President Rodrigo Duterte has yet again endeared himself to the people and moved closer to his promise of making people’s lives better under his watch. On Friday last week, he signed the bill granting free tuition in tertiary education in state universities and colleges, local tertiary schools and Technical Education and Skills Development Authority or Tesda-accredited institutions. The law, titled Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act, grants full government subsidy to tuition in state universities and colleges beginning next school year.
While the President’s economic managers earlier opposed the bill, saying the budget needed to implement this program would set back the government, the President was reported to have weighed both sides of the arguments and decided that the long-term effect of education would outweigh any budgetary challenges which can be remedied, as promised by the legislators.
This latest bold act by the President will, no doubt, spur real social uplift. Education is the greatest equalizer of all. Those born to poor families will have better chances to earn college degrees that can open doors of opportunities for them. An educated society has much better chances of moving up. For a nation like the Philippines which is hounded by communist insurgency and terrorism because of poverty, education can be an antidote to the recruitment of youth by outlawed groups. I remember how the country’s top state university—the UP—have had to raise the cost of education up to P1,500.00 per unit because the budgetary allocation from the government was severely inadequate. This was the time too when a student committed suicide because she did not have enough money to continue studying at UP.
While the general public is in a celebratory mood over this new law, those responsible for crafting the implementing rules of the law must aim to ensure that the objectives of the law will not be defeated. For example, mechanisms must be put in place so that students admitted in SUCs finish their chosen degrees; do not overstay; choose degrees that can land them jobs easily; or learn entrepreneurship so that, in time, they too will create jobs for others. There must be enough guidance counsellors to assist students with difficulty in adjusting or who get distracted by various problems. The goal is to make sure that once admitted for having qualified in tests, the students must go on to finish their courses in the period of time provided.
Too, the poorest of the poor must be granted further subsidy in the miscellaneous fees as their families may not even have the means to support their transportation and food allowances. Perhaps, a model similar to the socialized tuition system of the University of the Philippines, in a less restrictive version, could be adopted. Since UP, in particular, is populated by students ranging from the poorest to the wealthiest, the well-off should pay the state school’s full tuition fees (which are already low when contrasted with the fees in private universities) as well as the miscellaneous fees. The poor students, on the other hand, must receive not just free tuition fees but subsidized miscellaneous expenses too, with allowances, to boot. Unjustified overstaying must be a cause for discontinuance of subsidy lest free education will foment a culture of laziness.
Further, since it is the government’s vision to produce generations of Filipinos that are educated to help build the nation and lift its economy, graduates of SUCs who benefit from free tuition in their entire tertiary education should serve in government for a year or two, after graduation, or join programs of giving back by serving poor communities in the same fashion as the doctors to the barrios program for graduates of medicine. There are many ways the government’s investment on human capital can bear fruit leading to a revitalized citizenry. One thing that must not be forgotten though is ensuring that the teachers in SUCs are taken care of too. Without them—or should they move to the private sector for better wages—the goal of subsidized education will fail.