UST student leaders struggle for real autonomy

CANDIDATES in this year’s Central Student Council (CSC) elections made a bold statement by boycotting the exercise to protest what they call a “system resistant to reform.”

The move came on the heels of the Office for Student Affairs’ (OSA) move to censor online media organization TomasinoWeb over a rather innocuous photo, which was ridiculed on social media. 

This episode was seen as reflective of an atmosphere that appears to frown on genuine CSC autonomy.

No CSC bets this year as last candidate withdraws

Outgoing CSC president Ierathel Tabuno said that OSA’s treatment of the student body hindered genuine student representation.

“The CSC, for it to achieve its purposes, what it’s supposed to be doing as the voice of the students, it has to be able to stand independent,” she told the Varsitarian. “Hindi ‘yon ma-a-achieve kung bago kami makapagsalita, kailangan i-revise pa namin ‘yong sasabihin namin.”

Student leaders voiced concerns over the directorship of Asst. Prof. Ma. Cecilia Tio Cuison, who took the helm of OSA in 2021. Tio Cuison, a former dean of the College of Tourism and Hospitality Management, went on medical leave on March 16, over a month after the TomasinoWeb issue exploded.

For instance, Tio Cuison has reprimanded the current crop of CSC for expressing opinions on various political issues, tagging them as “sporadic” because they were not originally part of the student body’s general plan of action (GPOA).

Umabot talaga sa point na nagagalit na sa amin, that’s why na-reinforce ‘yong bago kami mag-post or bago kami makagamit ng sarili naming logo, may approval,” Tabuno said. “It has come to a point where even our statements as EB (executive board), [w]e couldn’t post it on our CSC Facebook page. [W]e cannot do what a council should be doing in the first place.”

OSA-caused roadblocks

When Tabuno’s predecessor, Nathan Agustin, floated the idea of revising the 2003 CSC charter, OSA supposedly gave his administration false hopes.

“Whenever we brought the prospect of revising the CSC constitution, OSA would often say that this is alright,” Agustin told the Varsitarian. “But once we started the plans and acted on it, [OSA] would suddenly have a lot to say. It is as if we do not have any control over a process that we should actually have control of if we were to follow the CSC constitution.”

Agustin, who served as CSC president in Academic Year 2022 to 2023, was determined to overcome roadblocks in updating the charter, but as he experienced, such roadblocks proved insurmountable.

“I had a lot of plans, such as revising the constitution during my term, but many did not fully materialize because we had to change this and that, submit this and that, and wait for feedback for prolonged periods of time,” he said.

“And when we tried to do things on our initiative, our actions would always be questioned no matter how compliant we were with the CSC constitution and internal rules.”

CSC leaders, aspirants bent on revising council charter

The OSA only cooperated with the CSC when it organized events the higher-ups liked, Agustin said.

“It was a hot and cold working relationship,” he said. “We’ve always tried to do what we can to make things work and build good relations, especially with the staff.” 

“However, when it came to matters beyond regular projects and coordination, such as making principled stands as a student council, we always clashed in some way. It came to the point where many student leaders grew tired of the constant deadlock when it came to progressive topics.” 

The incumbent CSC officers anchored their campaigns last year on charter change, driven by the resignation of a former CSC auditor, Dale Morallano, who relinquished his post because of a “restrictive system” that has forced student leaders to be mere event organizers.

Tabuno said little progress occurred during her term due to OSA’s unresponsiveness. According to CSC treasurer Rafael Pesueña, talks regarding constitutional revision were “always pushed back.”

“[M]eetings held regarding constitutional revision [were] always pushed back kasi it’s one of the topics they don’t want necessarily to talk about with us,” Pesueña told the Varsitarian.

Tabuno said cha-cha was included in the GPOA the council submitted to the OSA in April 2023.

“We can even incorporate [OSA’s] recommendations or guidance kung paano namin gagawin ‘yong [cha-cha], but because hindi nangyayari ‘yong meeting and I’m about to finish my term, the frustration and the speculation of being forced at the end of the stick is there,” Tabuno said.


Dr. Robert Dominic Gonzales, who was elected CSC president in Academic Year 2019 to 2020, had faced two drastic transitions during his term: one emanating from the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the other from a change of leadership in the OSA.

Gonzales got a year-long term extension when classes in the Philippines shifted online because of Covid-19 restrictions. He was the CSC president when Tio Cuison became OSA chief after Assoc. Prof. Ma. Socorro Guan Hing retired in 2020 after 32 years working at the University.

Gonzales said there were “stark differences” between Guan Hing and Tio Cuison’s OSA.

“Guan Hing was more caring and gentle in approaching us, while Tio Cuison back then, noong second term ko na as president, was stricter in her approach and she was somewhat more repressive with our actions,” he told the Varsitarian.

OSA’s complicated bureaucratic process, Gonzales said, hindered his administration from pushing forward with initiatives to cater to students grappling with the virtual setup. He said raising concerns on internet connectivity and gadgets, participating in rallies, and standing up for advocacies had become laborious under Tio Cuison.

“I think there is a redundancy when it comes to paper processing kasi kumbaga, dumaan na nga sa adviser namin, dadaan pa sa OSA director,” he said. “In the first place, isang tao lang naman ‘yon.”

Despite adhering to the recommended timeframe of filing papers a month before the event, CSC’s programs were hampered by delays.

All administrative offices, student councils, and recognized organizations follow a system for event processing called the Electronic Reservation of Scheduled Events and Reservation of Venue (e-ReSERVe). Before the pandemic, documents had to be submitted in person. An updated version of the website was launched at the start of the Academic Year 2022 to 2023.

For student-run groups, UST requires organizers to submit eight primary documents: a project proposal form, program flow, cover letter, budget proposal, list of participants, list of publicity materials, bionotes of judges or speakers, and an evaluation form. Additional requirements may be imposed based on the nature of the activity.

The project proposal form and cover letter typically outline the objectives of the event. However, the form specifically asks organizers to explain how the event will align with one of UST’s strategic directional areas, the SEAL of Thomasian education, and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

The e-ReSERVe application undergoes several stages of approval, beginning with the dean’s office for local organizations, followed by the OSA, the Simbahayan Community Development Office for community projects, the Facilities Management Office for equipment, the Office of the Vice Rector for Finance for venue payment, and finally, the Office of the Secretary General.

Student councils and organizations are not allowed to promote their events without approval from the e-ReSERVe website.

Arnet Paguirigan, the CSC secretary in Academic Year 2021 to 2022, described the overhauled process initiated under Tio Cuison as a demanding task aimed at reducing bureaucracy. She said it placed a heavy burden on her, even extending to assisting other local council secretaries.

Sobrang stressful ‘yong ganoong experience especially to the secretaries,” she told the Varsitarian. “One day, malalaman mo ganto ‘yong paper process, tapos the other day or the next week, iba na naman siya, so sobrang magulo ‘yon and mahirap.”

“And ako, [when] I was a CSC secretary, iniisa-isa ko ‘yong mga secretary ng councils to check up on them […] kasi madalas, may mga paper sila na late na, na hindi napo-process ng OSA, so kahit hindi ko na siya trabaho, ako pa ‘yong nag-fo-follow up sa OSA.”

Gonzales noted that under Guan Hing’s leadership, the Office of Student Affairs (OSA) fostered a “culture of care.” However, he observed that despite this positive change, the University’s “conservative nature” still prevailed.

Francis Santos, who served as CSC president from 2018 to 2019, praised the “very cordial” working relationship with the Office of Student Affairs (OSA). He noted that Guan Hing’s “motherly vibe” had a positive impact on his administration’s work.

“We felt very safe [and], at the same time, very well taken care of,” Santos told the Varsitarian.

Under Santos’s leadership, the executive board failed to adopt a new student code, and it worked with the one that had been in place since 2003. The furthest progress made was presenting the code to the Council of Regents, marking the first time a student council had done so.

‘Yong good relationships, dialogues, conversations, it doesn’t mean na […] hindi tayo nagkakasundo, hindi tayo mag-uusap,” he said. 

“I believe that we were able to do that because of […] the student leaders who soldiered to push it further, the culture that we were able to imbibe in the CSC as mandated by the student body, which by the way, sila ‘yong nag-elect sa amin doon […] And, I think we would not be able to have done it without the support, without the guidance during our time of the OSA. Tinulungan kami eh. That’s our collective experience at the time.”

Guan Hing gave much leeway when Santos was president: No prior permission before posting on CSC’s social media accounts. No conditions for making the GPOA. No restrictions in terms of office stay.

A turning point

“The CSC adviser must be someone who the CSC actually supports and someone who actively understands not just the surface of CSC, but every aspect of its existence – its constitution, its functions, and its constituents, among others,” he said. “And as we see it, many student leaders believe that OSA cannot do this.”

The student body, Agustin said, should have a say on who will serve as its adviser, one who will not dictate what its members should do but instead “advises the council on its plans.”

“The CSC should be respected as a body that can make its own decisions and conduct its own projects without having to submit to the will of persons who are not part of its constituents,” Agustin stressed.

Reality, however, dictates that a change at the helm of CSC needs the blessing of the UST administration, which, for Paguirigan, won’t happen anytime soon because of “the traditional classroom setup” that the University follows.

For now, the former CSC presidents appeal to OSA for a more “caring culture” now that Asst. Prof. Jaezamie Ong has temporarily taken over the office’s helm as officer in charge.

“More than blaming them, I hope the administrators see this as a challenge na they should create a more conducive and caring culture for student leadership on our campus,” Gonzales said. 

Santos said the CSC could rebuild its frayed relationship with OSA if the latter would learn how to build trust with students.

“I think it should be a relationship built on trust – that OSA will trust the CSC to do its job, to perform and deliver its mandate, and to do it in such a way that would be really, really helpful and very contributing to the development of leaders, not only of CSC student leaders but in general, the Thomasian student body,” he said, adding, “You trust them to do their job and to do it very responsibly.”

It would be difficult for the student body to completely break away from the OSA, Santos said, because that would eradicate a first line of defense.

“OSA is the home and heart of student leaders,” he argued, quoting former OSA director Evelyn Songco.

Santos added: “[OSA] dapat ‘yong nag-aaruga, sila dapat ‘yong nag-ho-hone, sila dapat ‘yong nag-de-develop at sumusuporta. At kung meron man kaming nagawang mali noong time namin na bilang student leader, nandoon sila para tulungan kaming itama ‘yon at tulungan kaming maiwasan na ‘yon in the future.”

Ong heads a technical working group (TWG) to review student-related policies and guidelines. The TWG consists of Assoc. Prof. Gezzez Granado (College of Tourism and Hospitality Management dean), Jacqueline Lopez-Kaw (Graduate School of Law dean), Prof. Melanie Turingan (Faculty of Arts and Letters dean), and Assoc Prof. Al Faithrich Naverrete (College of Commerce and Business Administration acting dean). 

Discussions with CSC officers and the local student council presidents will culminate a series of dialogues that also include recognized student organization officers,  student leaders, and members of local Commission on Election (Comelec) offices. 

The dialogues already began on April 15.

“This dialogue presents a valuable opportunity for you to share your insights and contribute to shaping policies that directly impact student life and engagement on campus,” Ong wrote in a memorandum dated April 3.

The outgoing CSC officers said they have yet to talk about breaking away from OSA. Tabuno, however, said being independent is the only way to properly heed the voice of the students.

“I feel like, with the structure of the CSC kasi being under the officership of the OSA, there’s a conflict kasi in the interest,” she said. “That’s why it’s one of the issues that we have in the council: Magpapa-advise pa lang kami, roadblock na.”

“I really think it’s a good opinion or at least a good choice for the CSC to explore other positions as in the structure. I believe other student councils ng ibang organizations stand alone. In other constitutions, they are really given a seat at the table ng hindi kailangan kasama si OSA for us to be at that table in the first place. Mas madali kasi for the students to express their concerns and […] mas mararamadaman ng admin natin kung saan nanggagaling ‘yong students if students mismo ‘yong kausap nila.”


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