Duterte signs free tuition law
Despite opposition from his economic managers, President Duterte on Thursday signed a law granting tuition-free education in all state universities and colleges (SUCs), a move hailed by lawmakers who now have the task of looking for ways to fund the measure.
Warnings of a hefty price tag for the bill did not deter Mr. Duterte, who thought its benefits would far outweigh the cost, Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevarra told reporters in Malacañang on Friday.
Guevarra said free tertiary education in SUCs was “a very strong cornerstone of the President’s social development policy.”
“So he weighed everything and came to the conclusion that the long-term benefits that would be derived from a well-developed tertiary education on the part of the citizenry will definitely outweigh any possible short-term budgetary challenges,” he said.
“So if there’s a will, as we say, there’s a way,” he added.
It’s up to Congress to look for funding for the new law, he said.
“In my opinion, if the Congress is really serious about finding the appropriate funding for this free tuition program, they would have to find the necessary sources for this particular program,” he said.
It could allocate resources and make other adjustments during the budget deliberations, he said.
Budget Secretary Benjamin E. Diokno said on Friday that the new law would be implemented next year.
As such, it will entail changes in the proposed P3.767-trillion budget for 2018.
“The law is forward-looking. It cannot be applied retroactively. Hence, in the immediate term, we’re talking of academic year 2018-2019,” Diokno said.
“My immediate concern are those enrolled in the 114 SUCs. There should be no expansion in student population. The estimate has to be preceded by [a predetermined number of students, say ‘x’], who are chosen on the basis of a nationwide test administered by the Commission on Higher Education. Unless we know ‘x,’ we can’t give an estimate,” he said.
Also, he added, “there will be changes in the President’s 2018 budget, which has some P16 billion in various types of scholarships.”
Diokno said he would head the committee that would prepare the implementation rules for the free tuition law.
During the first congressional hearing on the 2018 budget on Tuesday, Mr. Duterte’s economic managers said P100 billion would be needed to fully subsidize tuition in the SUCs.
The Duterte administration has planned a whopping P8 trillion-P9 trillion infrastructure spending until the end of the President’s term in 2022.
To fund that, the administration has asked lawmakers to pass new revenue measures.
Adjustments in 2018 budget
Davao City Rep. Karlo Alexei Nograles, head of the appropriations committee of the House of Representatives, said on Friday that P8 billion to P16 billion would be earmarked in the 2018 budget to fund the new law.
Nograles said his committee would source the funds from “underperforming agencies and those with poor absorptive capacity.”
“I can safely say that there is enough money to jump-start this and sustain it in the long term,” he said, playing down concerns about the lack of money to fund the measure in next year’s budget.
Senators praised Mr. Duterte for his decision and vowed to cut “excess fat” in the 2018 budget to fund the free tuition program.
“We will have to scour the pig pen again and cut the pork to fund it,” said Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who led the purge of the 2017 budget to realign P8.3 billion in pork allocated to some congressmen to SUCs through the Commission on Higher Education (CHEd).
Sen. Loren Legarda, chair of the Senate finance committee, promised to ensure funding for the free tuition law.
She also called on the CHEd to work for the implementation of the law during next school year.
“We will scrape around for funds, which is what happened last year,” said Sen. Sonny Angara, head of the Senate ways and means committee.
“We hope it can be done again, [as] the executive failed to put funding in their submitted budget for 2018,” he added.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto was optimistic that the proposed 2018 budget had enough room to accommodate the “more important mandates” of the new law.
“We’ll have to liposuction the fat and transform it into funds for state colleges,” Recto said.
Lacson said the allocation for SUCs in the 2018 budget was initially estimated at P20 billion.
Sen. Francis Escudero said P14 billion would be earmarked for SUCs and P1 billion for local universities and colleges (LUCs).
Trade schools—locally called technical-vocational institutions—under the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority will be allocated P5 billion, he said.
Escudero pointed out that the amount is a mere .5 percent of the proposed budget for 2018. Full implementation of the new law would require around P43 billion, or a little over 1 percent, of the proposed budget for next year, he said.
Aid and donations
Republic Act No. 10931, or the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act, also allows the free tuition program to be funded by official development assistance and local and international donations, Guevarra said.
He said the economic managers’ estimate of P100 billion needed to implement the measure was the high side, as it was based on the assumption that all aspects of the law would be implemented all at the same time.
The mandatory provisions—free tuition and other miscellaneous fees for students in SUCs, LUCs and state-run trade schools—would be implemented first and would cost about P16 billion, as estimated by the CHEd.
As for the provisions for other related educational expenses such as room and board, books and transactions, Guevarra said these would be covered by a subsidy fund that had yet to be established.
The subsidy fund would be administered by the board of the Unified Student Financial Assistance System for Tertiary Education program.
On the earlier objection of economic managers, Guevarra said everyone had to help implement the law.
“Whether or not you were originally opposed to it, that’s now beside the point. All we need to do now is to unite and coordinate all our efforts in trying to find the solution to the most important problem confronting this program, and that’s really the budgetary allocation, the funding for this program,” he said.
The law requires SUCs and LUCs to set up a system that would allow students with the financial capability to pay their tuition to voluntarily opt out of the tuition and other school fee subsidy or make a contribution to the school.
Exempted from free tuition are students who already have a bachelor’s degree or comparable undergraduate degree from any higher education institution, and those who fail to comply with the admission and retention policies of the state-run schools.
Also exempted are students who fail to complete their bachelor’s degree or comparable undergraduate degree within a year after the period prescribed in their program.
In state-run trade schools, also exempted from free tuition are students with a bachelor’s degree or certificate or diploma for a technical-vocational course, and those who fail in any course they are enrolled in during the course of the program.
Those who violate the law face imprisonment for six months to one year, or a fine ranging from P20,000 to P100,000, or both.