reduced the duration of their first semester while adjusting their academic calendars, scholars are forced to scrimp and save up.
The usual 20-week semester was squeezed into 14 weeks after the UP Board of Regents decided to start the first semester on Sept. 10.
DOST-SEI Director Josette Biyo said the memorandum sought to guide universities and DOST Regional Offices that implement the scholarship programs, particularly in the processing of stipends.
“In the light of the changes in the academic calendars of some universities implementing the DOST-SEI Scholarship Programs, we found it necessary to issue the memorandum so that all the stakeholders, which include the scholars, will have a common and clear understanding of the issue,” Biyo added.
Because of the memorandum, instead of getting the usual P40,000 stipend this semester, undergraduate scholars received only P33,000. Meanwhile, graduate scholars received P100,000 instead of the usual P125,000.
Scholars like Floresco asserted that they should still receive the original amount since it was “not the fault of the scholars” that UP had cut the semester short.
Some of them are relying on the stipend for their needs especially during these trying times, Floresco added.
However, Biyo said the policies on the stipend cut were reflected in the scholarship agreement or contract between DOST-SEI and the scholars.
“The scholarship agreement clearly states that the scholars are entitled to financial assistance during their actual period of study, meaning the duration of the semester they are enrolled,” Biyo said.
Biyo added that providing stipends to the scholars beyond the duration of the semester, when they are no longer enrolled, would have “no legal basis.”
Scholars, nonetheless, called for compassion from DOST. “It’s not fair that other universities would receive more, or less, allowances because their semester covers from August or October to December,” Ruaya said.
Instead of all DOST scholars receiving the same amount of stipend this semester, their allowances will vary depending on their university’s academic calendar.
For instance, in universities like Central Luzon State University that started their first semester in October, their DOST scholars would only receive three months’ worth of stipend from the usual five months.
Graduate and Ph.D. students prohibited from working while under scholarship
With the recent memorandum in place, UP scholars fear that the stipend cutback will not be able to support them financially for the coming months, especially with the second semester moved to two months later than usual.
This is after the UP Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs announced in a memorandum that the second semester will begin in March 2021.
Hannah Sucgang, a second year MS Marine Science student, said her stipend is her only source of income. If it will be cut short again for the next semester, she will have to borrow money from her friends and relatives or put up a small business in the meantime.
“Ang hirap noon eh kasi mag-te-thesis na ako sa Pangasinan, sa Annex ng [Marine Science Institute] ‘doon so ‘di ako pwede mag benta-benta ‘doon, so baka mas manghiram [ako] sa friends and relatives siguro,” Sucgang said.
Aside from the stipend cut, Master’s and Doctorate students also decried the provision in their scholarship contracts barring them from applying for work while under the said scholarship.
Biyo said the provision was intended for the scholars to be able to focus more on their studies and graduate on time.
“The various DOST-SEI [Science and Technology] Scholarship Programs are implemented to ensure that the country will have an adequate supply of scientists and engineers to help our economy and ensure the growth of our industry and [to] help improve the quality of life of the Filipinos,” Biyo added.
Should the scholars decide to seek employment while the contract is binding, Biyo said they would have to file a leave of absence (LOA) from the said scholarship.
Being on LOA means that the student does not intend to enroll in a semester, and for scholars, this will prohibit them from availing the benefits under the scholarship program.
“This may affect their program of study and can substantially delay the completion of the program, or at worst, they may not be able to fulfill their academic requirements at all and fail to graduate,” Biyo said.
Biyo added that if scholars fail to finish their degrees within the prescribed period of study, which is two years for MS students and three years for Ph.D. students, they will have to refund the total financial assistance they received with added 12% interest.
Thus if the total amount a scholar has received from DOST is P250,000, they will have to pay such an amount with the added interest totaling to P280,000.
“That is why we require our scholars to devote 100% of their time to their study to ensure timely completion of their degrees and avoid paying back the benefits that they received from the government,” Biyo said.
Even with restrictions stated in their contracts, Sucgang still pushed through with the scholarship. She said that she could not afford to pay DOST back with all the stipends she has received with an added 12% interest.
College of Science faculty, DOST scholars write petition
The College of Science administration submitted a petition letter to DOST Secretary Fortunato Dela Peña and DOST-SEI Director Biyo calling for the reevaluation of the Accelerated Science and Technology Human Resource Development Program’s (ASTHRDP) policies and operations.
The ASTHRDP is a program under DOST-SEI that aims to accelerate the production of high-level human resources by providing scholarship grants to students pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree in areas of science and technology.
Associate Dean for Student Affairs Eizadora Yu said the petition garnered over 100 signatures from research mentors of several universities, and they are currently waiting for DOST’s response.
This petition came into being after the College of Science administration held a town hall meeting with the scholars last Dec. 1 to address issues on their stipends.
“In the meeting, the Dean assured the scholars of the support from [the College of Science administration] on their issues and we came up with plans on how to resolve them,” Yu said.
Yu also acknowledged the delay in the stipends that has been happening for years now within their “backyard.” (READ: DOST scholars decry late stipend due to Form 5 delay, ‘long’ process)
“In the past year and half, we [College of Science] increased our staff to be able to handle the workload, taking care of over 500 scholars, and we are working closely with the UPD Accounting Office to ensure timely processing and release of stipends,” Yu said.
Revisiting scholarship programs policies
In light of the concerns expressed by scholars and the struggles imposed by the current pandemic, Biyo assured that DOST-SEI is now reassessing their policies in the Science and Technology Scholarship programs.
As of writing, DOST is waiting for the position on stipend cuts from universities that shortened their semesters.
“Based on [their positions], as well as the documented appeals of our scholars, we shall look into the most appropriate means to address these crucial concerns, and propose to the DOST Secretary any possible amendment to the policies,” Biyo said.
For Floresca, the delayed and cut stipend shows the “miserable treatment of the government to its scholars.”
Funding Science and Technology scholars is the government’s investment in the future scientists of the country. As the Philippines grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, the roles of scientists have become more crucial than ever in equipping the nation for public health crises.