MANILA. President Rodrigo Duterte has signed the first-ever Philippine statute granting free tuition for all state colleges and vocational schools across the country. It’s expected to benefit over a million students but has also raised questions about where to get the money to pay for such an ambitious expansion of educational benefits.
The President signed Republic Act 10931 or “Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act,” on Aug. 3 but left it to Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevarra to make the announcement the following day. Congress approved the bill last May and sent it for the President’s signature last July 5.
It grants full tuition subsidy for students in State Universities and Colleges (SUCs), local universities and colleges (LUCs), and state-run technical-vocational schools. The law will also pay other charges, namely “library fees, computer fees, laboratory fees, school ID fees, athletic fees, admission fees, development fees, guidance fees, handbook fees, entrance fees, registration fees, medical and dental fees, cultural and other similar or related fees.”
It also provides subsidies or stipend for poor students and establishes a student loan program. The Commission on Higher Education (CHED) had earlier committed to provide cash grants for medical students in public medical schools.
There are 114 SUCs and many more LUCs and state vocational schools across the country. They have an estimated population in excess of 1.4 million students.
The move drew widespread praise despite concerns raised by Pres. Duterte’s economic managers. Bishop Ruperto Santos, head of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference migrants ministry, described the new law as a “blessing”, especially to poor families and overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), who go abroad principally to pay for their children’s education and other needs of their families.
Congress has allotted P58 billion for SUCs in the P3.35 trillion 2017 budget but does not provide for any expansion in the 2018 budget. Like past years, the lion’s share of this year’s budget goes to the Department of Education with P568 billion ($12.2 billion) – followed by the departments of public works, interior and local governments, and national defense.
“This is now a law and everyone has to look forward to implement this law, whether or not you were originally opposed to it, that is now beside the point,” Guevarra averred.
Funding was always the sticking point to the expanded free tuition. Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno had been warning as late as a day before the President signed the bill that subsidizing tuition in public tertiary schools would be too costly.
“In the absence of any law, we cannot appropriate money for free tuition,” he said. “We estimate that the cost of this bill, it will cost us something around ₱100 billion (about $2.1 billion). Hindi po kaya ng gobyerno ‘yan (The government cannot afford that).”
Supporters of the new law dismissed Mr. Diokno’s concerns, saying it will actually cost less than their projections. Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said the government needs only around ₱20-25 billion (about $420 million) for the law.
“We have already incorporated ₱8.5 billion from the present General Appropriations Act,” he said. “And we strongly argued that we need not implement in its entirety the free tuition fee act on year one. In other words, we can pace it so that the other aspects of the law can be implemented after year one.”
Still, no one really knows for sure how much the final tab will be but the suspense is enough for the President’s team to hatch ways to meet long-term economic targets.
Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III raised the possibility that government will need to implement revenue-generating or saving measures to afford the free tuition program to avoid inflating the budget deficit to harmful levels.
“Any expenditure without the corresponding identifiable revenue will put a squeeze on the budget deficit at the percentage allowed. In our case, three percent is actually a very hard ceiling. Anything you spend more, it has to come out from something – either you raise more money or you cut other expenses,” Dominguez said.
Davao City Rep. Karlo Nograles, appropriations committee chairman, said among the sources of funds being eyed for the free education in SUCs are the allocations for underperforming agencies, as well as unused and unnecessary appropriations like those for travel, training, and seminars.
Mr. Diokno also argued that only middle-class and upper-class students would benefit from the scheme. “Only 12 percent of the poor get to the state universities, so when you say free tuition, you are actually subsidizing the rich,” he said.