In Isabela, gov’t scholars are pressured by politics

In the province of Isabela, a government scholarship is being politicized and beneficiaries are worried.

Recipients of the Bojie-Rodito Opportunities for Education (BRO-Ed) program, a publicly funded scholarship, are being asked to support the Bongbong Marcos–Sara Duterte-Carpio tandem seemingly as a condition for approving or renewing their grants. 

Three scholars have since come forward to The LaSallian. These individuals, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, are concerned that refusing to comply with the advisory may mean being stripped of the scholarship.

Their testimonies paint a troubling picture of provincial officials exerting undue influence over educational assistance beneficiaries—numbering almost 20,000, as per their latest accomplishment report—to advance the campaign of select candidates.

Isabela forms part of the “Solid North”—a string of provinces in the northern tip of Luzon that supposedly provides strong electoral support for the Marcoses. In the 2016 elections, Marcos led in the province by a landslide, garnering half a million votes out of the nearly 700,000 cast. With this, scholars fear that their concerns on this matter could be left unaddressed.

A demand for support

It was on January 11 when the scholars received the advisory. For Jodie*, the news reached her through an anonymous text message. Despite the sender making no introduction, she knew the advisory was related to her scholarship. Another scholar, Tine*, received no text messages and instead found the notice in one of her group chats.

While different versions of the announcement made rounds, all promoted the same Facebook accounts. One was even posted on BRO-Ed’s official Facebook page. It has since been deleted. 

Though the notice was framed as a mere invitation to support the mentioned cause, what agitated the scholars was that a later version of the announcement said toward the end, “Your support and subscription will be verified during your scholarship application and renewal this February.”

“I’m very alarmed with the BRO-Ed advisory,” Jodie says, highlighting that it was sent directly to her personal number, which she gave during her application. “It was as if I was instructed directlyso I’m obliged to subscribe [to the pages].”

Tine, on the other hand, views the verification clause as a “demand”. 

“You’re afraid of losing your scholarship. You’re afraid of not getting it renewed. But you benefit from itso you have no choice other than to follow,” she laments.

‘Nothing wrong’

The Provincial Youth Development Office (PYDO), which handles BRO-Ed, believes there was nothing wrong with the advisory because it was not electioneering and was only “inviting” student volunteers. This was what PYDO Officer in Charge Rey Mel Resposo told Jericho Mauricio, education chairperson of the Isabela Youth Parliament, who recounted their conversation to The LaSallian.

Evidence of their discussion shows that Resposo did not deny that the bulletin was legitimate. In fact, he even disclosed that the announcement had come from the incumbent Isabela governor, Rodito Albano III. This information was also included in a different version of the announcement that was a “personal appeal” from Resposo and an “order from the Governor” to find supporters and youth volunteers. 

He also specifically talked about the version that said scholars’ support will be “verified”. According to Mauricio, Resposo maintained that this does not mean that liking and subscribing to the recommended pages was a requirement for applying to or renewing the scholarship, but he also never clarified what it actually means.

What the PYDO chief explained to him, however, was that if the office finds that a scholar has not complied, they will be invited again to follow up and yet again if they still refuse. Mauricio understands this to mean that this cycle would repeat if the grantee continues to ignore the announcement. “It will be an unending invitation,” the youth leader slights, though he never received a proper response to verify if this was accurate since Resposo stopped answering his messages.

PYDO was asked for a comment on the issue but has not responded as of writing.

No other option

BRO-Ed aims to assist the children of small farmers who “dream of having at least one college graduate in the family.” According to the December 2021 Accomplishment Report compiled by PYDO, 19,758 students from across the province are beneficiaries of the program for the second semester of School Year 2020-2021.

Non-academic scholars receive P3,000, while academic scholars receive P5,000. But since the pandemic began, P500 was trimmed from cash allowances and replaced with 25 kilograms of rice. Scholars receive the aid on a semestral basis and can renew the scholarship until they graduate. The scholarship also comes with no strings attached, although there is a grade requirement that needs to be maintained.

As much as they do not want to be forced to support pro-Marcos Jr. and Duterte-Carpio pages, Jodie and Tine say they will do so if only to keep their scholarships. Otherwise, getting through college will be all the more financially difficult.

For Tine’s family, the grant she receives for one semester covers the costs of the internet service needed for her online classes. She fears that not complying may put her financial position in jeopardy. “Who am I to not obey if that is the price of my scholarship?” she bemoans. 

The same is true for Jodie, who bears great costs just to acquire the materials needed for her laboratory subjects. She does not want to risk losing the scholarship all for want of liking or following a political page, even if it is of a candidate she does not truly support.

Tine posits that even if their scholarships are renewed despite not following through with the advisory, there is still a risk of attracting unwanted attention and being singled out as against the government. This may be the same dilemma for other scholars who also find themselves in a difficult spot but are left unheard.

Tine and Jodie hope that their speaking up will open eyes, provide clarity, and put an end to the issue before it gets “normalized”. 

“The politicization of the scholarship is not normal, and this should not happen,” Jodie remarks.

*Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms.

UPDATE: February 7, 2022

The official BRO-Ed Facebook page issued a statement on their “accidental” post last Sunday, February 6, maintaining that it was merely an invitation and had no intention to harass or coerce their beneficiaries. They nevertheless apologized for the inconvenience the post may have caused. They also denied Albano’s involvement in the issue.

The LaSallian

By The LaSallian

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