PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte has signed into law the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act of 2017, which provides free tuition for students enrolled in state universities and colleges, Malacañang said Friday.
Senior Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the President signed the bill providing “mandatory P16 billion funding” for free tuitions yearly in SUCs Thursday night, over the objections of his economic managers, who said it might be too costly for the government.
“There had been a lot of discussions and study about the bill because of its heavy budgetary implication first and foremost but free tertiary education in state universities and colleges is a very strong pillar or cornerstone of the President’s social development policy,” Guevarra told reporters during the Bangon Marawi forum at the Conrad Hotel.
“[We] weighed everything and came to the conclusion that the long-term benefits that will be derived from a well-developed tertiary education on the part of the citizenry will definitely outweigh any short-term budgetary challenges. If there’s a will, there’s a way,” he added.
The bill provides only for free tuition; students enrolled in state universities or colleges must still pay miscellaneous fees, Guevarra said.
Both houses of Congress ratified the final version of the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act in May, providing full tuition subsidy for students in 112 SUCs, local universities and colleges, and state-run technical-vocational schools. The bill was submitted for President Duterte’s signature on July 5 and was endorsed as an “enrolled” bill.
Unlike the 2017 budget, the proposed 2018 national budget does not have the P8 billion allocated for free higher education in SUCs.
Guevarra said that a “reallocation” maybe done by Congress to fund the new bill.
Subsidies for higher education would also be taken from the Unified Student Financial Assistance System for Tertiary Education (UniFast), he added.
“As to the subsidy for related educational expenses, that is something to be processed by the UniFAST board which is supposed to have a system of priority. In other words, the bottom 20 percent will be prioritized in terms of subsidy for educational-related expenses,” Guevarra said.
Economic managers earlier said that subsidizing tuition in SUCs will be too costly, adding that the government cannot afford the budget requirements of the tuition bill.
“It was not in the 2018 budget of the President. In the absence of any law, we cannot appropriate money for free tuition,” Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno said during the House committee on appropriations hearing earlier this week.
CHED Commissioner Prospero de Vera, however, 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.
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,” De Vera said.
Senators thanked the President for signing the bill into law and vowed to find ways to fund the free tuition, even though there is no allocation in the 2018 spending plan.
“The challenge for me as chair of finance, is to provide the funds since it’s not in the national expenditure program. But we will find a way,” said Senator Loren Legarda, chairman of the panel.
“I urge the Commission on Higher Education to work on the immediate implementation of the law so that it becomes effective in the next school year. Moreover, the Department of Budget and Management, being the agency that crafts the budget, should be part of the committee that will draft the implementing rules and regulations of the law,” she added.
Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV, principal sponsor and co-author of the law in the Senate, assured the public that they would find the P25 billion needed to implement the law.
“We will just realign funds from other agencies. The P25 billion needed to cover tuition expenses is not too big anyway,” said Senator JV Ejercito, one of the principal authors of the measure.
He said the new law was an investment in the country’s most precious resource, its people.
Senator Panfilo Lacson said while there is no free tuition provision under the 2018 national budget, they will have to “scour the pig pen” again and cut the pork to fund it.
Lacson said that in signing the free college education law, Duterte showed where his heart really is.
“Obviously, he went against the advice of his economic managers. God bless the Philippines and its deserving students who can’t afford higher education,” Lacson said.
Senator Miguel Zubiri said funding tuition in local universities and colleges and state-run technical-vocational schools nationwide would address the needs of students from the low- and middle-income brackets.
“Free education is truly the great equalizer of opportunities for a better future of the youth, rich or poor,” he said.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto admitted that the challenge now is how to fund the measure, effective next year, because budget delayed is education denied.
But Recto said he is confident that the 2018 proposed national budget has enough budget space to accommodate the more important mandates of the new law.
He said it would be wise to heed some of the reservations of the economic managers, as to the cost of fully implementing the law, as it covers not only SUCs but other tertiary education institutions like local government-run colleges and tech-voc public schools.
“We should be open to a phased implementation that should begin with free tuition,” said Recto. He said this occupies a place among landmark social legislation. If a teacher affects eternity, so does a president who removes obstacles to learning, he said.
“By signing the law, he is in effect lecturing the nation that we should not just build, build, build for the sake of our future, but also teach, teach, teach our youth,” said Recto.
Senator Francis Escudero said the law would be one of the lasting legacies of President Duterte.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said it was “a great day for the Philippine educational system.”
Former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Arroyo welcomed the passage of the free tuition law, which incorporated her bill creating a Student Loan Board for college students enrolled in private schools.
The chairman of the committee on appropriations, Davao City Rep. Karlo Nograles, said his committee would allot the necessary funding to cover the new law.
He added that there is plenty of room for tweaking the Palace’s proposed P3.77-trillion national budget for 2018 so that the government’s free college education program can be fully implemented.
Diokno, however, warned that the population of students enrolled in state universities and colleges should not keep rising or funding the free tuition law would be a problem. With Maricel V. Cruz
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