Senators unite to fight for free tuition for SUCs

Majority of the senators on Wednesday vowed to fight for a free education program in state universities and colleges after Duterte administration’s economic managers said that the government cannot afford to fund the free college tuition bill should it become a law.

Senator Win Gatchalian vowed to fight for the allocation of P15 billion in the 2018 national budget to fund the continuation of the free tuition program in SUCs as the Senate prepares to begin budget deliberations.

“The lack of funding for the free tuition program in the proposed budget submitted by Malacañang can be addressed by creating another budget insertion,” Gatchalian said.

Based on informal discussions with his colleagues on the sidelines of Tuesday’s Senate session, Gatchalian expressed confidence that a majority of senators would support moves to make the    necessary adjustments in the budget to continue the free tuition program currently being implemented for the 2017-2018 schoolyear.

“At this point, we have the numbers to make it happen,” said Gatchalian, one of the main proponents of the Affordable Higher Education for All Act, the landmark free tuition measure which passed the Senate earlier this year.

Gatchalian reminded the administration that expanding access to higher education among poor and working-class households should be one of the central pillars of its socioeconomic agenda.

“I have said time and time again: A college education is one of the strongest weapons a person can wield in the fight against the inter-generational evil of poverty. I urge the Duterte administration to take this maxim to heart by devoting more resources to expanding access to educational opportunities at the tertiary level,” said Gatchalian.

“I hope that our economic managers would reconsider their opposition on full government subsidy of tuition fee in State Universities and Colleges [SUC],” he added.

If the government can spend P70 billion a year for Conditional Cash Transfer, which is a dole out, Gatchalian believes there is no reason why the govenrment can’t spend P28 billion for higher education.

“I would rather invest for higher education since this is the best way out of poverty and not through dole outs. “I urge our economic managers to reconsider their position by pushing for free SUC education so we can have a college graduate in every Filipino family,” he said

Senator Sonny Angara, for his part, said they will surely refile a version purged of what the executive branch saw as the objectionable provisions if the President vetoes the measure, but he still hopes it won’t happen.

He conceded that a veto over-ride, to be mustered by two-thirds of members in each house of Congress, is nearly impossible if not extremely difficult.

“It is like praying for snow in Manila. So what we can do is to immediately re-file the bill and request the Senate education committee chair to prioritize it,” Angara said.

But Sen. Bam Aquino  remains hopeful that the President will prioritize education by signing the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act into law this week, giving Filipinos free education in state universities and colleges (SUC), local universities and colleges and technical and vocational institutions (TVIs).

“The administration must prioritize education. Let’s not lose hope that we will invest in the future of our youth and their families,” said Angara, who pushed for the measure’s passage in the Senate as principal sponsor and co-author.

“This is a policy that everyone in the Senate supported, regardless of political party. Inaasahan rin ito  ng 1.6M estudyante sa SUCs, pati  ng kanilang pamilya. So I am still hoping this will become law,” he added.

Aquino said he had expected President Duterte to announce the signing of the measure into law as highlight of his State of the Nation Address (SONA) but was not mentioned during the president’s two-hour speech.

Still, there was no discussion on removing free tuition in SUCs from next year’s national budget.

“If this is a priority of the government, this will be funded in the national budget. What is important is  to make college education free,” said Aquino.

As former chairman of the Committee on Education, Aquino defended the bill in plenary debates and interpellations. He also stood as co-chairman of the Senate delegation to the bicameral conference committee, together with new Committee on Education chairman Sen. Francis Escudero and members Senators  Gatchalian and Ralph Recto.

ngara said the idea of free college tuition is “too beautiful and too good to be buried soon.” 

“It is not yet time for its funeral.  I think, with the cooperation and collaboration of our friends in the executive, we can still salvage the situation and work on how to fine tune the measure when we re-file it,” he said, as he appealed to his colleagues not to include other riders in the bill which may lead to a future veto.

he lawmaker said that in the meantime, what the government could do is to ensure the full implementation of the Unified Student Financial Assistance System for Tertiary Education Act also known as the UniFAST Law.

Republic Act 10687 or the UniFAST Act of 2015, authored by the senator, mandates the government to put up a system and create a body that would oversee and harmonize all student financial assistance programs for a more targeted, speedy and sustained granting of scholarship programs.

Angara, chairman of the Senate ways and means committee, also urged the government to strengthen the

voucher system” under the Expanded Government Assistance to Students and Teachers in Private Education or the EGASTPE Law which he authored.

Senator Joseph Victor “JV” Ejercito, meanwhile, said that the government should invest on higher education rather than on dole outs for poor families.

“If the government can spend P70 billion a year for Conditional Cash Transfer, which is a dole out,  why can’t we spend P28 billion for higher education? I would rather invest for higher education since this is the best way out of poverty and not through dole outs,” he said.

Ejercito, who authored the “Free Education for All” act, said the government should treat budget for free education as an “investment for the future rather than an expense.”

He expressed hopes that the country’s  economic managers reconsider their position by pushing for free SUC  education “so we can have a college graduate in every Filipino family.”

Senator Francis “Chiz” Escudero also stressed that free tuition and other fees in SUCs would only cost the government P14 billion, only 0.3 percent of the proposed general appropriation for the year 2018.

“Those who enroll in SUC’s cannot afford the tuition fees in private schools. It’s a totally different market,” Escudero said in a text message to reporters.Escudero was reacting to National Economic Development Authority Director General Ernesto Pernia’s

opposition on the free tuition policy in SUCs, saying it would be a disadvantage on private schools.

But Senate President Pro Temporer Ralph Recto warned that should the President

President follow his advisers’ recommendation to veto the free college tuition bill, “such a setback would be like losing the first round of a boxing match.”

“Too early to throw in the towel. For advocates, the attitude must be to get up and fight again. What we should do is to re-file the bill, and use the veto message as guide in writing a new version,” Recto said.

“Practicality dictates that views of the executive should be taken into consideration. If we re-file a bill that is a carbon-copy of the vetoed one then it will meet the same fate,” he added. 

Meanwhile, the National Union of Students of the Philippines (NUSP) condemned in the strongest terms the  removal of provisions for free tuition in all state universities and colleges (SUCs)in the proposed 2018 budget.

“We are appalled by the manner in which the Duterte administration is willing to borrow billions to fund various infrastructure projects and to increase the budget for debt servicing and defense, while abruptly defunding free tuition in SUCs,” said NUSP National Spokesperson Mark Vincent Lim.

The group debunked claims made by the Duterte administration’s economic managers that the government cannot afford to provide free tuition for all.

“How come the government cannot afford to provide free education for all when the government’s infrastructure program “Build, Build, Build” gets P1.097 trillion or almost a third (1/3) of the national budget?” asked Lim.

“Their claim that free tuition will have a very little impact on poor families, citing that only twelve percent (12%) of the poor are able to enter SUCs, is ignorant of the reasons why in the first place they are out-of-school, and makes free tuition for all even more necessary,” said Lim.

“We are also aghast at how Duterte’s economic managers are very insistent on denying free education in SUCs just to prevent the exodus of students from private higher education institutions (HEIs) and the loss of profit for capitalist-educators,” added Lim.

“The removal of provisions for free tuition in the proposed 2018 budget is a disservice to the Filipino people, and it reflects the neoliberal and anti-people thrust of the Duterte administration,” said Lim.

“The Filipino youth’s collective and militant struggle for free education for all continues as tuition and other school fees collection, profiteering schemes, and neoliberal policies on education remain in place.

Students and youth nationwide will mount sustained protests, particularly on August 31 (Thursday), to  assert our fundamental right to free education,” Lim said.

Topics: Senators , free tuition , free education program , state universities and colleges , SUCs , Senator Win Gatchalian
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