By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – Various progressive groups today hailed the enactment of the law granting free tuition to all state universities and colleges (SUCs), which President Duterte signed on Thursday night, Aug. 3.
The Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act covers students in all SUCs starting the second semester of this schoolyear, as well as those in local universities and colleges (LUCs) and technical-vocational institutes (TVIs) accredited by the Commission on Higher Education (Ched).
Kabataan Partylist Rep. Sarah Elago, in a statement, welcomed the law saying that the victory is “not only for the youth of today but also for future generations.”
ACT Teachers Party Rep. Antonio Tinio said: “This is a historic victory in our fight for the people’s right to education.”
Even as the progressives rejoiced over what they called a “triumph” of the people’s collective action, they also called for vigilance against possible reversals of the law’s objective of free education, which may come in the drafting of its implementing rules and regulations. The law does not make tuition free to all students in public tertiary schools.
According to the Frequently Asked Questions in the website of Senator Bam Aquino, who authored the law in the senate, students in SUCs or LUCs will not be eligible to free tuition if they already have a bachelor’s degree or comparable undergraduate degree and fail to comply with the admission and retention standards, or fail to finish the degree program a year after the prescribed period of the program.
For TVIs, students who are not eligible to free tuition are those with bachelor’s degree or comparable undergraduate degree in tech-voc equivalent to a National Certificate III (NC-3), and those who failed a course in tech-voc program.
The passage of the free college education law was preceded by Congress’s allocation last year of P8.3 billion ($166 million) for Ched, a substantial amount to subsidize students in SUCs as part of Duterte’s free tuition policy. In June, in the absence of a free college tuition law, Ched issued the implementing rules and regulations (IRRs) for the fund. Youth groups immediately denounced the IRRs, which they said will only implement a nationwide socialized tuition scheme which go against the spirit of free education.
This year, the draft 2018 budget submitted by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) did not replicate such subsidy allocation, as Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno reasoned that “government cannot afford it.”
Free college education law a slap in the face of ‘neoliberal diehards’
Anakbayan chairperson Vencer Crisostomo congratulated students, parents and administrators for this “victory of our collective struggle for free education.”
“This is proof of the bankruptcy of the neoliberal framework of commercialization and privatization. This is proof that free education for all is possible and just,” Crisostomo said.
He said protests have pushed Duterte to support free education, in spite of the opposition of “neoliberal diehards” in his Cabinet, led Budget Secretary Diokno.
Elago, meanwhile, called on the youth to be vigilant as subsidy limits may be inserted in the new law’s implementing rules and regulation. She added that Congress has to address the exclusion of funds to subsidize tuition for SUCs in the proposed 2018 national budget.
On Aug. 2, during the during the hearing on the proposed 2018 national budget in the House Appropriations Committee, Elago called attention to the non-inclusion of funds for free tuition next academic year. Diokno, in response, said government cannot afford the cost of free tuition subsidy for 112 SUCs, which is around P100 billion ($1.9 billion).
In a Facebook post, Elago contradicted such claim, calculating that only P15 billion ($299 million) is needed to make tuition free in SUCs.
“Sa totoo lang, P2.2 billion ($44 million) lang dapat, kung nakabatay sa ‘cost of attendance’ ng estudyante at wala sa balangkas na pagkakitaan sila (In fact, it only cost P2.2 billion if the basis is the students’ cost of attendance and not profit),” she said.
Elago said that based on the 2018 National Expenditure Program, all state schools are expected to collect a total of P9.1 billion ($181 million) of tuition next year.
The Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) chairperson Benjamin Valbuena lambast Diokno and National Economic and Development Authority Director General Ernesto Pernia who openly opposed free college, and said that it will only benefit the rich and not the poor.
“It seems that these two economic managers are not working for the government, they are more of a spokesperson for the private education businessmen,” said Valbuena. They also commend Duterte for siding with the youth by signing the free tuition bill.
“This is concrete proof that change can only come by rejecting the neoliberal dogma of Sec. Diokno and his ilk in favor of policies that prioritize people’s rights above over the free market,” said Tinio.
Citing data by the Philippine Association of State Universities and Colleges (PASUC), Valbuena said 77 percent of students in SUCs come from families of minimum-wage earners and other low-income earners. He said this only shows that majority of the students in SUCs are indeed struggling to support their education expenses. Many of them, he said, are forced to work part-time to finance their studies.
“We want to help our students focus on their studies so they can fully develop their potentials and achieve holistic development and the legislation of the Free Higher Education Act will help us towards this end. As educators, this is our goal for our students,” said Valbuena.
Fight is not over
The National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) expressed reservation in the new law, which still has “contentious provisions.”
“NUSP calls to scrap the preferential guarantee for private higher education institutions. This is guaranteed profit to private universities as a way to appease private interests, a student loan program was included in the bill to somewhat ‘cover’ for their losses brought about by decreased enrollment,” said Mark Vincent Lim, NUSP national spokesperson.
“Our fight for free education for all continues, as tuition and other school fees collection, profiteering schemes, and neoliberal policies on education remain in full force,” said Lim.
League of Filipino Students spokesperson JP Roses said that the law is “a stepping stone to fully eradicate the commercial, colonial and fascist culture of education system in the Philippines.” (Updated: Aug. 5, 2017, 5:00 PM)