Cartoon by Zeal Conbrio Artajo/Amaranth.

Editor’s Note: The author was a former editor-in-chief of the Amaranth. Since 2009, he and his staff campaigned to fix the broken system of the student council. He ran but failed to clinch the CAFS-SSC Presidency in 2010, in a bid to reform it from within. The author’s views are his own and do not necessarily reflect that of the Amaranth.

The college council elections were held last week. It’s a yearly exercise that every VSU student is expected to take part in. Student governments are important.

Please consider a few facts before we continue:

  • Of the 8 colleges in the flagship campus, at least 4 of them had only one party vying for positions, unopposed: Veterinary Medicine, Engineering, Forestry and Environmental Science, and Arts and Sciences.
  • Nobody ran for president for the College of Engineering. WOAH.
  • Nobody ran for fourth year representative for the College of Engineering, as well as for the College of Forestry and Environmental Science.
  • Nobody ran for the Board Member positions in the College of Veterinary Medicine.
  • The Student Election Boards (SEB) expected low voter turnout, so much that they impose fines for not voting.

It is telling. As early as 2009, when I was still a campus journalist, we’ve been looking into VSU’s system of student government.

We raised meaningful questions: Why is there only one party running in most colleges? Why don’t we discuss about student politics? Why don’t students come in and vote? Why don’t students get to vote for the USSC President?

One thing is clear, student politics in VSU is a zombie. We’re just going through the motions, even if it’s dead.

We’ve been asking why, and we’ve realized that the problem is in the council structure, and our culture here in campus.

The first, and most important, is structural:

Our student government is not set up the way it should be. And because of that, it is not functioning well, if at all.

Let me explain.

Governments have structures. These structures help determine who has to do which task, and who has command over whom.

Take the example of the Philippine government, which has three branches: the executive, legislative, and judiciary.

The setup of our Supreme Student Councils goes this way:

Each college has an SSC, composed of a President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, Auditor, Representatives by Year, and Board Members.

The college presidents together compose the University Supreme Student Council. And from among themselves, they elect the USSC Officers.

The USSC President sits in the VSU Board of Regents as the student regent (more on this later).

Overall, VSU’s student government is a semi-parliamentary, semi-federal system, with each College doing its own thing. At first glance, you will see nothing wrong with this arrangement. But try to do this:

Pick ten students at random, at any given school year, and ask who the USSC President is. They may shrug and say they don’t know. Students do not have a direct say on the voting process for USSC Officers.

At the same time, the CSSC Officers run—many hesitantly—with their own college in mind, not the university. Many are thrust into positions of leadership even if they do not have genuine desires and capacities to serve.

But what caused this arrangement?

All signs point to when ViSCA became a university in 2001. When we were still just one college, we only had one powerful CSSC. But when ViSCA became Leyte State University, departments became colleges. These units, left on their own to make sense of their expanded territories, began filling them in with policies and structures that should have been a coordinated effort among colleges.

This ija-ija mentality wrought disasters on two important systems in the university: our system of ugly college and department logos (which will be a topic for another day), and the badly structured student council.

Somewhere along that transition, nobody thought about the implications of the new arrangement to the council. For example, who decided it’s not for everyone to elect the USSC Officers? that the CSSC Presidents will just vote among themselves? Who put that USSC Constitution and By-Laws (CBL) in place after 2001?

And what about the Liberal and Nacionalista Parties that just sprout out shortly before elections? What do they believe in and stand for? Why are there only these two parties?

And that’s just for the executive branch. How about the judiciary? We don’t have a student tribunal that settles cases and issues among ourselves. The legislative? We have board members at the USSC and CSSC level—but do they really have an idea what their job is about? Really?

There is a need to revisit this USSC-CSSC structure, because:

  • The USSC President or Student Regent does not enjoy a direct mandate from the students through a popular vote;
  • That in turn does not encourage the participation of VSU students in the election process;
  • The fragmented structure does not allow for proper distribution of power, resources and responsibilities;
  • There are no checks and balances to make leaders accountable for bad work, or no work at all; and
  • We do not have real political party systems.

As early as 2009, Amaranth and I, at a personal level through a political blog called TingogVSU, started tackling this problem. In succeeding elections, the platforms of almost every party running for the council leadership included “to amend the constitution”. Funny, because during the 2011 meeting of CSSC Presidents to elect the USSC officers, I asked this (because it was open to the public and we were allowed to ask questions): “By a show of hands, who among you has read the USSC CBL in its entirety?” Sheepishly, nobody lifted even a finger.

Aside from the bad structure of the government, we see another obstacle. It is the socio-cultural landscape of VSU. I’d like to put it this way:

Despite being an academic community, we haven’t outgrown our “barriotic” culture.

In my conversations with alumni, I could imagine ViSCA as a small, tightly-knit community of students. And although this was the case, they were sharp, critical and innovative.

True, VSU is set in a rural landscape, and most of our students come from the rural areas in Eastern Visayas and nearby places. And there’s nothing wrong with the rural way of living—the VSU main campus feels like an idyllic place, which calming beaches and sunsets, and cool nights because of the nearby mountain range. This part of rural life is beautiful.

But these are bad facets of our mini-culture here in campus:

  • Everybody knows everybody, so you better not offend.
  • Don’t rock the boat. We do not push for changes that disrupt, for fear of alienating people who don’t really matter.
  • We take criticism on what we do as personal attacks on who we are.
  • We rarely discuss at an intellectual level. “Palengkeros” dominate arguments.
  • We do not think big.

VSU has come a long way from its ViSCA and LSU years. When I was in college, anybody who owned a laptop should be really rich. Now, every other student owns a laptop and a smartphone, and everybody has a Facebook account.

But despite being part of a “global village”, we don’t seem to have outgrown our taga-bukid-ness. We have not acquired a sense of class that we direly need to interact with people outside our little pond. (ASEAN integration is coming!)

And what does this have to do with student politics?

Because council business is serious business which involves having to disrupt to effect change. Leaders have to take in and endure criticism. Students should engage interact with candidates in debates leading to the elections.

And if we have a barriotic mindset, it’s certainly impossible to buck the tide. Politics can mean viewing issues differently without seeing each other as enemies. At times, it requires agreeing to disagree, and still remain civil.

So what do we do now?

We must change the system through a Constitutional Convention, to set up a new structure of government that can best serve the studentry.

How would such a council look like?

  • The University Supreme Student Council will still be the highest governing body—but its President, Vice President, Secretary and Treasurer will be voted at large, not from among the CSSC President-elect. The Amaranth called this the Big Four in an earlier editorial.
  • There will still be College Supreme Student Councils for each college, composed of the usual officers, plus representatives.
  • The Presidents of the CSSC will form the USSC Board that will man different “departments” or ministries.
  • The senators and different year representatives from each college (and branch campus) may form themselves into a chamber that legislates policies and resolutions.
  • A student tribunal (like our court system) can be there to settle cases without elevating it to the school administration.

These are suggestions. Such as a system can be refined and improved through the convention.

Whoever won the CSSC positions must pledge to make this convention possible this year, so it will take effect in the following school year (2016-2017) to elect the leaders for the next school year (2017-2018).

We must establish political parties that have platforms based on principles, not just convenience. These parties should be visible year round, not just during elections.

Trash the Liberal and Nacionalista Parties. What is the logic behind the SEB requiring that the two opposing parties should take on these names? And even, should there only be two parties?

Leaders should come together to form parties with people they agree with in terms of policies and programs. And they use these parties as vehicles to hold power in government, so they could implement their vision. This is the essence of parties.

Let us encourage parties to bloom in the VSU system, and let’s see where it takes us.

Everyone must be involved in the election process, months before the actual elections.

We have the Student Election Boards (SEBs) to blame for students not knowing about the elections, and the candidates. It’s their job to facilitate the filing of candidacies, to encourage candidates to campaign and make themselves and their platforms known, and even to organize debates and “miting de avance’s”.

Instead, they just try to avoid low voter turnout by imposing fines for not voting. We cannot force students to vote out of fear. It should be out of genuine concern for leadership.

Finally, we need to demand accountability from the leaders we elect.

We barely interact with the council leadership to ask for assistance or action on problems and issues that matter to us. The USSC President represents the students at the VSU Board of Regents. Many times, I have read board resolutions where the student regent simply agreed to policies that hurt students. And this is why it is important that we elect someone to that seat by popular vote—someone with political will, strength and principle. Someone who will stand for your rights, and work for the benefit of the students.

Sometimes, the officers just sit there. They get to travel to places using council money. They have perks. But we do not demand results from them.

During their campaigns, they promise platforms and projects. Where was the con-con that the officers in the past years have promised? Nada.

Time and again, the publication has received the ire of the council for “criticizing” and making them accountable. But isn’t that supposed to be what everyone does?

We must continue the conversation about how to improve the council leadership. Leading 8,000 students is no easy task, that’s why we have to elect someone who has vision, and can rally people to action.

We just elected new council officers. In the following days, we will have new USSC officers, and a new student regent. We are at a critical point, a small window of opportunity to correct the system. Why? No matter how good the student regent is, he or she can only do so much given the current setup.

And this is not any other student council we’re talking about. This is the Supreme Student Council of the premier university of science and technology in the Visayas.

I hope our new leaders won’t squander that chance.

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