On Free Tertiary Education By UP SESC | September 3, 2017
The recently concluded registration process for the first semester of academic year ‘17-’18 was greeted with controversy. Students were at a disarray, with inconvenience and delays being the results of miscommunications among the university administration’s higher officials. With prior announcements being revoked and guidelines being revised, the students remained keen on what was to happen next and suddenly, on August 4, 2017, President Duterte signed into law Republic Act 10931 or the “Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act.”
The recently signed law, according to provisions stated in Sections 4 and 5, exempts Filipino students enrolled in State Universities and Colleges (SUCs), Local Universities and Colleges (LUCs), and Technical-Vocational Institutions (TVIs) from paying tuition and other school fees. The law also provides for tertiary education subsidies and student loan programs directed towards Filipino students pursuing undergraduate post-secondary programs, provided that prioritization is given to students who belong in lower income brackets. Further, it stipulates that the state is authorized to prioritize funding for this measure, along with acquiring the necessary amounts for this through the annual General Appropriations Act (GAA) and other sources of funding such as through the utilization of Official Development Assistance (ODA) and Unified Student Financial Assistance System for Tertiary Education (UniFAST), among others.
The UP School of Economics Student Council recognizes the merits that can result from making tertiary education free. We believe that making tertiary education free has the potential to improve accessibility because those who are financially disadvantaged will not need to pay. Instead of having to pay tuition and other school fees, students are able to reallocate their money for other expenses such as living expenses, transportation costs, and study materials, among others. Further, as much as there are private returns to students acquiring tertiary education, there are also social returns associated to it. Tertiary education can both improve the quality of life of those who directly benefit from it in the form of higher salaries and better jobs, while also giving them the opportunity to contribute to society, through skills learned in college that enable them to acquire more opportunities to give back to society. Moreover, tertiary education leads to a more equipped and capable labor force, which may be seen as an investment in human capital.
However, the fact that students from poor families only take up a small proportion of SUCs’ student population still remains. According to the 2014 Annual Poverty Indicators Survey of the Philippine Statistics Authority, only 12% of SUC students belonged to the bottom 20% of the family income classification. It also shows that SUCs cater to all income levels with bulk from the middle class. Therefore, it would be an erroneous generalization to say that making tertiary education free would absolutely guarantee higher chances for the poorest of the poor to avail of education in SUCs. A one-size-fits-all policy like this might not even benefit them significantly.
We reiterate that the root of the entire discourse on free tertiary education comes from the necessity to make tertiary education more accessible, and thus all measures to be taken by the state should focus on the goal of accessibility. As stipulated in the 1987 Philippine Constitution under Article 14 Section 1, the State shall protect and promote the right of all citizens to quality education at all levels, and shall take appropriate steps to make such education accessible to all.
While there are arguments that pertain to the feasibility of achieving this goal, an important aspect of this issue, we emphasize that the discourse doesn’t stop here. One that should also be discussed in the same light is its sustainability, or the ability of a policy to continue its operations and establish longevity, while accomplishing its goals at the same time.
Tertiary education is resource-intensive. To generate these resources, the government would have to borrow money, or raise taxes, or acquire it from the budget of other sectors. It will be difficult for the government to sustain this policy in the long run, given an expected increase in the cost of higher education due to inflation, and an even greater expected increase in enrollment rate in SUCs.
Needless to say, the benefits that arise from making tertiary education free should not only be enjoyed by the current generation of students but also by the future generations. Sustainability also refers to meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Measures that don’t ensure sustainability are prone to introducing further problems and even worse, make education less accessible.
In line with the current context, we found the CHED subsidy of Php 8.3 billion problematic given that there is no assurance that funds will always be allocated in such manner for tertiary education. This reallocation also comes at the cost of one of the poorest regions in the Philippines, the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). While the recently passed RA 10931 assures that there is constant allocation and prioritization of funds towards the tertiary education sector, it doesn’t discount the fact that it will come at the cost of other sectors. The challenge now is for the government to push for efficient allocation of budget such that no sector is made worse off in order to provide for free tertiary education. We see the passage of RA 10931 as a potential step towards sustainability, however with budget issues and President Duterte himself not knowing how to properly fund the measure, we remain skeptical towards the implementation of this law.
We emphasize that while funds will be constantly directed towards the funding necessary to make tertiary education free, it should not be detrimental to other relevant sectors, most especially the basic education sector. While tertiary education is given more priority through the passage of RA 10931, measures should be taken by the state to further improve the quality of basic education for the benefit of students from poorer sectors of society. The gap in terms of quality of education received between students from higher-income groups and lower-income groups must be narrowed to have fairer competition in college entrance tests and which can ensure higher accessibility to tertiary education for students from lower-income groups.
Even though RA 10931 has already been passed, we must remain vigilant. Some systems, in the long run, may prove to be inefficient, and this recently signed law is no exception. We call on the state to not only fulfill its mandate by law to provide free tertiary education, but also incorporate measures to make tertiary education more accessible. While the law mandates the state to prioritize funding towards the tertiary education sector, it should be allocated efficiently such that no sector is made worse off. The constant funding assured by the state through RA 10931 must be partnered with institutional and structural reforms to ensure its sustainability. We urge the government to reallocate resources from inefficient and corrupt sectors to basic and tertiary education, and other sectors that need greater funding. We also urge DepEd, CHED, and other public educational institutions to efficiently use the budget allocated to them to achieve quality education. We reiterate that the basic education sector should also be given priority to ensure fairer competition in college admissions for increased accessibility for students from lower-income groups.
The UP School of Economics Student Council believes in free tertiary education and its merits, but the challenge to remain vigilant in ensuring sustainability and accessibility for all remains. The fight for free tertiary education does not stop at the passage of one law, but ultimately must continue through intricate steps we need to take from here until the long run, which is why we must closely monitor our government’s further actions and policies regarding this matter.