Story by Almira Coleen Mendoza
What you need to know:
- Of the 1,385 learning assistance packages promised to first semester grantees, only 35% have been delivered as of Feb. 23.
- Securing required documents, activating SIM cards and modems and skeleton work arrangements contributed to delays in gadget delivery.
- UP targets to complete all backlogs in delivery before the start of the second semester on March 1.
With the second semester looming near, UP has yet to deliver its promise of gadget and connectivity support to students from the first semester, citing bottlenecks in paperwork.
Out of the 1,385 learning assistance packages slated for systemwide distribution, 65% of them remain stuck for delivery as of Feb. 23.
The learning assistance packages are offered by the university’s Student Learning Assistance System (SLAS) Online, which opened its first batch of applications on Aug. 28, 2020. In this program, students can receive either one year’s worth of internet subsidy or a bundle of internet subsidy and gadget.
Grantees can also opt to receive the cash equivalent of the gadget, which they can use to upgrade their current gadgets or cover for their expenses related to remote learning.
As of writing, SLAS Online has had six batches of applications, with the last one closing Feb. 18.
UP Assistant Vice President (AVP) for Academic Affairs (Student Affairs) Richard Gonzalo said that one of the hurdles was securing the required documents from the student grantee.
“Ang mga bottlenecks na na-encounter namin, for one, ay ‘yung pag-confirm kung saan ang address ng estudyante. Doon pa lang mismo, mahirap na i-confirm kasi sometimes walang signal sa place ng estudyante,” Gonzalo added.
Unlike scholarships grants, the university arranges terms with partner telecommunications (telcos) companies on behalf of grantees to secure them internet subsidy. This means that UP submits the students’ necessary documents to telcos, such as Smart or Globe. The latter then arranges the delivery of the SIM card (for Smart) or the modem (for Globe) to the grantees.
For grantees outside Metro Manila, packages are sent to the nearest UP campus, where they can either pick them up or request them to be delivered — adding another step to the process.
Gonzalo added that aside from some students’ poor signals in their areas, erroneous information and changes in students’ data also caused delay in the process.
“Mahirap talaga kumuha ng attachments na kakailanganin ng estudyante kasi they need to have this certificate to confirm their addresses. Minsan, even their mobile numbers, may nami-miss out na isang number. … Kung mayroong mga modification, for example, if the student, umuwi ng probinsya, so palit ng address. Palit na naman ng documents,” he explained.
Despite receiving electronic copies of the documents, the AVP mentioned that they still have to be printed out for accounting purposes, adding to the bottlenecks that they encounter in the process.
“Kapag magre-release ka kasi ng pera from the university, dapat ‘yung attachments noon that the student is entitled to these funds, are in place … so it takes a lot of paperwork,” he added.
Once the packages are delivered to respective campuses, the process becomes faster. This does not mean, however, that students can readily use the internet support since they still have to activate their SIM cards or modems.
Delays in activation happened when signals were intermittent or devices were turned off during the scheduled time, the AVP explained.
With SLAS Online launched in the middle of a pandemic, Gonzalo noted how overwhelming and unfamiliar the process was for the first batch of grantees.
“Unlike doon sa dati na pwede kaming magtrabaho in our respective offices, student affairs work from home din, and they also observe skeletal work arrangements,” he said.
COVID-19 also plays a factor in delays. Only one staff from the Office of Student Financial Assistance could report to work for two days at a time. When a staff tests positive for the virus, the skeleton workforce can be put on hold for up to two weeks.
Struggling while waiting
Clarissa Westram, a first year student from UP Mindanao, was among the first batch of students who applied for SLAS Online.
She was granted a learning assistance package consisting of an iPad and a year’s worth of internet subsidy, plus a monthly stipend of P3,500.
But Westram never got around to using any of the gadget support after she only received them last January. Even after getting an ATM card in November, her bank account remained empty for the next two months.
“Noong first sem nga, sa totoo lang, may time na umiiyak na talaga ako. Kailangan na nga ng connection and ‘yung gadget, wala pa,” she said.
While her older brother owns a laptop, Westram could not always use it because he uses it for his art commissions, causing her to use her mobile phone instead.
Westram has yet to maximize the delayed support that the university gave her, though she says that the stipend has somehow eased her family’s daily expenses.
Kaagapay sa Pag-aaral ng mga Iskolar ng Bayan
Aside from the university-funded support to students, the Office of Student Financial Assistance (OSFA) partnered with the Kaagapay sa Pag-aaral ng mga Iskolar ng Bayan (Kaagapay) program to help support more financially challenged scholars.
The Kaagapay program is a resource-generation project initiated by the UP Padayon Public Service Office. It is a systemwide campaign to equip UP students with the required remote learning tools.
Kaagapay offers gadget grants in cash, amounting to P20,400 each student.
UP Padayon Office Director Jeanette Yasol-Naval said that students can use the grant to buy gadgets they need or upgrade the ones they already have.
Kaagapay Secretariat Charles Ramos said that they decided to give the grants in cash instead of actual gadgets because they wanted the process to be “as fast as possible,” which “they tried to do.”
Like other government offices, UP, as the country’s national university, is mandated by law to follow a streamlined process of procurement in acquiring goods and services. Republic Act No. 9184, or the Government Procurement Reform Act, provides a number of regulations even on state universities and colleges since they are funded by taxpayers.
“Noon … sobrang hirap kumuha ng supplies ng mga computers. We don’t want that kind of problem pagdating sa pagbibigay ng assistance sa mga estudyante,” Ramos added.
However, a long process still awaited the Kaagapay campaign before they could start the distribution of grants.
Yasol-Naval said that Kaagapay only accounts for the final list of Learning Assistance Needs 2 students, or students whose gadgets are not university-funded.
Before students make the cut as beneficiaries of the systemwide Kaagapay, UP CUs make every effort to cover for them through their local Kaagapay campaigns, which pool their funds from donors.
“In the end, those that cannot be accommodated by what they have in the CUs, ‘yun ang list ng grantees na ina-address namin,” Yasol-Naval said.
She added that they only received the first list of recipients — consisting of 241 students — in the second week of December. UP’s first semester ended the week after on Dec. 19.
As of writing, the first batch of students already received their grants through their bank accounts. The second batch, which was finalized in the first week of January, is currently processing 120 student grantees.
Ramos said that processing the lists of grantees is done “as fast as possible, so long as students submit the complete and correct information.” He added that minor delays only happen when students give them erroneous bank account details.
Sustaining the Kaagapay program amid ‘depleting’ funds
Out of the P9,667,088.79 and $30,636.91 cash donations for Kaagapay,a total of P5,093,860 has been spent for the 241 grants distributed in the first batch as of Jan. 19.
Meanwhile, the current batch of 120 grants amount to a total of P 2,248,000. Not included in these figures are the administrative fees that had to be further subtracted.
Ramos said that Kaagapay’s funds are now “depleting.” They plan to relaunch the program as soon as they collate all reports from local Kaagapay coordinators, since the program is still ongoing.
But as to when they can consolidate them, Ramos said it is “going to take some time.” He added that Kaagapay coordinators from the UP CUs require their students to submit documentations of using their grant.
“So it’s probable that the students already have the gadget grant but are not able to find a supplier of the device that they need, so matatagalan ‘yung pag-submit niya ng documentation na nagamit na ang gadget grant,” Ramos said.
As for the university’s funds for SLAS grantees, Gonzalo said that the remaining funds are still enough to fund the sixth batch of applications. The OSFA has targeted around 5,600 recipients for the assistance based on applications from previous years.
The AVP also said that since internet subsidies are good for one year, their office will still have enough time to request a budget from the Office of the Vice President for Planning and Finance, in time for the next wave of support.
In a systemwide town hall Feb. 23, Gonzalo mentioned that SLAS Online may still open new batches of applications if there are requests from constituents.
With about 900 learning assistance packages still on ‘for delivery’ status, Gonzalo said that they target to complete this backlog before the start of the second semester on March 1.
TNP tried to reach out to the AVP to ask for updates on the delivery of the remaining packages but he has yet to respond as of press time.
As the university enters another semester of distance learning, Gonzalo assured that processing of applications will go faster as UP staff learn to handle the situation.
With reports by Samantha Salamanca
Editor’s Note (May 13, 2020): This story has been edited from its original version to include the number of personnel working on a skeleton arrangement at the Office of Student Financial Assistance.