First, we were told that Secretary Benjamin Diokno and others of similar persuasion were earnestly imploring the President to withhold his assent to the bill that grants “universal access to quality education”—popularized as the “free tuition in state universities and colleges” bill. Both traditional and social media carried dire warnings that the government just did not have the wherewithal to bring the project, no matter how popular, to fruition. There were also skeptics about the program’s objective of advantaging the poor for, it was pointed out, state universities and colleges, particularly the premier state university of the Philippines—UP—does not really have poor students in the main as its clients.
Then came the news that President Duterte had signed the bill into law, but no sooner had he done so when media started reporting that even the President was in quandary as to how to source the program. We, who are not within the privileged loop of Palace exchanges and communication, can only rely on what we are told. That limitation, however, should not hinder us from involving ourselves in national discourse on such an important concern.
I can speak for the state university of which I am a designated vice president, the Cagayan State University, presently headed by a very competent former Assistant Secretary of the Department of Science of Technology, Dr. Urdujah Tejada. Before the full implementation of K to 12 (that has shorn off first and second year students from degree programs), the university—that has eight campuses distributed throughout the length and breadth of Cagayan Province—had 36,000 students. This year, we project the enrollment at 25,000—still a humongous number, by any reckoning. And most of them are poor — so poor that one study informed us that somewhere in the region of 20 percent are the students who skip lunch because they have no money for lunch. The present fees are very low, compared to what private universities and colleges assess. In general, a student never pays fees exceeding three thousand five hundred pesos each semester. But that is still a burden sum for many of our students—and the pile of bad debts should be proof enough of this.
So, insofar as a provincial state university—that has done credit to itself by its more than notable performance in licensure examinations—goes, free tuition fee will benefit the students. This is not to deny that students from monied families will be found in our campuses. After all it violates university policy to deny admission to students on the basis of economic status. And if no one who qualifies should be denied admission because of poverty, neither should anyone be turned away because of wealth! Obviously, free tuition fee granted a state university is like the dragnet in the Gospel that hauls in the affluent and the penniless alike, although, quite obviously, the intent of the program is to open the university’s gates to those to whom penury would otherwise deny admission.
And so the misgiving that state funds go into the education of those who do not really need it really does not apply to our provincial state university. I presume this to be true of other provincial state universities and colleges as well. Much besides, there still controls the mindset of many families that for as long as their finances allow it, their children are to enjoy the prestige of that “aristocracy” engendered by private universities and colleges exacting hefty sums. Given this social idiosyncrasy, the more comfortably placed students in state universities and colleges are rare.
Obviously, a law like that newly signed into force by the President will apply to all state universities and colleges—in fact with provision for benefits even to private higher educational institutions. But Ben Diokno insists that all his intricate mathematical tools notwithstanding, he does not see how the figures add up to a felicitous implementation of the program. Members of the legislature have chimed in—suggesting possible sources of funding. Many should be seriously considered, as many are outrageous. More outrageous yet is the fact that all have conveniently omitted mention of the sums by which legislators continue—despite Supreme Court decisions—to be able to introduce “insertions” in to the budget!
Aside from a thorough review then of the schema of education that has perversely conditioned the national psyche to consider as “completely educated” only those who finish degrees in higher education institutions and that considers technical and vocational training only a “fallback,” then the question of allocation must be studiously examined and definitively resolved. Awarding free tuition slots like scholarships are awarded to “poor but deserving” students does not work, because the means of reckoning is faulty. When you make the award of the scholarship grant depend on who gets highest in a competitive examination, you end up awarding the grant to the student who completed secondary education in better schools—and, generally, in the Philippines, that means more expensive schools. So the grant goes to them who need it less. This is by no means a novel insight. This has been repeatedly pointed out as the defect in our “scholarships and grants” system.
The guidelines from Free Tuition 2017 provide a suitable launching pad—combined with what UP learned from its socialized fee scheme. “From each according to his means.” Under the CHED-DBM joint guidelines, students are required to submit either Income Tax Returns of parents, a certificate of tax exemption, OFW contract, or a Barangay Certificate of Indigence, to allow the university to determine household income and, on that basis, decide to whom to award the free tuition slots. The easiest to obtain is the Barangay Certificate of Indigence, but so generous—perhaps, lackadaisical is the more honest description—are our punong barangays that almost anyone can get such a certification. Obviously, when virtually all hold certificates of indigence, it becomes next to impossible, unless the school is willing to engage in further detective and surveillance work, to determine who really are in need.
But these challenges are not insurmountable. The real threat is when economic planners are heeded to the exclusion of those whose concerns take off from a different perspective: social justice, empowerment, equity—which are equally crucial concerns. Colonization of the life-world by economic steering systems is never a welcome prospect.
No, there is no reason to nip the project in the bud. The wherewithal is a matter of policy, and that is why we elect policy makers to the Legislature. We expect of them the study, the cogitation and the argument that recognize the demands of democratic participation and equitable sharing balanced by the imperatives of fiscal stability.
And, on a more philosophical point, it is as important that our students see the point that the right to education does not necessarily mean “the right to university or college education” and still less does it translate into an “obligation to accept” on the part of state universities and colleges.