Free For All

By Lorraine LorenzoAugust 13, 2017

R.A. 10931 promises to solve the country’s education woes – but at what cost?

There was a festive mood among students and faculty members at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) the day President Rodrigo Duterte signed R.A. 10931, or the “Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act,” which grants free tuition for SUCs, local universities and colleges, and technical-vocational institutions.


Even if PUP is considered one of the top and most affordable schools offering tertiary education, it is still one of the staunchest supporters of free education and has been clamoring for it ever since.


Known for its very spirited student and faculty activists, PUP recognizes access to quality tertiary education as a basic human right that could eventually change the lives of its students, many of whom belong to the lower income economic bracket.


Once implemented, around 78,000 to 80,000 students from the university will benefit from free tuition and even miscellaneous fees and other subsidies, which may include school supplies and lodging.


To date, the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) has pegged the total number of SUCs in the Philippines at 107.


“Personally, I felt so happy and triumphant when the law was passed,” PUP President Emanuel De Guzman declared. “This has been part of our campaign as an institution for years. We have been part of continuous demonstrations clamoring for free education. As many as 5,000 students from PUP usually join the call for free tuition fee during rallies held in school.”


The Philippines would be the eighth nation in the world to offer free tertiary education, once the law takes effect.


Mixed reactions

Although the passing of the law is considered a remarkable breakthrough, it was met with various sentiments not only among the general public but also with people in government, as well.  The President’s economic managers opposed the promulgation of the bill, citing funding constraints. Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno, for one, pegged the cost of shouldering free tuition at around P100 billion per year. Even the President himself admitted not knowing where the funds will come from, much to the confusion of both his supporters and detractors.


However, Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevarra in a press conference said, President Duterte considers the law as a cornerstone of his social development policy. “He weighed everything and came to the conclusion that the long-term benefits that will be derived from the well-developed tertiary education on the part of the citizenry will definitely outweigh any short-term budgetary challenges,” he explained.


The same optimism was echoed by De Guzman.

“In a calibrated way, it would be funded and hopefully won’t end up like one of those unfunded laws. If this will not be successful, there will be an uproar. We know that the government has a lot of priorities – peace talks, terrorism, the economy, and of course the war on drugs. However, we must treat this as top priority because people expect radical changes in the education system. Funds should not come from national savings, but it needs to have its own budget so that it would be consistent once fully implemented. That is the spirit of the law – it has to establish a framework especially in higher education; this needs to be prioritized and the government should adopt a calibrated implementation. The bottomline is that it must be prioritized.”


Funding challenges


Although generally hopeful, De Guzman recognizes some possible hurdles in the implementation of R.A 10931. Once it takes place, PUP is set to lose almost half a billion in funds per year through the collection of tuition and miscellaneous fees which the University refers to as ‘collections.’


“[They] are essential as we use them to pay the salaries of our part-time instructors and lecturers, and even our non-academic personnel, as well as some of the faculty of the university’s graduate schools. All of them are not part of the current budget allocated for us by the national government,” he explained, noting that it is one of the main issues that they wish the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) would address once the law goes full effect next year.


One of the solutions SUCs propose to address this concern is to grant them autonomy in budget, hoping that they will be allowed to use whatever expenditure power will be given to them, with more leeway to address specific priorities.


“There are restrictions on where we can use the budget given to us by the government, and that includes our part-time instructors and high-ranking faculty which the university needs,” he said.


This liberty is enjoyed by only one state university – the University of the Philippines – and it has proven to be beneficial for the institution. In fact, a few days after the law was signed, UP President Danilo Concepcion announced that they will not be collecting any tuition fees in the coming semester.


Setting qualifications

R.A. 10931 states that the following are eligible for free tuition and other school fees:


  1. Students in SUCs and LUCs, provided that they passed the entrance examination and other admission and retention requirements; and
  2. Students in state-run technical-vocational institutions (TVIs) under the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA). TVIs provide non-degree programs aimed at preparing technicians, para-professionals and other categories of middle-level workers.


Through these guidelines, SUCs are expected to set a more stringent admission process before accepting new students for the next school year.


“Now that there is a free education act, the criteria of choosing who can be qualified under the law should be more rigorous and stringent. It’s not that we are limiting the access of everyone to education,” De Guzman was quick to claim.  “We have to keep in mind that it’s the people’s money that we are using, so we have to be very strict with our admission and retention standards.”


Interestingly, the law also supports students studying in private institutions. According to Section 7, students from private universities can benefit from the Free Tuition Law by deducting fees equivalent to the amount allocated to those who study at SUCs and other state-run colleges. They can also avail of allowances for books, school materials, transportation and other miscellaneous expenses, including a reasonable allowance for documented rental or purchase of personal computer or laptop and other education-related expenses.


There’s also a provision for allowance for dormitory lodging, allowance for expenses for differently-abled students, and a one-time cost of obtaining the first professional credentials or qualifications of a new graduate.


Not so soon

Although UP has already put into effect the provisions of the law, other SUCs like PUP admit that they need to give the government more time to clear the grey areas, and to wait for the implementing rules and regulations (IRR).  They also have to know how much budget the government will allocate for them in yearly national appropriations.


“Definitely it cannot be fully implemented this year,” De Guzman declared. “We still have several scholarship programs that are being implemented and we believe that this must complement with the Free Education Law. The key is to increase budget every year until the government can fully pay for the tuition of the students, but maybe this will not happen until the end of President Duterte’s term.”


Even without the signing of R.A.10931, the Duterte government has already proven that it is a staunch supporter of free education – from P1.1 billion budget from two years ago, it has already increased to P1.4 billion, and an additional P8 billion was allocated during Duterte’s first months, covering subsidies for education for schoolyear 2017-2018.


Developing the K-12 Curriculum

One way that the government can help with allocating funds for free education is to develop a solid the K-12 curriculum. In welfare states where free tertiary education is already in place, only a handful or less than 30 percent of students who finished basic education actually go to college.


“Not everybody is cut for higher education,” De Guzman concluded. “Some don’t even like to go to college but are compelled because our culture instilled in us that one can only be successful if there’s a college diploma hanging on the wall. In other countries, they really choose which ones are fit for higher education – here in the Philippines it is different; it’s only access that we clamor for. Hopefully, with the K-12 program, we prepare our basic education graduates to be ready for work and to find the right work sectors where their skills can be utilized well. If that happens, there might actually be no need for tertiary education.”