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Free tuition program should be reviewed

IN 2017, then President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law Republic Act 10931, or the “Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act,” expanding opportunities for college education for millions of deserving but poor students. In Senate hearings on the proposed national budget for next year, Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno called for a review of the program, describing it as inefficient and potentially wasteful at a time when government is making a strong effort to rationalize its spending in the face of various economic pressures. Diokno's proposal is a most prudent and necessary recommendation.

Students scheduled to take the University of the Philippines College Admission Test, or Upcat, line up in front of the UP Manila Campus on Pedro Gil St., Manila on June 4, 2023. PHOTO BY MIKE ALQUINTOStudents scheduled to take the University of the Philippines College Admission Test, or Upcat, line up in front of the UP Manila Campus on Pedro Gil St., Manila on June 4, 2023. PHOTO BY MIKE ALQUINTO

Students scheduled to take the University of the Philippines College Admission Test, or Upcat, line up in front of the UP Manila Campus on Pedro Gil St., Manila on June 4, 2023. PHOTO BY MIKE ALQUINTO

According to the Free College Law, all Filipino students, regardless of family income, who enroll in courses leading to a bachelor's degree in state universities and colleges (SUCs) or local universities and colleges (LUCs) are exempt from paying tuition and other school fees, provided they meet certain basic conditions. The students must comply with the admission and retention requirements of the institutions in which they are enrolled, including finishing their degree programs within the prescribed time and enrolling in a specified number of units per year. The law also has a return service system component that requires student beneficiaries of the program to render service to the Philippines for at least five years after graduation.

The free college program is allotted P51.12 billion in the proposed budget for 2024, an amount that is divided among the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd) with P26 billion, P21.7 billion for SUCs, and P3.4 billion for the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda). CHEd administers the program, and its budget component is slightly higher, up 0.7 percent from the 2023 General Appropriations Act.

According to Secretary Diokno, who also opposed the program when he was budget secretary in 2017 but led the crafting of RA 10931's implementing rules and regulations, the program is financially unsustainable. At a recent forum at the University of the Philippines, Diokno explained that at the time of the program's launch, its long-term viability was not as serious an issue, but that the massive debt taken on by the government to address the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting constraints on government spending now pose a higher risk.

Diokno also explained that because there are no income requirements, increasing numbers of students from families with higher incomes are availing of the program. He suggested that this ironically makes the law “anti-poor,” as these students who might otherwise study at non-state institutions are filling spots that the law intended for qualified but less financially capable students.

He also suggested that there has been an increase in dropouts — students availing of the program but then leaving school after a year or two. That disqualifies them from receiving free education again, but the damage is done; the funds for that year or two are essentially wasted, preventing another deserving student from being assisted.

These issues, which have also been raised by others, are largely anecdotal, but that is precisely why the program must be carefully reexamined and retooled to better carry out its original intent. And the concern that the program might become financially unsustainable, coming from an official who is likely the most competent person in the country to offer that view, by itself, should alarm officials and lawmakers into reassessing it. The worst possible outcome would be for deserving students to have their college studies ended through no fault of their own, simply because government finds itself unable to continue subsidizing them.

In a broader context, serious reflection should be taken on whether or not “free” college education is even appropriate or productive. We submit that it is not. While government does have a responsibility to provide quality basic education to everyone, higher education is an option. Everyone should have the opportunity to access it within their means, but that does not mean without any cost whatsoever. Higher education is, after all, an investment in oneself, and government should regard it as such.

A scaled program that requires every student to pay within reason and without causing undue financial hardship makes more sense, both in terms of financial viability and in encouraging students to complete their education. Of course, for those who are good academic performers but simply cannot afford to pay anything, they can be fully subsidized; the savings from not subsidizing those who do not need it will ensure that the program will remain sustainable.

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