DESPITE opposition from the Department of Budget and Management, the Commission on Higher Education remains confident that President Rodrigo Duterte will sign the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act into law that would provide free tuition for students in all state universities and colleges starting next year.
At a radio interview over dzMM, CHED Commissioner Prospero de Vera dismissed the claim of the DBM that it would be difficult to absorb the P100-billion budget allocation to foot the free college education of SUCs students.
“We are hopeful the President will sign the measure,” he said.
He said that by ChEd's appreciation, the bill, if enacted into law, would only need a P34.1-billion budget.
“Based on our estimate, the four core parts of the law, if implemented, would entail an additional budget of P34.1 billion, and not P100 billion,” he said.
The entire budget, he said, would cover the tuition, miscellaneous and living allowances of poor but deserving students.
He added that the budget department may opt to implement the law by phases to cushion the impact of the huge additional budget for free college tuition.
De Vera also said that the commission is optimistic that the law will be passed and enacted, saying that the House of Representatives was able to look for an P8-billion tuition in 2016 even if the initial proposed budget submitted did not include such budget item.
In the Senate, Senator Nancy Binay added her voice to the growing list of proponents for the passage of the proposed measure.
Binay called on the Department of Budget and Management to help the Senate find ways to initially subsidize tuition of students in state colleges and universities.
The DBM and Administration economic managers earlier said the government cannot afford to fund free college education because it would be too costly for government to shoulder.
But Binay assailed this stament as “obscure and out of sight” and expressed his belief that “DBM can help the Senate in finding a mathematical solution to kick start the Free Higher Education Act without affecting other priority programs of the Administration.”
“We, in the Senate, are seriously committed in realizing every Filipino family's aspiration of a free college education. We promise to find ways to allot P15 billion in the 2018 national budget,” Binay stressed.
She said Senate was able to find a way to allocate P8 billion in the 2017 budget.
“Huwag naman sanang gawing dead-end ang pagbibigay ng libreng matrikula sa mga estudyante ng SUCs dahil lamang sinabi ng DBM na walong pondo para dito,” Binay said.
She added that if P1.13 trillion outlines the government's ‘Build, Build, Build’ infrastructure program for 2018, “why can't we outline a measly P15 billion to initially subsidize tuition in SUCs?”
“Let’s not further burden the parents of those poor but deserving students,” she said.
She likewise appealed to President Duterte not to veto Senate Bill No. 1304, or the Free Higher Education For All Act.
“Every parent is praying that the President would finally sign the free higher education bill. I hope the President does not veto the measure. We can't just give up without giving it a try. Sayang naman ang nasimulan na natin,” Binay said.
Binay said “little sacrifices and small realignments” in the 2018 national budget can redound to huge positive steps towards the Administration’s goal of free tertiary education.
Binay is strongly pushing for the continued funding of free tuition in state universities and colleges nationwide.
Meanwhile, Senator Bam Aquino said he, along with the other legislators, has guaranteed to continue the fight for the enactment of the measure providing free tuition at all costs.
Aquino said that if the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act is vetoed, there are alternative actions that the legislature can undertake to ensure that students still receive the support they need.
He said that Congress, with a two-thirds vote, can reconsider the veto and still pass it into law.
“Or we can fund this initiative on a year-to-year basis through the GAA,” said Aquino, principal sponsor and co-author of the measure in the Senate.
“Lastly, we can refile the measure, but this will take time,” he added.
Aquino said that Senator Loren Legarda, chairperson of the Committee on Finance, has committed to fund free college education, which would need around a minimum of P25 billion. A much smaller amount than the P100 billion as earlier claimed by the economic managers.
However, Aquino remained hopeful that President Duterte will still sign the bill into law.
He added, “I hope the President and his economic managers can see this as a sound investment in our future.” He maintained that education and free tuition remains a priority.
For his part, Senator Win Gatchalian corrected the facts and figures presented by the economic team of the President on the national legislature’s push to institute a comprehensive free tuition program for post-secondary students.
The senator, who is vice chairman of the Senate Education Committee, took exception to estimates provided by Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno tagging the cost of the program at an astonishing P100 billion. He said this figure is way off the mark.
Gatchalian explained that the Senate Education Committee had pegged the estimated cost of completely subsidizing tuition and school fees in SUCs, local universities and colleges, and public technical-vocational institutions at approximately P30 billion.
He added that the estimated cost of subsidizing tuition fees only for SUCs is a modest P15 billion per year.
“Certainly, the government can afford to make this investment for the benefit of millions of young Filipinos,” he said.
Gatchalian also expressed disagreement with Neda Secretary Ernesto Pernia's unfavorable assessment of the free tuition program.
Pernia had earlier stated that the bill would have little impact on poor families since only 12 percent of SUC students hail from the poorest 20 percent of households.
“The fact of the matter is that ninety-three percent [93 percent] of SUC students come from working-class households supported by breadwinners who earn, at the very most, salaries only marginally above prevailing minimum wage rates. These people also need the government’s help,” Gatchalian said.
Gatchalian emphasized that by giving them an opportunity to increase household savings, the free tuition policy would insulate near-poor and low-income households from economic shocks which threaten to pull them down into poverty, such as illness in the family or sudden loss of employment.
“By lessening the burden of educational costs on working-class households, we are giving them the chance to build a secure and happy future for themselves and their families. This is in line with the country's long-term socioeconomic goal of building a strong middle-income society,” said Gatchalian.
If passed into law, students will start to enjoy free education in state universities and colleges, local universities and colleges and vocational schools under the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority starting the second semester of school year 2017-18. Aside from tuition fees, the government will also shoulder miscellaneous and other fees.
Under the law, scholarship grants will also be made available to students of both public and private college and universities. It also provides a loan program, where students can apply for financing for other education expenses.